By: Jane’a Johnson
It’s hard to overstate the impact that the Roots television mini-series had on popular culture. The series was adaptation of Alex Haley’s 1976 book Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Roots is based on his personal family history, which stretches from the enslavement of his African ancestors, through to their emancipation. The book landed on the New York Times Best-Seller list and eventually won a him a Pulitzer Prize.
The television series reached over 28 million viewers, changing the way Americans and in particular African-Americans – thought about their past. Rather that an empty void, Haley gave Black people in America a rich, varied story through which to think about their own families. He gave them a way to think about their long and complex relationship with the United States, all in the form of an entertaining, breathtaking narrative. Roots even inspired a less popular, but also celebrated television mini-series called Holocaust. It sparked ‘genealogy mania’ for millions of Americans.
But before the enormous success of Roots, Haley worked as a journalist, co-authoring The Autobiography of Malcolm X based on a series of conversations between he and Malcolm X. It is still one of the most widely read works on a human rights leader, who despite his prominence, has comparatively little written about his life and work.
Haley’s work on Roots has also been the subject of controversy, and a lightening rod for healthy debates about the line between history and works of the imagination. His enduring legacy is one of curiosity and Truth seeking – rather than merely seeking facts. Somehow Haley interviewed both Martin Luther King Jr. and George Lincoln Rockwell, the leader of the American Nazi Party (at different times) out of that same inclination, without making the two of them moral equivalents. Haley’s fearlessness as an interviewer – he once told Malcolm X to talk about his mother to get him to talk about himself instead of Elijah Muhammed – is one of the greatest coups in the history of journalism.
So Happy Birthday to Alex Haley, who would be 97 this year. We salute you!
Jane’a Johnson is pursuing a PhD in modern culture and media at Brown University and an MLIS at San Jose State University. She holds a BA from Spelman College in philosophy and an MA in cinema and media studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Jane’a’s research interests include visual culture and violence, heritage ethics and media archives.