Review: ‘Alex Haley’ by Robert Norrell makes case for author’s influence

Alex Haley was a working freelance writer, not an ideologue. Yet he wrote two of the 20th century’s chief texts of African-American consciousness: “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” and the saga “Roots.” The latter was adapted for a blockbuster TV miniseries.

In “Alex Haley: And the Books That Changed a Nation,” Robert J. Norrell describes the making, often messy, of these seminal books and their powerful impact on American culture. Norrell is a professor of history at the University of Tennessee and author of “Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington.”

Born in small-town Tennessee, Haley (1921-’92) joined the Coast Guard in 1939 as a “mess boy” and later cook. He had liked writing but hadn’t envisioned it as a possible career.

As Haley struggled to establish himself as a writer, particularly after his retirement from the Coast Guard in 1959, he concentrated on autobiographical approaches and stories of black achievement.

Haley’s interview of Malcom X for Playboy, turned into a feisty back-and-forth that set the table for their collaboration on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” published in 1965.

Malcolm X went through enormous changes during the years of working on the book, breaking with the Nation of Islam and making his eye-opening pilgrimage to Mecca. Malcolm X was assassinated before Grove Press published the book.

“‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ must then be understood as the creation of its subject’s life, not a factual recounting of it,” Norrell writes.

“Roots” grew out of a book Haley wanted to write about his family history. On a visit to Gambia, Haley talked with a griot whose account of Haley’s ancestor Kunta Kinte cinched the author’s Africa-to-America story.

Norrell calls Kunta Kinte “the second great hero” Haley created in writing: “He and Malcolm X were examples of fierce, independent, and manly characters, and together they formed a new and cherished archetype for black Americans — and, indeed, for many whites.”

But in the wake of this success, Haley faced accusations of plagiarism, only one of which Norrell finds worthy of serious discussion. Haley was criticized for factual errors, a situation exacerbated by overreaching statements he had made about the book’s accuracy.

Nonetheless, Haley’s books stimulated national discussion. Norrell makes a convincing case that Haley increased, for good, the variety and quality of stories that can be told about its African-American citizens.

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