Alex Haley’s Fraudulent Roots

Jack Kerwick, Belief Net, March 12, 2012

This is the 35th anniversary of the ground breaking television miniseries, Roots. Based on Alex Haley’s wildly successful novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the epic miniseries starred an ensemble cast—several members of which recently visited with Oprah Winfrey on her new network (OWN) to commemorate this occasion.

This is worth commenting upon only because, for as provocative and entertaining as both book and movie undoubtedly are—I read the book twice and watched the miniseries numerous times—Roots, the author’s assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, is a work of fiction through and through. To listen to Oprah and the actors with whom she was accompanied, one could be forgiven for regarding this as news.

In fact, to describe Roots merely as “fiction” is to treat Haley with more charity than he deserves. In at least three critical respects, Haley was downright dishonest.

Haley and the History of Slavery

Black commentator Stanley Crouch doesn’t mince words when it comes to Alex Haley. Haley, Crouch insists, was a “ruthless hustler” and “one of the biggest damn liars this country has ever seen.” Crouch likens Haley to Tawana Brawley, the young black woman who infamously lied about being raped and humiliated by a white police officer. Like the lie concocted by Brawley and abetted by the likes of Al Sharpton, Haley’s story is also a “hoax” that beautifully illustrates “how history and tragic fact can be pillaged by an individual willing to exploit whatever the naïve might consider sacred.”

Crouch explains: “Haley came on the scene when Negroes were becoming obsessed with their African ancestry and were having overwrought reactions to a tale of slavery that always, conveniently, left out the crucial role of the cooperative and profiting Africans.”

Black thinker Thomas Sowell, who has written prolifically on race and slavery, makes the same point as Crouch—even if not quite as bluntly. Regarding the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, Sowell remarks that Roots “presented some crucially false pictures of what had actually happened—false pictures that continue to dominate thinking today.”

For instance, “Roots has a white man leading a slave raid in West Africa, where the hero, Kunta Kinte [supposedly, Haley’s ancestor] was captured, looking bewildered at the chains put on him as he was led away in bondage.” Moreover, even “the village elders” likewise appeared perplexed by the sight of these “white men” who were “carrying their people away.” In glaring contrast to this depiction, Sowell correctly asserts, the location from which Kunta Kinte was taken—West Africa—had been “a center of slave trading before the first white man arrived there—and slavery continues in parts of it to this very moment.” He adds: “Africans sold vast numbers of other Africans to Europeans. But they hardly let Europeans go running around in their territory, catching people willy-nilly” (emphasis added).

According to Sowell, Roots did more harm than good in fueling “the gross misconception that slavery was about white people enslaving black people.” In reality, “the tragedy of slavery was of a far greater magnitude than that.” Slavery knew no racial boundaries. “People of every race and color were both slaves and enslavers, for thousands of years, all around the world.” Sowell likens slavery to cancer in that it transcends time and place. He concludes: “If reparations were to be paid for slavery, everybody on this planet would owe everybody else.”

Hayley was, to put it mildly, a “historical revisionist” when it came to the issue of slavery. {snip}

{snip}

Haley and Plagiarism

As Philip Nobile writes, Haley was a “literary rogue,” an “impostor” whose “prose was so inept that he required ghosts [ghost writers] throughout his career.” Upon reading Haley’s posthumously released private papers and interviewing one of his original editors for Roots, Nobile was able to determine that the latter’s real author was Murray Fisher, Haley’s editor from his time at Playboy. Fisher was also, incidentally, white.

This piece of deception, however, is part and parcel of a much larger web of the same.

At least Fisher consented to write Roots. Harry Courlander did not.

In the late 1960’s, Harry Courlander—a white man—composed The African, a fictional work about a young African boy who is captured, made to endure the horrors of the mid-Atlantic passage, and eventually sold into slavery in America. In 1978 he sued Haley for plagiarism. Upon expressing regret that at least 81 passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Courlander’s novel and recast in Roots, and upon the Judge’s unambiguous finding that Haley was guilty of plagiarism, Haley agreed to an out of court settlement whereby he would pay Courlander $650,000 (roughly 2 million dollars in today’s terms).

In his pre-trial memorandum, Courlander argued that had Haley not copied from his novel, “Roots would have been a very different and less successful novel, and indeed it is doubtful that Mr. Haley could written Roots without The African [.]” Roots, Courlander continues, “copied [from The African] language, thoughts, attitudes, incidents, situations, plot and character.”

{snip}

Haley and his Roots

His plagiarism aside, as professional genealogists Gary B. and Elizabeth Shown Mills have demonstrated beyond a doubt, Haley’s claims to the contrary aside, there is no formal documentation to corroborate “the oral tradition” regarding his family history. Moreover, the very documentation to which he refers—“plantation records, wills, census records”—repudiates this tradition. The Mills are to the point: “In truth, those same plantation records, wills, and censuses cited by Mr. Haley not only fail to document his story, but they contradict each and every pre-Civil War statement of Afro-American lineage in Roots” (emphases original)!

{snip}

It isn’t just radical inconsistencies in Haley’s antebellum ancestry with which he has to reckon. There are all sorts of questions that his claims on the part of his post-Civil War ancestry raise as well.  As the Mills say, “not only the authenticity of Roots evidence is called into question by the total absence of documentation for any alleged event, individual, or relationship, but doubt also falls upon the very essence of family life portrayed in Roots” (emphasis added).

{snip}

Conclusion

Alex Haley’s Roots is undeniably as epic a television drama as it is a book. Yet this does nothing to change the fact that neither version conveys fact. Nor does it alter the sad truth that Haley was a fraud.

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