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The plaque near giant Alex Haley's foot tells visitors who sculpted the statue.
The plaque near giant Alex Haley's foot tells visitors who sculpted the statue.

Giant Alex "Roots" Haley

Field review by the editors.

Knoxville, Tennessee

Alex Haley was born in upstate New York, spent some of his childhood on the western edge of Tennessee, and then most of his adult life in places such as Manhattan and Los Angeles. But in 1982 he visited the Sunsphere and World's Largest Rubik's Cube at the Knoxville World's Fair, and for some never-really-clear reason he decided to move to east Tennessee, to a farm about 20 miles outside of Knoxville. He willed his papers to the local university, then died unexpectedly in 1992.

If giant Alex stood up, he'd be about 25 feet tall.
If giant Alex stood up, he'd be about 25 feet tall.

So it's a surprise to see this giant version of Alex Haley in a small park in a city with which he had only a late-in-life connection. When bronze Alex was dedicated in April 1998, it was said to be the largest likeness of a black man in the world.

Haley was best known as the author of "Roots" (which spawned a widely viewed, hugely popular network TV miniseries), less well-known as the ghostwriter of Malcom X's autobiography, and almost forgotten for his writing in Reader's Digest, his many Playboy magazine celebrity interviews, and his screenwriter credit for the blaxploitation film, Super Fly T.N.T. Before he was made famous by Roots, Haley had to scrounge for work just like any other writer.

"Where's my visitor center?" Bronze Alex looks out over quiet Haley Heritage Square.

The sculpture, by Tina Allen, is 13 feet high and weighs over two tons. Haley sits on a rock, wearing a cable-knit sweater and a leather jacket, undistracted by the open book in his lap -- possibly a copy of Roots, although the pages are blank -- and gazing toward the horizon through oversized eyeglasses.

As a literary figure, Alex Haley was controversial. It was discovered -- after he'd become a celebrity -- that he'd copied entire passages into Roots from someone else's book, and that the details in his slavery-era Roots genealogy were sometimes more fabrication than fact. Perhaps that's why the statue is posed as if Alex is reading aloud -- representing him not as a scholar but as a storyteller.

Regardless of the critics, Alex Haley was still the best-selling black writer in American history, and if none of his other hometowns wanted to build his giant statue, Knoxville wasn't going to pass up the opportunity. The sculpture's dedication ceremony was a big event, and was attended by actor Louis Gossett Jr., who won an Emmy playing "Fiddler" in the 1977 Roots television miniseries.

The statue was supposed to be accompanied by a visitor center that would tell the story of Alex Haley. It was never built. A small bronze plaque out by the parking lot, far from the statue and easily missed, provided a one-sentence summary of Alex Haley's literary life, in tiny text buried beneath larger credits for the mayor and other local officials. Visitors who didn't read all of the plaque -- or who simply walked past it -- might have wondered about the identity of the giant man at Haley Heritage Square. So in 2023 the city finally erected a sign explaining who Alex Haley was.

Giant Alex "Roots" Haley

1871 Hazen St., Knoxville, TN
I-40 exit 388A onto James White Pkwy, then take the exit ramp for Summit Hill Drive. Turn left at the stoplight. Drive a half-mile. Pass the stoplight at Hill/MLK Jr Ave. Go up a small hill, then turn right onto Hazen St. You'll see the statue and parking lot on the left.
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Nearby Offbeat Places

Audacious Confederate Cemetery MonumentAudacious Confederate Cemetery Monument, Knoxville, TN - < 1 mi.
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Large Basketball Atop Women's Basketball Hall of FameLarge Basketball Atop Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, Knoxville, TN - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Bleak House: Confederate Shrine, Knoxville, TN - 3 mi.

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