August 11 – Alex Haley

“ Unlike other professions, writing has no finite length of time attached to its attainment. Most of the writers I know took ten years to start earning money from writing—and I mean hard work. You have just got to work, and work, and work, and keep having faith that one day it will happen. I hope it happens to you.”

Alex Haley, Commencement speech at  Brown University on May 26, 1984

Alex Haley was born in Ithaca, NY, on August 11, 1921. At the age of 15 he enrolled in Alcorn State University, a historically black college in Mississippi, and the year later at Elizabeth City State College in North Carolina. He withdrew from school a year later, and when he reached 18 enlisted in the Coast Guard, May 24, 1939. It was there he started being paid to write – as other sailors paid him to write love letters to their girlfriends. During WWII he petitioned the Coast Guard to transfer him to journalism, and he became a petty officer first-class in the rating of journalism and later advanced to chief petty officer – the first chief journalist in the Coast Guard. He retired from the Coast Guard after serving 20 years, in 1959. 

After his service he pursued a writing career, and eight years of receiving hundreds of rejection slips from various publications, Haley began to be published. He conducted the first interview for Playboy magazine, with Miles Davis for the September 1962 issue. His interview with Rev Martin Luther King Junior for the Magazine was the longest he granted to any publication. Haley’s interviews for Playboy set the standard for how the magazine’s famous interviews were done. Haley also became the senior editor for Reader’s Digest. 

In 1965, at the age of forty-four, Haley published his first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X which he ghost-wrote after conducting more than 50 interviews with Malcolm X between 1963 and his assassination on February 21, 1965. They met first when Haley interviewed Malcolm about the Nation of Islam for Reader’s Digest in 1960, then again interviewed him for Playboy in 1963. The book has been a best-seller since its publication – selling more than 6 million copies and considered one of the most influential non-fiction books of the 20th century. 

On September 29, 1967, Haley was inspired after standing in the landing place of his ancestors in Annapolis on September 29, 1967. He then spent twelve years researching his family history, going back to Kunta Kinte who was kidnapped from Gambia in 1767. Roots was published in 1976 when Haley was 55 years old. Haley won a special Pulitzer Prize for his work in 1977. Roots was also adapted as a popular miniseries, which reached a record-breaking audience of 130 million. 

Lesson from Haley:

Haley didn’t even begin his writing career until he was retired from his first career in the Coast Guard. Considered one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, Haley blazed trails both in interviewing and in genealogy with his two major works, published 11 years apart. His life and writing proces we were each made to write something specific to our abilities and our ancestry. 

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