Tag Archives: Alex Haley

Alex Haley Fooled Us All

s-roots-film-large300Most 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…

Black History: Roots A Haunting Look At Black History

s-ROOTS-FILM-large300Most of America had never visually seen the horrors of American Slavery until Alex Haley’s groundbreaking television miniseries, “Roots”. It was a shocking realistic visual impact of the horrors of slavery. This powerful story was the first-time African Americans or dare I say the world got to see, feel, and understand what the slave experience was like. Sure we have seen pictures and read books, but the visual presentation of the miniseries was an eye-opening experience, as it remains one of the highest-rated television shows of all time.

If you can recall, the story chronicles the life of an African boy that began in Gambia, West Africa in 1750 where Kunta Kinte while trying to carry out a simple task to catch a bird sees white men carrying firearms, along with their black collaborators. He is captured by black collaborators under the direction of white men, sold to a slave trader and placed aboard a ship to endure what we know as the Middle Passage for the long journey to America.

The ship eventually arrives in Annapolis, Maryland, where the captured Africans are sold at auction as slaves. He was sold to a Virginia plantation where Kunta was given the name Toby. The owner of the plantation assigns an older slave, Fiddler, to teach him to speak English and to train him in the ways of living and working as a chattel slave. Kunta in a persistent struggle to become free again makes several unsuccessful attempts to escape to preserve his Mandinka heritage and maintain his Mandinka roots.

The most chilling aspect of the story, for me, was when an overseer gathers the slaves and directed one of them to whip Kunta after his latest attempt to escape and continues whipping him until he finally acknowledges his new name. Then to settle a debt to his brother, the owner transfers several of his slaves, including Toby and Fiddler, to another plantation where Kunta tries again to escape, but a pair of slave catchers seize him, bind him, and chop off about half his right foot to limit his ability to run away again.

As we watched the miniseries, it took us on a journey through generations of suffering until the climax when Chicken George, Haley’s grandfather, accumulated enough money to move his family to Tennessee to what was as close to freedom as they could hope for at the time. Chicken George purchased land based on the concept “God Bless the child that has his own.”

I don’t want to tell the whole story because I am sure you know it. If not, the movie is well worth viewing again and again. There were then and some now, who say the epic journey of Kunta Kinte was a myth and that it was mere fiction. Those are the people who refuse to understand or see the wretchedness of the state sectioned institution of slavery. To you, unfortunately, this is the foundation of America and for African Americans, this is our sorted legacy that I will argue are the scars that remain.

I’ll end by sharing these words by Maya Angelou: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” We needed to see this story, and it was shown at the right time for us to understand! And that’s my Thought Provoking Perspective…

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