Making Roots: A Nation Captivated

Speaking Roots: How Alex Haley's lectures built an audience for Roots

In the decade before Roots was published, Alex Haley crisscrossed the country speaking at colleges, libraries, historical societies, and corporate meetings. Haley started lecturing as a client of the W. Colston Leigh speakers’ bureau in the fall of 1966. Some of his first lectures described the story behind The Autobiography of Malcolm X or featured anecdotes from his Playboy celebrity interviews. Soon, however, Haley started describing his research for Before This Anger in lectures titled and “Myth of the Negro Past?,” “Black Heritage,” and “What the Negro Must Do for Himself.” A Leigh Bureau brochure assured prospective clients that “Alex Haley has made a remarkable and unique contribution to the American lecture platform through his unfailing gift of saying strong things in a quiet way, and by his ability for holding audiences spell-bound.” Haley earned five hundred to one thousand dollars for these early lectures, money which he desperately needed to pay for living expenses, research travel, and child support. Hundreds of thousands of people heard Haley tell the story of his search for his family’s roots before they read Roots or watched the television series. Neither Doubleday nor ABC could have asked for better promotion.

Each blue marker notes a lecture Alex Haley gave regarding his research for Roots.  Click on marker to view information regarding date and location.
Alex Haley’s story of his search for Roots mesmerized audiences. Author Frank Chin, who worked in 1969 as a screenwriter for a film version of Haley’s story that was not produced, heard Haley tell his story before three different audiences. Chin described Haley as a “medium” whose voice allowed people to touch the past. “You’ve aroused a kind of unsuspected madness in all the people I watched listen to you,” Chin told Haley. “Your’s is a story people want to possess personally and cherish in secret to enlarge with their own lives…Your story all but arouses superstition in your listeners, a certain fright a gentle terror of bringing the past, the voices of grandmothers we’ve somehow betrayed in our failing memory, rooms we’ve abandoned and are afraid to enter again because they’ve grown dark and some hostile to us…and you seem to come from those places.” Chin described how Haley had an uncanny ability to make each person in a large lecture audience feel personally invested in his story. “It’s amazing how after you’ve gone everyone becomes private,” Chin wrote, “as if they’ve just seen a loved one die and how, for a few moments, everyone is both excited and little irritable, unwilling to let you out of them. Everyone, in his own way feels an expert on what they’ve heard, if not in terms of the facts, then in terms of feelings, and is unwilling to corrupt or pollute their understanding, their personal experience of your story with anyone else’s.”

Haley lectures, even more so than the book or the television versions of Roots, made audiences feel personally invested in his research for his family’s history. Critics who obsessed over which parts of Haley’s story were true and which parts were fabricated misunderstood what made the work a cultural phenomenon. People were drawn to Haley’s story because it was compelling and persuasive, not because every part of the story was factually accurate. By speaking Roots, Haley encouraged people to see history and themselves in new ways.

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