Notes on Alex Haley.
BY TONY WOLK
These notes are provided as annotations to Wolk’s 1972 interview with James Baldwin.
ALEX HALEY (1921-1992): Haley presumably needs no introduction, given the popularity of Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976). Yet it’s interesting to see just how long he was working on it. What may not be known is how he got his start as a writer while in the Coast Guard during the Second World War, writing letters for the men who got a “Dear John” letter from the girl back home. Presumably, many a relationship was rekindled or sustained thanks to his eloquence.
What is less well known is that Haley co-authored the Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), thanks to a series of interviews (more than 50) from 1963 to Malcolm’s death. For a brief interlude regarding that relationship, check out “Driving Around Harlem with Malcolm X”:
Like many memoirs, Roots is partly fiction. Here I speak from experience, having written a short story about my father and myself (“The Minkfarm”). The key elements of the story are true, and the resonances of it linger to this day. Though precisely what happens given the surprise when the horse is strung up and shot for the benefit of the hardy appetites of the mink is fodder for the writer’s imagination. And Albrecht Durer can be faulted for his portrait of his mother—she wouldn’t serve as a model for Wrinkle-out. But my guess is that I now know what she looked like. Granted, there’s a fine line here. And if Alex Haley were here to defend himself….