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Alex Haley's Search for Roots Took Him First to the Brink of Suicide, and Now to Fame and Riches

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Tears glisten in Alex Haley’s eyes as he recalls his brush with suicide. He was aboard a freighter sailing home from Africa and struggling to write a description of his ancestor’s feelings as he lay in the hold of a slave ship. It would form a dramatic portion of the monumental, seven-generation history of his own family, Roots, which was published this month. For the moment, however, Haley was in despair.

“On the fourth night out,” he remembers, “I went to the stern and stood at the railing. I felt all my troubles rolling in on me. I owed money to everybody I knew. They were asking me when I would finish this interminable book, and I was lying. I told them six months when I knew I had years of work ahead of me. I thought to myself, ‘All I have to do is step over this railing and drop into the sea, and I’d be out of my misery.’ ”

But, Haley swears, he heard the voices of his dead family urging him to go on with the book. “It was a psychic experience. I thought I was going crazy. I went back to my cabin and cried paroxysms of tears. I don’t know how many tears I shed over my typewriter.”

Even granting an author’s flair for self-drama, the labor and turmoil that went into Roots seem almost unprecedented—nine years of painstaking detective work, three years of writing. The project was so complicated that Haley had to separate the research into manila folders and lay them out, row upon row, in his room. “I planted them like seeds,” he explains, “and I plowed through them on my hands and knees.”

What he harvested was a 587-page book that he calls “faction,” a combination of fact and fiction. Behind Roots lies a compelling personal mission. “Large doses of history have been written by the winners—from their perspective,” Haley says. “Ranking high among the half-truths and innuendos would be the meringue with which slavery and its legacies have been coated. The only way we can purge ourselves is to come to grips with the facts.”

For Haley, a college dropout who spent 20 years as an enlisted man in the Coast Guard, his own coming to grips took him to three continents. He spent 6,500 hours in 57 libraries and archives, pored with a magnifying glass over 1,023 shipping documents, traveled to remote villages in Gambia and listened for hours through interpreters to the tales of tribal historians. Haley’s story begins in 1750 with the birth of a West African boy named Kunta Kinte. He is kidnapped by slave traders 17 years later, brought to America in a crowded, stinking ship, and sold in Annapolis for $850. What follows is a heartbreaking yet eventually triumphant story of the struggles of Kinte’s descendants to survive and adapt. Through the years they were determined to keep their African ties alive.

“This is not just the saga of my family,” says Haley, who is 55. “It is the symbolic saga of a people. Every black person in this country has the same ancestral background. Every one of us crossed the same ocean on a slave ship, ended up on the same plantations.”

Haley has apparently struck a nerve among Americans, black or white. The first reviews are glowing tributes. Doubleday ordered one of the largest printings for a hardcover book in U.S. publishing history—200,000 copies. A second printing is already under way. Roots was snapped up by television even before it was finished. Starting in January, ABC-TV will air a $6 million, 12-hour drama based on the book. Its stars include Cicely Tyson, Richard Roundtree, Ben Vereen, Edward Asner and O. J. Simpson, plus a cast of hundreds. Although Haley did not write any of the series, he checked the scripts for accuracy, visited the location shooting as often as possible and actually will appear as himself in the final episode.

Roots started on the front porch of Alex’s grandmother’s house in Henning, Tenn. As a boy, he listened with fascination when she told about “the furthest back person in the family.” She called him “the African” and repeated strange-sounding names of people and places that had been passed down to her. Alex and his friends acted out the stories, and they became fixed in his memory. That introduction to oral history, Haley believes, set him on the path. “If it had been up to my mama, nothing would have been passed along. The last thing she wanted to hear about was a bunch of slaves. So Grandma clamped onto me and pumped it in.”

Haley’s mother was an elementary school teacher, the first person in her family to finish college. His father received a master’s degree from Cornell University and taught at Alabama A&M University. Living among educated blacks, young Alex was largely shielded from the prejudices of life in the South.

Although he began haunting libraries at an early age—”I took books out like lollipops”—he graduated from high school at 15 with mediocre grades, “much to my father’s anguish.” Haley says, “I hated arithmetic and devoured history. My C average caused me some physical pain, I can tell you.” (Haley has two younger brothers, George, general counsel of the U.S. Information Agency, and Julius, a civilian architect for the Navy.)

Alex left college after two years and, at his father’s suggestion, joined the Coast Guard for what was to be a three-year hitch. He encountered open discrimination there for the first time when he was assigned automatically to the stewards service, the blacks who attend to the officers’ mess. Nonetheless, he eventually advanced to cook and began reenlisting.

Meanwhile Haley acquired a portable typewriter and wrote letters to friends, relatives, anyone he could think of, even love letters for his shipmates. He tried articles and collected rejection slips for eight years. In 1948 he finally sold a story about an adventure at sea to a Sunday supplement for $100. By 1950 his success as a writer had earned him the job of first chief journalist of the Coast Guard. (“In some ways I’m glad I didn’t get a formal education,” Haley says, “or I’d have learned I couldn’t do what I’ve done.” But he does have nine honorary doctorates.)

At 37, when Haley retired from the Coast Guard, he drifted to Greenwich Village. He met James Baldwin who encouraged him to write—”He put a psychological arm around my shoulders.” Although Haley was going hungry in a one-room basement apartment, he turned down a civil service job in public relations so as to stay at his typewriter. At the time, he had two cans of sardines in the cupboard and 18 cents in his pocket. These artifacts, now framed, hang in his home as a sobering reminder.

Haley eventually landed regular assignments with the Reader’s Digest and did the first Q&A interview for Playboy magazine. It was with Miles Davis, the jazz trumpeter. By that time Haley had met Malcolm X, a leader of the Black Muslims, who became the subject of his first book. Published in 1965, after Malcolm X was assassinated, it was selected as one of the “Ten Best American Books of the 1960s” and sold over six million copies. Because of its title, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, most readers were unaware that Haley had written the powerful, shocking book. “That doesn’t bother me,” Haley reflects. “It was Malcolm’s story.”

For all the time that Haley has put into the search for his own roots and his belief in the “magic that only grandparents can give to children,” his own family is scattered. Twice divorced and the father of three children whom he sees only occasionally, Haley admits, “Domesticity is my least strength.” He is unable, for example, to remember the age of his only grandchild. His first marriage, while he was in the Coast Guard, produced two children and lasted 18 years, much of which he spent at sea. His daughter Lydia, 30, who is divorced, lives in New York with Haley’s grandson. Son William, 27, is an Army sergeant. The second marriage “was much shorter,” says Haley. Out of it came another daughter, Cindy, now 12, who lives in Georgia with her mother. “I have been accused of being married to my work, and I cannot deny that,” Haley says. “That’s why I’m divorced, and I accept full guilt for it. I have found that people committed to anything creative have poor domestic relations.” (Is Haley carrying on the tradition of passing family history down to his children? No. “They have the book,” he says flatly.)

In August Haley announced the formation of his own TV and film production company, Kinte Corp., which will, he says, concentrate on “entertainment that reflects more accurately people’s lives as they are lived—no matter who they are.” Haley is also a consultant to Miami-Dade Community College in Florida, which will offer a course based on Roots in January. It will also be made available to more than 500 colleges and universities. And Haley is editing a condensed version of Roots for younger readers.

A quiet, unprepossessing man whose speech is still touched with a Tennessee drawl, Haley lives in Los Angeles. Though he is the season’s literary lion, he rarely goes out. “I’m embarrassed to admit I really don’t have a social life,” he says and adds with a laugh that fame has made him “exceedingly handsome.” This spring Haley bought a house in Cheviot Hills, an upper-middle-class neighborhood near Beverly Hills. There on his living room floor are the familiar folders, crammed this time with material for My Search for Roots, an account of the detective work that went into his earlier book. Researching and helping to “keep my life together” is 28-year-old My Lewis, who has a doctorate from Ohio State University. In return for her assistance, Haley counsels her on a book of her own. There is also a man who comes in every day to do clerical work, clean, shop and cook. Haley likes to work at night, often until daybreak. “That’s when I get ‘high.’ I don’t need drugs or drink.” Such a schedule leaves him time to indulge his hobby of slow-oven cooking, and he claims to be “particularly good with pound cakes.”

“I always thought if I made big money I would jump up and down and click my heels,” Haley muses. But now that Roots is making him a millionaire, his wishes are modest. “I want a good sound system because I love music. I want to fix up my backyard. I did go out and buy the fanciest dictation machine and IBM typewriter I could find. It even erases my mistakes.”

Because of his years in the Coast Guard, Haley will always be a sailor at heart. “I love writing at sea more than anything,” he says, and he has already booked four voyages for next year. He also plans to charter a yacht and cruise the Greek islands for a month with his good friend, musician Quincy Jones, who composed the score for the television Roots.

Still, Haley has not forgotten the land where it all started. He and his brothers bought seven acres around their ancestral village, Juffure, in Gambia and plan to turn it into Kinte Memorial Park. “We decided we wanted to do something meaningful,” Haley says. “Though we’re Methodists, they are Moslems, and we’re going to build a mosque for them. It’s a token from us, the seventh generation.”