For the generation that came of age during the 1970s, Alex Haley's monumental "Roots: The Saga of an American Family" was in many ways a revelation. White Americans saw for perhaps the first time an accounting of the travails of black Americans they could identify with in an intensely personal way. For black Americans, the story of Kunte Kinte and his descendants was both a celebration of their capacity for endurance and absolution of the lingering stigma of slavery.
Alex Haley, who died this week at age 70, was an unlikely candidate to bring about such a remarkable transformation. A quiet, gentle man, he was born in Ithaca, N.Y., and raised in the West Tennessee town of Henning. By his own account a poor student, he joined the Coast Guard in 1939 and spent the next 20 years there before retiring with the rank of journalist, created for him because he was selling stories based on U.S. naval records.
Mr. Haley's first book, "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," grew out of interviews with the fiery Black Muslim leader for Playboy Magazine in the 1960s. Published in 1965, the book sold 6 million copies. In 1976 came "Roots," which traced his family history from the arrival of his ancestor Kunte Kinte as a slave in Annapolis in 1767. The book became an international best-seller and the basis for a TV mini-series seen by millions.
Fame did not alter Mr. Haley's lifelong fascination with the common man. "If I had a chance to write about the most powerful man in Los Angeles -- whoever that might be -- and a chance to write about a man who sweeps the streets, I would, without question, go to the man who sweeps the streets," he said in a recent interview. "There's more tensile strength to his life. A bite of bread means more to him than to the other man who could call up and order 16 courses. A pair of pants is an accomplishment. Maybe this man has a child. For him to give his wife a faded rose is something. There's drama in his life."
Mr. Haley spent much of his later life on old freighters, where he could write without being interrupted. "At sea, I will work from 10 at night until daybreak," he said. "Then comes that magic moment when you start to dream about what you are writing, and you know that you are really into it." It is a measure of how his books have changed our world that so much of what Alex Haley dreamed is now part of the legacy of all Americans.