Alex Haley's Roots: The History Channel to Remake a Lie

Jack Kerwick
|
Posted: May 29, 2015 11:00 AM
Alex Haley's Roots: The History Channel to Remake a Lie

In 1976, Alex Haley authored the nearly 1,000-page, Roots: The Saga of An American Family. The following year, ABC aired a mini-series that was based upon it. Both book and television show proved to be tremendous successes. Now, the History Channel has officially announced that it will remake Roots.

There’s only problem: Roots is a fake and Haley is a fraud—and a fraud on multiple levels.

Investigative journalist Philip Nobile refers to Haley as 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 white.

But matters get worse.

Not only was Roots ghost-written. It was plagiarized.

You probably aren’t familiar with the name of Harry Courlander. In 1978, one year after 130 million viewers tuned into Roots, Haley agreed to pay Courlander $650,000 (2 million dollars in today’s terms) as part of an out of court settlement.

Courlander—a white man—had sued Haley for having plagiarized his 1967 work, The African. Haley conceded that at least 81 passages were lifted practically verbatim from the latter, and the judge presiding over the case agreed with Courlander’s pre-trial memorandum remark that Haley “copied [from The African] language, thoughts, attitudes, incidents, situations, plot and character.”

So too did Columbia University English professor, Michael Wood. In his Expert Witness Report, Wood insisted that the “evidence of copying from The African in both the novel and television dramatization of Roots is clear and irrefutable,” “significant and extensive [.]”

Judge Robert J. Ward concluded: “Copying there was, period.” Years later, Ward came forth in an interview with the BBC and admitted that Haley “had perpetrated a hoax on the public.”

Although during the trial Haley swore that he personally had never read The African, that “the life” of Courlander’s book had found its way into Roots courtesy of careless research assistants who failed to document their material, a “minorities’ studies” professor, Joseph Brucac from Skidmore College, signed a sworn affidavit in which he noted that he and Haley had indeed discussed The African at least five years prior to the publication of Roots. In fact, Brucac even lent Haley his own copy of it.

However, for as bad as plagiarism is, Roots was cooked in another respect:

It is a lie.

Professional genealogists Gary B. and Elizabeth Shown Mills have noted that not only is there zero formal documentation to corroborate “the oral tradition” regarding Haley’s family history; what evidence there is—“plantation records, wills, census records”—actually repudiates this tradition. The evidence “contradict[s] each and every pre-Civil War statement of Afro-American lineage in Roots” (emphasis original)!

Haley claims that his great-great-great-great grandfather, Kunta Kinte, was brought to America and renamed “Toby” by his new master. But upon canvassing all of the evidence, the Mills issue a decisive verdict:

“Toby Waller was not Kunta Kinte.”

The insuperable problem is that “this Waller slave Toby appeared in six separate documents of record over a period of four years preceding the arrival of the Lord Ligonier,” the ship that supposedly brought Kunta Kinte to America (emphasis original).

The Mills conclude that it is “inarguable” that “the 182 pages and thirty-nine chapters in which the Virginia lives of Haley’s ‘ancestors’ are chronicled have no basis in fact. Neither of the two relationships that are crucial to his pedigree (the identity of Kizzy as daughter of Kinte alias Toby, and the relationship of Bell as wife of Kinte and mother of Kizzy) can be established by even the weakest genealogical evidence.”

Haley’s account of his post-Civil War ancestry fares no better than that of his antebellum genealogy. 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).

There is one final point. Roots climaxes with Haley discovering the village from which his ancestor, Kunta Kinte, was supposed to have been captured. A griot from the village of Juffure—“Fofana”—confirmed the account of Kinte’s abduction that Haley had grown up (allegedly) hearing about from his aunts.

Professor Donald R. Wright, “a specialist in African pre-history with extensive experience in the collection of Gambian oral traditions,” visited Juffure twice. What he discovered was that Fofana was a con artist.

Fofana “showed no inclination to recite long (or short) genealogies of any families.” When it came to Kunta Kinte, though, “he was eager…to speak [.]” Kinte, Wright continues, “was the only individual about whom Fofana provided any specific information.”

There is a reason for this. In advance of his exchange with Fofana, Haley relayed to Gambian officials the account of Kunta Kinte’s capture that had supposedly been transmitted to him by his relatives. He told them as well that it was confirmation of this account that he sought. Seeing the potentially boundless profits to be reaped from tourism and the like, the officials insured that Haley would hear what he wanted to hear.

The second time Professor Wright visited Juffure he did not seek out Fofana by name. Rather, he sought out “the person best versed in the history of the village and its families.” Wright was taken to listen to four people.

Fofana’s name was never even mentioned.

Black commentator Stanley Crouch describes Haley as a “ruthless hustler” and “one of the biggest damn liars this country has ever seen.” Haley, Crouch states, is like 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.”

Regarding Roots’ depiction of slavery, the black scholar Thomas Sowell remarks that it consists of “some crucially false pictures of what had actually happened—false pictures that continue to dominate thinking today.”

For example, West Africa, from which Kunta Kinte was supposed to have been taken, had been “a center of slave trading before the first white man arrived there [.]” Moreover, “slavery continues in parts of it to this very moment.”

Sowell also notes that “Africans sold vast numbers of other Africans to Europeans. But they hardly let Europeans go running around in their territory, catching people willy-nilly,” as depicted by Haley in Roots.

Even Haley’s friend, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. stated that if we are going to “speak candidly,” we have to concede that “it’s highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village from whence his ancestors sprang.”

That Gates, the editor of the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, chose to omit references to Haley tells it all.

The black leftist scholar, John Henrik Clarke, confessed to having “cried real tears” when he discovered that “Haley was less than authentic.”

The History Channel’s rendition of Roots should be subtitled: “Remake of a Fake.”