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David C. Moore Bibliographic Essay on Alex Haley's Roots

Identifier: MS-2486

  • Staff Only

This collection contains a manuscript copy of David Chioni Moore's 1994 essay entitled, "Revisiting a Silenced Giant: Alex Haley's Roots: A Bibliographic Essay, and Research Report on the Haley Archives at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville." Moore's article was later published in Resources for American Library Study, 22 (Summer 1996): 195-249.


  • 1994

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This collection contains a manuscript copy of David Chioni Moore's 1994 essay entitled, "Revisiting a Silenced Giant: Alex Haley's Roots: A Bibliographic Essay, and Research Report on the Haley Archives at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville." Moore's article was later published in Resources for American Library Study, 22 (Summer 1996): 195-249.

Biographical/Historical Note

Alex Haley was born in Ithaca, New York, August 11, 1921 to Simon, a college professor, and Bertha Haley, a grammar school teacher. He was reared on the campuses of successive land-grant Negro colleges about the South that employed his father and with his other relatives in Henning, Tennessee. He was the eldest of three sons.

Haley finished high school at 15 and entered college where he attended for two years. In 1939 he enlisted in a three-year stint in the Coast Guard, at the suggestion of his father, so that he would have time to mature before graduating college. At that time all blacks had to serve in the culinary department, so he was enlisted as a messboy.

Haley's stay in the Coast Guard was lengthened by the start of World War II. He received a promotion to steward and married Nannie Branch, whom he had met at a North Carolina port. Soon after Pearl Harbor, he was assigned to a cargo-supply ship in the South Pacific. Shortly after this, he was promoted from steward to signalman and from the signal bridge he looked down upon a Mail Call scene that led to a story by the same name that was first printed in the ship's newsletter and after several shipmates sent it back in letters to the states, was picked up over a wire service and widely reprinted across the U. S. After this, in 1945, Haley was ordered back to the States assigned to Third (New York) District public relations. He continued learning to write while in this position and achieved some by-lines in tolerant military publications. The year 1950 was momentous for Haley for two reasons. First, the Commandant of the Coast Guard named him their Chief Journalist, a position created just for him. Secondly, the same year brought his first commercial sale, a story about laughable requests for help that the Coast Guard received called They Drive You Crazy and carried by This Week magazine. The years that followed saw a steady increase in interest in his articles. Coronet bought the first of 15 to 20 short human- interest articles in 1952. In 1953 Yachting,Flying, and Reader's Digest added their readership to his fans. In 1954 he turned his eye toward writing articles of interest to blacks with an article on radio stations formatted for black listeners in an article for Harper's Magazine. Also in 1954 he wrote his first piece recalling important family members when he wrote on Great Aunt Liz for Atlantic Monthly.

In 1954, he was transferred from New York to San Francisco, still writing constantly and being published sporadically. He finally retired in 1959, at the young age of 37, with 20 years of service. He, his wife and their two teen-age children immediately returned to New York for him to pursue full-time free-lance writing.

Haley wrote for many magazines in the 1960's, though most prominently for Reader's Digest and Playboy. His big break came in 1965, with the publication of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Malcolm X had died just a few months after the book was sent to the presses, and the posthumous publication of his ideas was adored by many. It was selected one of the Ten Best American Books of the 1960's Decade and is still required reading in many schools.

Shortly after his completion of the Autobiography, he wrote to his publishers at Doubleday about a new project that would tell the story of his family's pioneering in West Tennessee after the Civil War. It was meant to be a story about Henning, which Alex saw as a good example of a place where blacks and whites could live side-by-side without the inter-racial violence that was showing its head at that time.

As Haley started researching for this work, to be titled Before This Anger, he began having more and more interest in the genealogical aspect of his research. Each time he delved more deeply into a specific ancestor, he would find information that would bring not only that character alive to him, but also their mother and father.

Via interviews with family members, memories of stories told by his grandmother in Henning, and travel around the United States consulting with specialists and visiting libraries, he determined that his Great-great-great-great grandfather was captured from The Gambia in the mid-1760's.

Haley visited The Gambia in 1967, and interviewed a griot (African elder that kept up the tradition of oral history of a tribe) named Fofana. Fofana was of the Kinte family on his mother's side and identified for Haley that his ancestor was Kunta Kinte, captured by slavers in 1767.

This was the breakthrough that turned Roots into one of the most anticipated books of the 20th century. Haley's speaking schedule became exhausting, Reader's Digest ran early versions of Roots and letters came pouring into Haley and Doubleday asking when it would be published.

It was almost 10 years after Haley included at the end of a letter to Doubleday concerning the Autobiography that he had a great idea for a book to be published in 1967 that Roots finally hit the stands in 1976. The research had carried him to three continents and he had been able to include information that was far beyond his early expectations. The book became a mini-series, still considered to have been a great risk by ABC, that rocketed to the top of the all-time Nielsen ratings. Alex Haley was now known not only throughout the United States, but throughout the world.

Haley later said There are days that I wish it hadn't happened. He was an instant celebrity and instantly bombarded with requests, awards and letters. He won a Pulitzer Prize, was awarded numerous honorary degrees and was invited to serve on many important committees. But with this fame, notoriety and money came accusations of plagiarism.

Haley was sued by three different people claiming that he plagiarized their work in Roots. One of these was so absurd that it never even came to trial. The other two were more serious. Margaret Walker-Alexander claimed that Haley had taken parts of her book, Jubilee, for use in Roots. Harold Courlander claimed that Haley had taken parts from his book, The African, for Roots.Roots had other critics and skeptics, of course, but none could keep it from becoming the second selling book of all time, the highest ranking TV show of all time and a start of a new appreciation of the African heritage of blacks in America. Other projects sprang from Roots. These included the mini- series Roots: The Next Generation and his television documentary My Search for Roots. While neither of these could match his original success, they were very serious contributions to Alex Haley's fame.

After Roots, Haley was interested in several projects. He wrote a two-act musical that was eventually called The Way, focusing on the inanity of inter-racial struggle. He also started projects to be books, television series or movies, most of which never left his research notes.

The only other work that Haley had published was A Different Kind of Christmas, by Doubleday in 1988. Two other books still being worked on were Queen, a story about the other side of his family published posthumously by Morrow in 1993, and Henning, a story about his home town in Tennessee that is as yet unpublished.

Haley died on February 10, 1992 in Seattle, Washington while there for a speaking engagement. After his death, the farm in Clinton, Tennessee that he had purchased and was fixing up to be a place where he could host symposiums and meetings was auctioned along with the bulk of his possessions to pay for debts incurred in the last few years of his life.


Collection consists of a single folder.

Acquisition Note

This collection was donated to the University of Tennessee Libraries, Knoxville, Special Collections on October 28, 1994.

Repository Details

Part of the Betsey B. Creekmore Special Collections and University Archives, University of Tennessee, Knoxville Repository

University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Knoxville TN 37996 USA