By Ishan Sen
The record-breaking 1977 TV miniseries, “Roots,” was actually an adaptation of a book published three years earlier: “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” The author, Alex Haley, was awarded with a special Pulitzer Prize as the book eventually found its way into publication in 37 languages.
Born as Alexander Palmer Haley on August 11, 1921, in Ithaca, New York, he soon moved to Henning, Tennessee, to live with his mother. While in Tennessee, Haley found his inspiration in his grandmother, who often recited the family history at gatherings.
At 15 years of age, he enrolled at Alcorn State University, and a year later, at Elizabeth City State College in North Carolina. When he turned 18, his father convinced him to enlist in the military, thus beginning what would turn to be a 20-year-long career with the United States Coast Guard. Working as a cook stationed in the Pacific during the Second World War, Haley’s first indications of penmanship blossomed to ward off the monotony of life on the ship.
After his retirement from the US Coast Guard in 1959, Haley indulged himself in full-time writing. He conducted the first interview of his journalism career for Playboy magazine. Playboy went on to publish several of his interviews throughout the 1960s, one of the most notable ones being an interview with George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party.
Between 1963 and 1965, Haley interviewed Black Nationalist leader Malcolm X more than 50 times. His first major book, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,”published in 1965, was essentially based on these sittings. He then turned to researching the family stories his grandmother had once told him, and after a decade, the fruits of his labor were born in the name of “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.”
As Roots continued to amass immense popularity, courtesy of its impactful theme and sensational writing, Haley became the best-selling African American author during that period. In 1990, he published “A Different Kind of Christmas” while still working on a second historical novel based on the paternal side of his family.
Unfortunately, Haley succumbed to a heart attack in Seattle, Washington, in 1992 before he could finish the novel. It was subsequently completed by David Stevens and was published as “Alex Haley’s Queen.” He was posthumously awarded the Korean War Service Medal from the government of South Korea in 2002.