Book: Identifying Roots
Chapter: Identifying with Alex Haley "Before This Anger"
In this intellectual biography, I draw upon Haley’s written correspondence to highlight history and writing as pivotal tools in working out issues of race. I contend that Haley was attuned to this facet of modernity and exploited it accordingly. Roots represents a claim to solidify Haley’s own rootedness in Post Civil Rights America.
The chapter begins by situating Alex Haley within the modern West, and more specifically, the Black Atlantic. His formation in the tradition of black uplift was reinforced by his family’s relative wealth, education, and status. Specifically, Haley’s interest in historiography—the writing of historical moments—aided his relative success with integration: first, as Chief Journalist for the United States Coast Guard during WWII; second as a renown reporter of iconic black Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. Acclaim in these positions afforded him the opportunity to work collegially with whites in an era of high racial tensions.
This tension comes to the fore in his relationship with Malcolm X. While both black men were striving to negotiate the legacy of Jim Crow, Haley’s Southern, rural, Christian integrationist sensibility stood in contrast to that of the urban, Muslim, black nationalist’s rhetoric. Nevertheless, their partnership was mutually beneficial. Haley’s journalism connections and reputation gave Malcolm access to America’s mainstream readership. In return, Haley witnessed the appeal of Malcolm’s Afro-consciousness—which would be of later use in his own approach to racial politics. The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley (1965) epitomized their agreement that a richer testament to black life could improve race relations in America
Even still, this collaboration is a site of inter- and intra-racial contest. Haley used his editorial privilege to characterize Malcolm as a cautionary tale for those whites who rejected integration and those blacks tempted by black nationalism. The premeditated murder of Malcolm X only furthered Haley’s case, making the slain figure’s story the perfect preface for an integrationist apology. In a novel preliminarily titled Before This Anger, Haley planned to recount his family’s ability to negotiate racism though hard work and faith in the American Dream—contra the critiques leveled by people like Malcolm X. The coup de grace to Malcolm X’s lingering appeal would be certitude about ancestral roots, the X-factor that so many blacks lacked. Haley’s own genealogical odyssey became a search for Roots. It presented historical proof of why his family was better (off) than so many others. Haley’s contest and collegiality with Malcolm X illustrate how identity formation never happens in isolation, but within larger systems of identification.