By Brooks Clark
About 20 miles northwest of downtown Knoxville, tucked away behind a bustling interstate exit ramp, sits a 157-acre patch of tranquility known as Alex Haley Farm. Although his family had roots in western Tennessee, author Alex Haley purchased land on the opposite side of the state in 1984 to create a retreat where he could wind down and entertain guests.
As part of the area’s 40th anniversary celebration of Haley’s book Roots, UT Professor of History Jeff Norrell was invited to the serene venue for a discussion of his own book Alex Haley and the Books That Changed America.
Haley is best known for writing two best-sellers—The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 1965 and Roots: The Saga of an American Family in 1976—each with sales of more than six million copies. Additionally, the TV miniseries adaptation of Roots was seen by more than 130 million viewers in 1977, while director Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X introduced Haley’s story of anger, strength, and redemption to a new generation.
Norrell considers them the two most influential books on American attitudes toward race in the second half of the 20th century. “In The Autobiography, Haley reshaped white Americans’ understanding of black identity and blacks’ acceptance of black nationalism,” Norrell explained. “In Roots, Haley reshaped how Americans understood slavery.”
A Story of Redemption
In his book, Norrell analyzes Haley’s impact through the prism of his life. Born in 1921 to educated parents, Haley was serving in the Coast Guard when he began to write. After a 20-year military career, he set out as a freelance writer and landed several high-profile assignments. His 1964 interview with Malcolm X for Playboy magazine led to the Autobiography project.
“Haley came from a comfortable, secure upbringing,” Norrell said. “Malcolm X came from poverty and violence. Despite being suspicious of whites and dismissive of Christianity, he was a kind person in his interactions with Haley—they had a really good relationship.”
Malcolm X was engaged in a series of interviews with Haley while he was separating from the Nation of Islam, journeying to Mecca, and replacing his anger with love and acceptance. The Autobiography includes an epilogue by Haley describing the end of Malcolm X’s life and his 1965 assassination.
“Haley’s autobiography really established Malcolm X’s influence posthumously,” Norrell declared. “He had the opportunity after Malcolm was killed to shape Malcolm’s life, and he emphasized the transformative effect of the last year of his life, after Malcolm had been ejected from the Nation of Islam.”
Norrell believes the commercial success of The Autobiography was driven by the fact that it resonated with both white and black readers. “Redemptive stories are really powerful messages and Haley knew that. He shaped the arc of the narrative in that direction, and it was popular with young blacks as well as young whites,” he explained.
For both audiences, Norrell noted, The Autobiography shaped black identity in popular culture. “Haley had shown the inner workings of ghetto life. It was a powerful expression of the alienation and anger that life there engenders, and it really mattered to white readers. Just as important, Haley’s portrait of a strong, masculine, independent Malcolm X was a powerful symbol of black pride.”
For his next major project, Roots, Haley wanted to tell his family’s history, building from the tales he had heard as a child on his front porch. Haley researched his ancestors and reconstructed their histories, often corroborated by records. In 1967, he traveled to Gambia to speak with local historians about the origins of a slave named Kunta Kinte.
The book itself was delayed for more than a decade because even while Haley was writing his saga, he was in demand on the lecture circuit to talk about it. “That’s where he was really most comfortable,” Norrell said, “as a storyteller.”
Once Roots was published, it found eager audiences, both black and white. “Haley gave African Americans the hope—sometimes the exaggerated hope—that they could find their home,” Norrell said. “As it turned out, it’s a real hit-or-miss thing to find African ancestors. But in telling powerful stories, Haley taught Americans not only that the black past really matters, but also that family history matters. Roots generated as much or more genealogical activity among whites as it did among blacks.”
With the success of Roots, Haley became a wealthy celebrity. But he was soon enveloped in controversy. Roots had been presented as a work of nonfiction and Haley’s research in Africa as provable fact. When reporters found inaccuracies, they called Roots a hoax.
“It was a strategic mistake made by Haley and his publisher,” Norrell said. “They were fixed on the idea that his book had to be presented as truth. The strategy they should have adopted was to argue that by using some of the techniques from fiction, you can get closer to truth.”
Norrell believes Roots captured the truth of slavery better than any previous nonfiction book because Haley was able to construct a plausible narrative and re-create dialogue, characters, and incidents based on extensive genealogical and anthropological research.
“Americans’ understanding of slavery was radically changed by Roots,” Norrell concluded. “It continued us down the path to realism, to the vivid and ugly truth telling that had never been part of our understanding. Haley’s family was victorious over slavery. That was Haley’s powerful appeal to African Americans.”
Haley’s ultimate legacy centers on his prowess as a storyteller. Norrell was first drawn to Haley because his compelling stories were able to alter the image of black people in both white and black American minds. But Norrell’s research has led to a deeper understanding of how Haley’s narratives portrayed powerful truths about American life.