The Redemption of Alex Haley

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UT Prof. Robert J. “Jeff” Norrell is author of several books of fiction and nonfiction, most of it pertaining to civil rights issues. His new book, Alex Haley, is the first-ever biography of the controversial author.

UT Prof. Robert J. “Jeff” Norrell is author of several books of fiction and nonfiction, most of it pertaining to civil rights issues. His new book, Alex Haley, is the first-ever biography of the controversial author.

On a rainy night in a crowded restaurant in the Old City, University of Tennessee Professor Robert J. Norrell and I may be the only middle-aged people in the whole room who didn’t watch a single episode of Roots on prime-time TV in 1977. He was in grad school, and distracted. I was an undergraduate, and didn’t have a TV, or much want one.

Still, somehow here we are, at prime time almost 40 years later, and what we’re talking about is Alex Haley and his genealogical odyssey Roots. Norrell is the author of the first-ever scholarly biography of Haley, released just this month by St. Martin’s Press.

Even if he didn’t pay much attention to it when Roots came out, as a teacher and author who has devoted his career to the study of civil rights, Norrell believes Roots was little short of earthshaking. His book is called Alex Haley and the Books that Changed a Nation. The other book that makes that noun a plural is Haley’s earlier work, a book that began as an assignment for Playboy: The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

With his own book, Norrell has a particular intent. He wants to rehabilitate Haley’s reputation. Since Haley was, for a while, the most celebrated black author in the world, his reputation has plummeted. Roots has been dropped from recommended reading, left out of anthologies. At least one scholarly critic has insisted that his sins are so profound, his Pulitzer Prize should be posthumously revoked.

Accusations of misrepresentation, fabrication, and, worst of all, plagiarism left the author’s reputation in tatters. While not overlooking any of that—and Norrell admits some of Haley’s actions are hard to defend—he believes they’re small compared to the stature of the book and what it accomplished in America.

Anything about Alex Haley is likely to be of special interest in Knoxville. It’s 355 miles from his childhood home in Henning—and a couple thousand miles from his home in Los Angeles, where he lived during his greatest celebrity. But, for reasons hard to explain, it was here Alex Haley chose to spend the last several years of his life. A quarter-century ago, he was a familiar figure in Knoxville, speaking at UT, participating in local media projects, throwing parties in his mansion on Cherokee Boulevard or at his capacious log home in Norris.

Alex Haley died in 1992. Norrell, who had been a professor at the University of Alabama, best known for his books about civil rights in that state, didn’t move to Knoxville until 1998, when he accepted the Bernadotte Schmitt Chair of Excellence at UT. He now lives near Asheville, but is still a UT professor, on campus at least once a week.

Norrell grew up on a farm outside of Huntsville, Ala. The time and place left him with an interest in civil rights, which developed into a career when Norrell attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. His first book, Reaping the Whirlwind: The Civil Rights Movement in Tuskegee, earned the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award in 1986. Since then, he has published several histories, including Up from History: The Life of Booker T. Washington (2009), as well as several novels, including Eden Rise (2012). Almost all of his work to date concerns race relations and the struggle for justice.

He wasn’t much impressed with Knoxville upon his arrival. “The upper- and middle-class Knoxvillians I met were more absorbed with UT football and NASCAR, and had traveled outside the city less, than comparably situated folks I had known in Alabama and Virginia,” he says. “Plus, it seemed to me they failed to see that the university and downtown just looked shabby compared especially to Southern university towns. That, of course, has changed in the past 10 years.”

He adds, “Knoxvillians seemed naïve, even disingenuous, about the impact of race on their community. ‘We don’t have a race problem because we don’t have many blacks.’ That seemed to be the common refrain.”

He didn’t hear much about Haley right away. “The Haley presence had largely passed from the consciousness of most people I came to know in Knoxville, and I never had much consciousness of him, though I knew his books.” His understanding of Haley’s importance came slowly, through a circuitous route that would seem natural only to a history scholar. His study of a civil-rights leader who died before Haley was born suggested a connection.

In Up from History, which earned considerable respect in the academic community in 2009, Norrell attempted to redeem the pragmatic reformer’s efforts, overshadowed in recent years by contemporaries who seem more modern, like W.E.B. Dubois.

“One of the things I realized was that Washington’s really greatest effort, the thing he spent the most time on, was trying to re-orient the way whites thought about black people,” Norrell says. “This is starting in the 1890s, when whites had all these really ugly images of black people. Washington believed, and he was right about this, that it was going to be very hard for black people to make progress until we had addressed all these really pernicious images of blacks as lazy and immoral. Washington didn’t really succeed in that endeavor—although he worked on it his whole life.

“But one who did make a big impact on that was Haley.”

His first blow was The Autobiography of Malcolm X, based on extensive interviews with the doomed militant. The book introduced a major figure to the American mainstream, and even for those unconvinced by Malcolm’s severe philosophy, introduced a new image of a black masculine intellect.

It was a remarkable accomplishment for a writer who had begun his career so modestly, as a press guy in the Coast Guard. Haley was in the service for almost 20 years, including World War II, when he served across the Pacific. (Norrell thinks Haley stayed in the Coast Guard so long in part to escape his academic father’s demand that he finish college; he didn’t.) He began writing light bits for black magazines and Reader’s Digest. Ironically, work for that magazine, which some of us associate with retirees’ bathrooms, made Haley mainstream America’s authority on the Nation of Islam, and especially its charismatic spokesman, Malcolm X.

Meanwhile, Haley was cultivating a relationship with a very different magazine, Playboy, which was cultivating a pro-civil-rights persona. “Haley was a favorite of Hugh Hefner’s, and he made the Playboy interviews,” says Norrell. Haley’s 1962 interview with sometimes-inflammatory jazz icon Miles Davis was the first in the magazine’s trademark series of provocative Q&A interviews. “If you read those interviews, they’re terrific, in terms of just getting out all kinds of interesting things,” Norrell says. “They had a real commitment to civil rights before any other American magazine did.” Other Haley interview subjects for Playboy ranged from Sammy Davis Jr. to American Nazi agitator George Lincoln Rockwell. Even if he never wrote a book, Haley might be famous just for those.

Eventually he conducted a series of interviews with Malcolm X, who trusted Haley more than any other journalist. “Betty Shabazz, Malcolm’s wife, said everybody liked Alex,” Norrell says. The Autobiography evolved from Haley’s interviews with Malcolm, and remains the primarily source material for the life of that incendiary figure.


Several years later came another even more popular book.

Roots was really important, I thought, for changing how both blacks and whites understood black history,” Norrell says. “And I thought well, just on that basis, and the fact that he’d sold so many books, and 130 million people saw Roots, it had a huge impact. I connected it to the antecedent cultural phenomena: first Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Birth of a Nation and the Thomas Dixon novels; then Gone With the Wind, the novel and the movie, and how that really shaped America’s popular understanding of slavery”—especially, in the first half of the 20th century, that slavery was an old-fashioned but benign institution. The image of kind, paternalistic masters was an image that the majority white culture obviously preferred. But the end of legal segregation in the civil-rights era, Norrell says, opened the nation to a new and more authentic picture of their past.

“The thing that really reversed that was not all these academic books that I’ve been reading for 30 years,” Norrell says. “The thing that really reversed it, in the popular understanding, was Roots!

“And then of course his papers were over there at the library,” in UT’s special collections, near Norrell’s own office. Haley left some of his papers to the university where he often lectured in his final years; UT later purchased more. “And there were also the papers of this woman Anne Romaine.”

She’s one of several unexpected wild cards in the Haley story. Romaine was a free-spirited white folk singer and recording artist, political activist, scholar, and psychic from North Carolina who was thickly involved with the ’60s counterculture and with the Highlander Folk School. Sometimes describing herself as Haley’s biographer, she spent many hours with Haley during his East Tennessee years, so much that some were convinced the two were emotionally involved. Norrell had met her through connections at the University of Virginia, where she had attended graduate school.

She died suddenly at age 53, of appendicitis, without ever finishing her biography, but left behind extensive if disorganized interviews for Norrell to puzzle over.

“She wasn’t much of a historian, I’ll tell you that,” he says. “But she was a very interesting person, very hard-working. And she was very aggressive in discovering his life and interviewing lots and lots of people. The interviews weren’t on the whole that good, but even a bad interview will provide you with interesting information.”

She left an imperfect but useful legacy. By the time Norrell began his research, many of Haley’s closest associates, including his longtime companion George Sims, who lived with Haley during his later years in Knoxville, had died.

“So it was just too good an opportunity to pass up, it was all over there in the library. And I thought well, you know, this guy deserves a biography. And he deserves, in a sense, to be rehabilitated. The things that happened to him in the last decade of his life, and then, unfortunately, that happened in the first decade after he died, this disparagement of his work–I thought that was an injustice.”

The disparagement began soon after Roots was published, when other journalists and authors began questioning the book’s veracity and accusing Haley of copying their own work. Some of these charges, Norrell believes, are unsupportable, and motivated by authors of books with similar themes who were envious of Haley’s popularity and success. He discredits the allegation that Roots was based on the 1966 novel Jubilee.

However, one particular case was impossible to overlook. In 1967, white folklorist Harold Courlander released a novel called The African, about the enslavement and transportation to America of the title character. It was no bestseller, but Courlander’s work was known to scholars of civil rights; Norrell had studied Courlander at UVA in the early ’70s.

With evidence that several passages in Roots were swiped directly from The African, Courlander sued Haley for copyright infringement. Courlander claimed 81 passages in Roots came directly from his book, and that Roots couldn’t have been written without The African. Norrell has been over all of them, and says some copying is blatant but most obvious in only a few short passages.

“Haley did copy,” Norrell says. “There are four or five passages out of Courlander’s novel that appear more or less verbatim in Roots. And Haley said he didn’t know how it happened. His explanation was that he made his living for years and years as a lecturer. And he said after people would come up and give him cards, say ‘You should look at this, it’ll help your research.’ And he said he thought that was how he got that information. He said he never had read Courlander’s novel, never owned it, never had it in his hands. He was lying. And I explain how we know that. Maybe he forgot, I don’t know, but most likely not.” Norrell corresponded extensively with a scholar who described giving Haley a copy of Courlander’s book.

Why Haley imitated Courlander’s prose so closely remains a puzzle. Any competent writer could have rewritten the questionable passages in a weekend and avoided the crisis. In any case, Norrell says, the Courlander passages were not what made Roots a success. He says the alleged Courlander passages account for less than one percent of the text of Haley’s 800-page saga.

“There are various theories,” Norrell says. “His detractors don’t think he wrote a lot of it.” Although often hard-working and resourceful, Haley had never been considered a writer of extraordinary talent. “He had some difficulty writing,” Norrell observes. “And he occasionally said I’m not a very gifted writer. Other people said that, people who really liked him. And he did benefit a lot from good editors.”

Some claimed his Playboy editor, Murray Fisher, wrote parts of Roots, Norrell says. Another idea was that George Sims, who later lived with Haley in Knoxville, was the ghostwriter. “He died not long before I started on it,” Norrell says. “He was of course one of the people I would like to have talked to.”

“So I don’t know. He wouldn’t be the first guy, as we know, who borrowed passages one way or the other. You know, he was a smart guy. He was careless, but he wouldn’t have done it with evil intent.”

Haley eventually settled the case for an undisclosed sum, which Norrell believes was about $600,000. Norrell thinks he got legal advice to do so just to get the embarrassment behind him.

Plagiarism was just part of the problem with Roots. Other writers, as early as 1977, charged that much of Roots, hardly the work of sincere genealogy it was presented to be, was fabricated.

“The other mistake that he made, and I go into this in the book,” Norrell says, “is his and Doubleday’s insistence that it was nonfiction. And that it was true….

“If you read it, and recently, as I have, you wouldn’t be 10 pages into the book and you’d know it was fiction, because you just can’t know these things. Especially in the early part of the book.” Roots opens with a detailed description of the smells and sounds of a meal of ground couscous prepared on three rocks in Africa in 1750.

An early article in The Times of London claims Haley made up all the African scenes. “Certainly there was a lot of it that was not true, unsubstantiated, and it was a mess from then on,” Norrell says. “I argued that it was a mistake to even claim that it was more than fact-based fiction. And that by the time that Roots came out in ’77, there were already a lot of American journalists who had made vigorous arguments that you didn’t have to write pure fact to write the truth. Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe. That ‘New Journalism.’ And I said, they should have just gone with that position: ‘I believe it’s the truth, even though it’s fictional in that I made up some characters and made up dialogue.’ That’s the best part of the book, really, that early Africa part. The best-written part. And that had a huge impact. And he finally fell back on saying well, he was trying to create a mythic past for African-Americans. And he did. He just should have said all along that he did. I think he could have fudged that some. If he had said, ‘As far as I know this is what my family probably experienced. Or close to what my family experienced.’

“And after all, what he’s really challenging are all fictional works. He’s challenging Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation”—massively popular fictional works that have influenced America’s perceptions of their history even though they don’t even pretend to be based on specific facts.

“There’s some really good literary criticism that came out about ’79 that make the argument about how Roots is really in the line of those books in creating this popular epic of American history. People who had denounced Gone with the Wind and even Uncle Tom’s Cabin were saying, okay, maybe we had that wrong.” If Roots is fictional, says Norrell the historian, it may be closer to history than any of the other epics that have formed America’s impressions of their racial past.

“We need to understand what it is Americans think about their past,” he says. “And now we have this terrific, powerful explanation of the black [experience]. And the average person watching, they don’t care if it’s true or not. They don’t care if it’s purely factual. They’re going to believe it’s true if it appeals at some level to their intellect and their emotions. And it certainly did that.”

COVER_1126_Haley4In his book, Norrell notes statistics about the impact of Roots on both black and white audiences. “He had this really powerful impact,” Norrell says of Haley. “And then the guy gets reduced to oblivion because a journalist and then some academics got after him. And then Skip Gates [Henry Louis Gates, the prominent black author] kept him out of the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature in ’97.”

Haley had been under fire for years when he visited Knoxville during the 1982 World’s Fair. Later, then-Gov. Lamar Alexander invited Haley to co-chair—along with Opry star Minnie Pearl!—the 1986 Tennessee Homecoming, a statewide celebration of regional culture. Haley startled his Los Angeles friends as well as Knoxvillians by moving here. He was turning 65 at the time, and had spent most of his adult life in big cities. But he bought a cabin near Norris, lived for a time in a townhouse on Cherokee Bluffs, and for a couple of years lived in a large old house on Cherokee Boulevard. Along with him was his childhood friend from Henning, George Sims.

Haley never seemed to appear in family context, and some Knoxvillians assumed he was a lifelong bachelor. In fact, his third marriage had just ended and he had three grown children. “I didn’t want to write a tell-all,” Norrell says, but Haley’s personal life was problematic.

“Lamar brought him back and he was a huge celebrity in Tennessee. For good reason,” Norrell says. “But, you know, he was living in Los Angeles in early and mid-’80s. His television stuff was kind of come to an end, and he was, I think, basically supporting himself on lecture fees. And Knoxville was a real pleasant thing. And he was genuinely a Tennessee loyalist. He was romantic about it. He presents small-town race relations in a very romantic light. So he had a real kindly feeling, and people here were really nice to him. They were proud of him, and rightly so.”

He became close friends with the Knoxville area’s white and predominantly Republican power elite: Lamar Alexander, Jim Clayton, and the Museum of Appalachia founder John Rice Irwin. Haley and various combinations of wealthy white men would while away a Sunday afternoon in rocking chairs on the porch of his Norris cabin.

He seemed retired, and maybe he was. He published very little while he was here. In 1988, he did finish a sentimental novella, “A Different Kind of Christmas,” but he never finished a full-length book after Roots, and his occasional journalism was mostly lightweight.

He lived to hear about the production of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, which was based heavily on Haley’s 1965 book.

Haley died suddenly, at age 70, in early 1992, while visiting Seattle for a speaking engagement.

His funeral was in Memphis, not far from his hometown of Henning, where he was buried. But his will was probated in Knoxville. If he ever wrote the Appalachia-based epic he frequently told people he was working on, he left little trace of it.

When Malcolm X was released, and Haley got a memorial appreciation, and a credit for the source material, but Norrell notes Haley, who wasn’t much like Malcolm X, Spike Lee, or for that matter Denzel Washington, wasn’t otherwise part of the revival of interest. Queen, ostensibly his last book about his grandmother’s side of the family, was finished in 1993 by another writer. Norrell is not certain Haley’s contribution to the book was major.

Meanwhile, one year after Haley’s death, idiosyncratic journalist Philip Nobile wrote a bitter expose of Haley and especially Roots in the Village Voice, calling Haley a liar and a “hack,” and Roots a “scam” and “a hoax, a literary painted mouse, a Piltdown of genealogy, a pyramid of bogus research.”

Norrell’s book is in part an expose of Nobile’s article. He examined Nobile’s accusations and found several of them “misleading or simply incorrect.”

Norrell’s study concludes that Haley was a flawed character, not much of an idealist, and maybe not even much of a writer, but still a pivotally important figure in American history.

“Even though he himself was a pretty self-serving guy, I think he achieved a high ideal,” Norrell says.

A few years after Haley’s death, Knoxville came together to erect a huge bronze statue to him at a new site on Dandridge Avenue called Haley Heritage Square. One of the most famous works by the late Los Angeles sculptor Tina Allen, the Haley statue, seated as if reading aloud, was for years after its completion in 1998 the largest statue of an African-American in the world. A picture of it appears on Norrell’s website.

“My daughter took me over there and took me a picture in front of it. It’s as big as the Lincoln Memorial!” Norrell says. He compares it to old statues of Bismarck in Germany. Despite Haley’s many flaws, Norrell likes the statue, and used it as an appropriate setting for his current publicity photo. “I think it’s nice he’s memorialized. It captures his storytelling essence.” 

COVER_1126_Haley1Tricia Bateman

Knoxville’s Alex Haley statue in Haley Heritage Square, at the entrance to Morningside Park, was completed by the late California sculptor Tina Allen in 1998.

Robert J. Norrell, author and UT professor

Alex Haley and the Books that Changed a Nation

Wednesday, Dec. 2. at 6 p.m.

East Tennessee History Center (601 S. Gay St.)

How Much:

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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