What Roots Means to Me
Reader's Digest US|February 2022
Alex Haley’s landmark book began in Reader’s Digest, where he worked as a senior editor. The repercussions are still being felt today.
By Henry Louis Gates Jr., Photography by TMB Studio/K.Synold; ABC Photo ARchives/Getty Images;

I first heard of Alex Haley sometime around 1967 when I was a student in high school. My brother, Paul, who was a student at the School of Dentistry at West Virginia University, called to tell me that this man had given a dazzling lecture on campus, and he was so excited that he wanted to share the experience with me. The lecture was part of a book the author would be publishing, based on stories he had heard from his aunt. He was on the circuit, he told his audience, trying to raise enough money to complete it.

“It’s one word,” Paul said of the book’s title. “I can’t remember what the word is, but it’s bad, man! You are gonna eat this up.”

I said, “Well, what’s the word?”

“I can’t remember,” he said, “but I’ll remember.”

A couple of days later he called me back and said, “It’s Roots!” I thought, Oh, man—Roots! My mind began racing. Roots! What a brilliant title. I had been interested in my own “roots” since I was nine years old, when I interviewed my parents and drew up my first family tree, on the very day after we buried my father’s father.

So when I read the Reader’s Digest excerpts of Roots in 1974, I was mesmerized—that’s the only word for it. In 1977 the television adaptation premiered, and I became part of the biggest audience for a miniseries in the history of the medium at that time. Starting with that phone call from my big brother, I had a serious bout of envy toward Alex Haley. I wanted to be like him: I wanted to reverse the Middle Passage and find out where my ancestors were from in Africa, the motherland.

"I had a serious bout of envy toward Alex Haley. I wanted to be like him."


“In my long and troubled journeys to complete Roots, I owe an undying debt to The Reader’s Digest. Without its help and encouragement, Roots could not have been written with the scope that it has.” —Alex Haley

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