“Racism is taught in our society, it is not automatic. It is learned behavior toward persons with dissimilar physical characteristics.” ~Alex Haley
Author Alex Haley was born in 1921 in Ithaca, New York. His father was an agriculture professor at Alabama A&M University and his mother came from a diverse background with African American, Mandinka, Cherokee, Scottish, and Scottish-Irish roots. Haley himself was proud of his family and all the different racial prejudices his father overcame throughout his lifetime.
At the age of 15, Haley enrolled in a black college in Mississippi, Alcorn State University, before moving to Elizabeth City State College in North Carolina, another historically black college.
While Haley did not finish college, he joined the United States Coast Guard for twenty years. Haley worked his way up to petty officer third-class in the rating of steward, one of the few higher positions that was open to African Americans at the time.
Haley had a roundabout introduction to writing, and began crafting stories during his service in the Pacific theater of operations. Others caught on to this skill, and paid Haley to write love letters to their girlfriends. Eventually, he was granted a transfer to journalism where he became a petty officer first-class in the rating of journalist.
He life as a journalist and writer also extended beyond his time in the Coast Guard, including his work for Playboy. In 1962, he interviewed jazz musician Miles Davis. Haley also led an interview with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shortly after he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
While Haley’s name was not on the MLK interview in Playboy (it was customary for Playboy to leave out author names on articles), he said that “King was finally able to sandwich in a series of hour and half-hour conversations with us among the other demands of a grueling week. The resultant interview is the longest he has ever granted to any publication.”
Haley continues, explaining that “thought he [MLK] spoke with heartfelt and often eloquent sincerity, his tone was one of businesslike detachment. His mood, except for one or two flickering smiles of irony, was gravely serious.” If you are interested in reading their interview, it is available online.
Haley’s first book, published in 1965, was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. To create the book, he drew from over 50 interviews from Malcolm X. He also had the opportunity to interview Malcolm X for a later issue of Playboy. Haley won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for his autobiography.
Following his autobiography, Haley also published works of fiction, including his 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family. As Haley explains, “in all of us, there is a hunger, marrow deep, to know our heritage…Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning no matter what our attainments in life.”
From attending college at a young age to joining the Coast Guard and finding his love of journalism, Alex Haley was able to find passion and power in words. Through his work, and interviews, Haley became a voice for generations of African Americans.
Today’s CSU Black History Month event: Keynote Speaker: Lecia Brooks, 5PM LSC Cherokee Park.