Pulitzer-prize winning American author Alex Haley was born this day, on August 11, 1921.
GVSHP’s Civil Rights & Social Justice Map highlights over a hundred sites in our neighborhood associated with civil rights and social justice, including more than twenty sites connected to African-American history and civil rights; click here to see them all.
One such little-known but incredibly important site is 92 Grove Street, where Alex Haley had a writing studio during the 1960’s. Probably best known for his books Roots: The Saga of an American Family and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Haley rented a studio in the back of 92 Grove Street. It was here that he conducted dozens of interviews with Malcolm X which were the foundation of that groundbreaking autobiography — Haley’s first book, and an enormous part of the legacy and perception of Malcolm X, more than a half century after his death (Malcolm X was assassinated fifty years ago at the Audubon Ballroom in Upper Manhattan).
Born in 1921 in Ithaca, NY, Alex Haley served in the Coast Guard for two decades before pursuing his career as a writer in New York City starting in 1959. It was about this time that Americans were becoming increasingly aware of the Nation of Islam in America. In 1960, Haley wrote an article on his interview with Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam from 1934 until his death in 1975, published in The Saturday Evening Post and entitled, “Mr. Muhammad Speaks.” During this time, Haley also conducted a series of interviews for Playboy, which became known as “The Playboy Interviews,” which included Malcolm X. Other people Haley interviewed in this series included Miles Davis, Martin Luther King, Jr., Leontyne Price, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Quincy Jones. Haley was encouraged to pursue an autobiography of Malcolm X and according to Haley when he approached him about the project “Malcolm X gave me a startled look when I asked him if he would tell his life story for publication. It was one of the few times I have ever seen him uncertain. ‘I will have to give a book a lot of thought,’ he finally said. Two days later, he telephoned me to meet him again at the Black Muslim restaurant. He said, ‘I’ll agree. I think my life story may help people to appreciate better how Mr. Muhammad salvages black people. But I don’t want my motives for this misinterpreted by anybody — the Nation of Islam must get every penny that might come to me.’”* Starting in 1963 Haley began over 50 interviews with Malcolm X over a 2-year period to tell his whole life story. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published in 1965.
Haley’s next project would be the result of a decade worth of research and travel over three continents. Roots: The Saga of an American Family, is a novel based on Haley’s family history which tells the story of his ancestors’ journey from Africa to America as slaves, and then their rise from slavery to freedom. Published in 1976, the novel received a 1977 Special Citation Pulitzer Prize, caused a national sensation and sold millions of copies. The book was adapted into a miniseries which was watched by 130 million viewers, shattering viewing records at that time.
Haley’s work inspired a wave of interest in geneaology and more importantly generated significant awareness of the horrors of slavery and its legacy in this country. Haley died in 1992.