"What right had I to be sitting in a carpetted high-rise apartment writing about what it was like to be in the hold of a slave ship?" (Alex Haley)
Alex Haley wrote for eight years and received 200 rejection slips. But that did not stop him from writing. By 1976, he had a bestselling novel, Roots, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize. Here is his story.
Mr. Haley was born in Ithaca, New York, in the 1920's. He spent twenty years in the Navy from which he retired in 1959. It was on a navy ship that he started writing. But no one would publish his articles.
Finally, in 1962, after receiving 200 rejection slips, Alex got the break he'd been waiting for. Playboy magazine offered him a feature article on jazz trumpet player Miles Davis. In the interview, Mr. Davis talked about racism in America, an interview which led to many others including: Martin Luther King Jr., Mohammed Ali, Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Carson, Jim Brown and Malcolm X. It was the latter that spawned Alex's first book in 1965 titled, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a highly successful account which sold 6 million copies in the first twelve years.
It was on a trip to England when Mr. Haley saw the Rosetta Stone in a London Museum, that his interest was peaked about his own family history. He decided to write an account of his family. It would take 12 years and span three continents. Alex travelled to Gambia where a tribal historian gave him an account of his ancestor Kunta Kinte, how he was kidnapped and brought to America as a slave in the 1700's.
But how could he possibly know what it felt like to be a slave? He decided to play the role. Boarding a ship in Liberia heading for America, he spent most of the passage in the ship's hold, laying on a board in his underwear.
Finally in 1976, his account was complete. Doubleday Books agreed to publish the manuscript.. The book, titled Roots, took off. One and a half million copies were sold in the first six months. The next year, Mr. Haley received the Pulitzer Prize. Roots was adapted for television, a famous series starring LeVar Burton. Mr. Haley asked: "Do you know what it's like to go from the YMCA to the Waldorf?"
Roots has since been translated into 37 languages and has sold 8 million copies worldwide. Alex Haley's long and painful path to publication paid off.