In downtown Annapolis, near the Annapolis Harbor, sits a statue of author Alex Haley. He is depicted as a kindly grandfather, telling children of various racial backgrounds an amusing story. Leading up the statue are a series of metal plaques with quotes from the book that links Haley to Annapolis – ‘Roots.’
In his book, “Alex Haley: And the Books that Changed a Nation,” writer Robert J. Norrell fleshes out the man behind both “Roots” and “The Autobiography of Malcom X,” – Haley’s most well-known works.
Norrell relies on detailed research to paint the picture of a man who grew from a somewhat ambivalent teenager to a dedicated journalist and writer. He presents Haley as a real person – a writer plagued by money problems. One who struggled to meet his deadlines. He presents Haley as a man so singular in his quest to become a better writer that two of his marriages suffered.
He also presents a man who developed tight bonds with men and women who are still revered today – like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali. What readers who only know Haley for “Roots” or “Autobiography” might not know is that Haley was also responsible for a great number of hard-hitting magazine interviews with some of the greatest movers and thinkers of his time.
“He shaped the racial sensibilities of more Americans than any other writer, black or white,” Norrell writes in the book’s prologue. “Although he was not himself a black nationalist, his works, more than any other writing, gave texture and substance to black nationalism. Haley and his work deserve to be recognized as seminal influences on black identity and American thought about race.”
Norrell spends a good deal of time on how Haley was able to get better and better at his craft, putting himself in the position to meet and interview the charismatic and controversial Malcolm X. He details how the two men crafted X’s story together and became close friends through the writing of the book. But, perhaps most importantly, Norrell shines new light on accusations that parts of “Roots” were untrue that cast a shadow over the book to this day.
Norrell writes that Haley first heard of his ancestors from his Aunt Liz, who would tell tales of “The African” who came to the United States via “’Napolis.”
The stories never left Haley and later, after the success of “Malcolm X,” Norrell writes that he was anxious to start a project about his own family. But it wouldn’t be easy. When he began working on “Roots,” Norrell writes, Haley was charting unknown territory. There was very little available in the way of African history and so Haley was forced into deep research and the use of oral history to trace his family’s tale.
That research took years – Norrell writes that Haley’s publishers were beyond frustrated by how late the book actually was – and carried him all the way to Gambia to meet the people Haley hoped were part of the earliest part of his family tree.
Norrell is exhaustive in his retelling of how the book came to be. He gives a few reasons why critics may think “Roots” was more fiction than fact. Those reasons include Haley’s self-described flare for dramatic storytelling over straight journalistic reporting, the many revisions the book went through and the way that Haley took notes while researching.
“Haley used the neologism “faction,” a blend of historical information and imagined thoughts and conversations,” Norrell writes.
Norrell, a White professor based in North Carolina, has written several books about the Black experience. He has also written about Booker T. Washington and the Civil Rights movement in Tuskegee.
If there is anything off-putting in the book, it is that Norrell is perhaps too exhaustive in his detailing of Haley’s life. His passages about Haley’s time with Malcolm X can sometimes make the reader feel like they have left a biography about Haley and wandered into one about Malcolm X. And there is so much information about “Roots” that it’s possible for the reader to feel as overwhelmed by its sheer volume as Haley might have felt sifting through his own research when he was writing his book.
Overall, however, Norrell has crafted a fascinating story about a flawed but talented writer who captured an important part of Black American history.