The making of the author of “the two most important works in black culture in the twentieth century.”
Alex Haley (1921-1992) rose to fame with two books, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) and Roots (1976), the basis of a miniseries viewed by as many as 130 million. Norrell (History/Univ. of Tennessee; Up From History: The Life of Booker T. Washington, 2009, etc.) brings a broad background in African-American history to this well-researched portrait of a controversial writer. Haley’s early publications appeared in Reader’s Digest, for which he wrote profiles of “talented African Americans who had overcome great obstacles and remained humble, unchanged by great success.” His breakthrough project, however, focused on a far different man: Malcolm X, the incendiary spokesman of the Black Muslims. Malcolm allowed Haley to write his autobiography, subject to his approval. “A writer is what I want, not an interpreter,” Malcolm declared. Malcolm’s biographer, Manning Marable, described Haley as “opportunistic, bourgeois, and politically conservative” compared to his subject, and Norrell agrees that Haley aimed “to maximize both its sensational value and its commercial success.” Praised by most reviewers, the book sold 2 million copies in its first years. Still, Haley was always in debt, eager for publishing contracts and speaking gigs “to address his financial woes.” He once proposed a self-help book aimed at white readers called “How to Co-Exist with Negroes.” A more salable project was his own family’s history, beginning with their roots in Africa. Haley’s editors at Doubleday questioned whether the book was fact or fiction since some passages “were based on Haley’s guessing about facts and eliding evidence.” The decision to call it nonfiction, Norrell asserts, was a mistake and opened Haley up to charges of misrepresentation. The scandal that ensued dogged him for the rest of his career.
An evenhanded assessment of “a likable narcissist” who, the author maintains, changed Americans’ perceptions of racial history.