Most of us thought the miniseries “Roots” was a remarkable and important piece of television, but the book on which it was based has now been widely exposed as a historical hoax. What is unfortunately is that the general public is largely unaware of how Haley’s monumental family autobiography, stretching back to 18th-century Africa, has been discredited. This has caused Haley’s work to be banned by many U.S. television networks – especially PBS, which would normally welcome such a program.
I know this is shocking, I am sure, but coincidentally the scandal over disclosures of historian Stephen Ambrose’s multiple incidents of plagiarism. Haley himself was forced to acknowledge, a large section of his book – including the plot, main character, and scores of whole passages was lifted from “The African,” a 1967 novel by white author Harold Courlander.
But plagiarism is the least of the problems with “Roots.” This information would likely have remained largely unknown had journalist Philip Nobile not undertaken a remarkable study of Haley’s private papers shortly before they were auctioned off. The results were featured in a devastating 1993 cover piece in the Village Voice. It confirmed from Haley’s own notes that the alleged history of the book was a near total invention.
“Virtually every genealogical claim in Haley’s story was false,” Nobile has written. None of Haley’s early writing contains any reference to his mythic ancestor. A long-suppressed tape of the famous session in which Haley “found” Kunta Kinte through the recitation of an African “Griot” proves, as BBC producer James Kent noted, “the villagers [were] threatened by members of Haley’s party. Haley, “Specifically asks for a story that will fit his predetermined American narrative.”
Historical experts who checked Haley’s genealogical research discovered that, as one put it, “Haley got everything wrong in his pre-Civil War lineage, and none of his plantation ancestors existed; 182 pages have no basis in fact.” Given this damning evidence, he remains a literary icon. As one authority put it, Haley never wrote anything and this is to include “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”!!!
The judge who presided over Haley’s plagiarism case admitted that “I did not want to destroy him” and so allowed him to settle quietly – even though, he acknowledged, Haley had repeatedly perjured himself in court.
The uniqueness of “Roots” is that it was presented as factual history, albeit with fictional embellishments. Haley himself stressed that the details came from his family’s oral history and had been corroborated by outside documents. But Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard, a Haley friend, concedes that it’s time to “speak candidly,” adding that “most of us feel it’s highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village from whence his ancestors came.
It was proven in court that Harold Courlander wrote seven novels, his most famous being The African, published in 1967. The novel was the story of a slave’s capture in Africa, his experiences aboard a Slave ship, and his struggle to retain his native culture in a hostile new world. In 1978, Courlander filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, charging that Alex Haley, the author of Roots, had copied 81 passages from his novel. Courlander’s pre-trial memorandum in the copyright infringement lawsuit claimed:
“Defendant Haley had access to and substantially copied from The African. Without The African, Roots would have been a very different and less successful novel, and indeed, it is doubtful that Mr. Haley could have written Roots without “The African”…. Mr. Haley copied language, thoughts, attitudes, incidents, situations, plot and character.”
The lawsuit did not allege that The African’s plot was copied in its entirety, as the two novels differ in several plot points. In his Expert Witness Report submitted to federal court, Professor of English Michael Wood of Columbia University stated:
“The evidence of copying from The African in both the novel and the television dramatization of Roots is clear and irrefutable. The copying is significant and extensive. … Roots… plainly uses The African as a model: as something to be copied at sometimes, and at other times to be modified, but always it seems, to be consulted. … Roots takes from The African phrases, situations, ideas, aspects of style and plot. Roots finds in The African essential elements for its depiction of such things as a slave’s thoughts of escape, the psychology of an old slave, the habits of mind of the hero, and the whole sense of life on an infamous slave ship. Such things are the life of a novel; and when they appear in Roots, they are the life of someone else’s novel.”
During a five-week trial in federal district court, presiding U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Ward stated, “Copying there is, period.” In a later interview with BBC Television, Judge Ward stated, “Alex Haley perpetrated a hoax on the public. Passages from The African were found stapled to a manuscript page from Roots. However, Alex Haley maintained throughout the trial that he had not even heard of The African until the year after Roots was published, and speculated that someone else had given him the photocopied passages. After the trial, Joseph Bruchac, an instructor in black and African history at Skidmore College, stated that he had recommended Courlander’s novel to Haley when he visited Skidmore in 1970. Bruchac remembered driving home three miles to fetch his own copy of The African and give it to Haley, who promised to read it “on the plane.”
Courlander and Haley settled the case out of court for $650,000 and a statement that “Alex Haley acknowledges and regrets that various materials from The African by Harold Courlander found their way into his book, Roots.” WOW! This just proves nothing is as it seems. And that’s my thought provoking perspective…