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The ‘Roots’ Of A Vile Fraud

11 November 2013 @ 20:10

In the 1970’s, a colossal fraud was perpetrated on the public by Alex Haley with the publication of his supposed factual history of his family in Africa and then as slaves in The United States.

In 1977, the book, Roots, was turned into one of the highest-rated and most talked about television miniseries of all time.  People were shocked by the realistic depictions of the brutal conditions black slaves lived under in pre-Civil War America.

There was just one problem: Haley lied.

Now History has announced that it will be remaking the miniseries and Eric Fettmann of the New York Post has some very justifiable concerns:

“Roots” was based on the late Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning runaway best-seller, which was billed as a factual account (albeit with some fictional embellishments) of his family’s history from Africa through slavery in the South to present times. All this was said to be based on generations of oral history corroborated by painstakingly researched outside documents.

But as I wrote in these pages back in 2002 (when ABC, which aired the original series, declined to broadcast a 25th anniversary tribute), historians and genealogists now widely agree that “Roots” has been discredited as a historical hoax.

More than a decade later, most people remain totally unaware of the troubling issues behind “Roots” — or simply don’t want to hear that this still-acclaimed work was essentially a fake.

That view is shared even by such noted African-American historians as Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates, a Haley friend who conceded that it’s time to “speak candidly” and admit that “it’s highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village from whence his ancestors sprang,” adding that it was not “strict historical scholarship.” The late John Henrik Clarke, dean of Afrocentrist scholars, said he “cried real tears when I realized that Haley was less than authentic.”

Genealogists, eager to retrace the historical steps Haley claimed he took in his 12-year search for his family heritage, discovered this early on: Documents didn’t match any information Haley cited; the dates were all wrong and so was the supposed slave lineage. Elizabeth Shown Mills, editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, went so far as to denounce Haley’s “subterfuge.”

And the first half of the book — Kunta Kinte’s life in Africa — was blatantly plagiarized from an earlier novel by anthropologist Harold Courlander, who sued Haley, accepting a $650,000 settlement after the court’s expert witness concluded that the copying in the book and the movie was “clear and irrefutable . . . significant and extensive.”

That deal was made after the judge hearing the case, alarmed not only by the extent of the copying but also by Haley’s repeated perjury in court, pressed the sides to settle, then sealed the official file from public view. The judge later admitted (in a BBC documentary that has never run on American TV) that he “didn’t want to destroy” Haley and his reputation.

Perhaps the most damning exposé of Haley’s historical hoax came in a devastating 1993 Village Voice cover piece by Philip Nobile, who’d had access to Haley’s personal papers before they were broken up and auctioned off. There he found compelling evidence that the non-plagiarized section of the book had been primarily written not by Haley but by his longtime editor at Playboy magazine, Murray Fisher.

Moreover, the BBC located a tape of the famous session in Gambia with the griot, or oral historian, who supposedly made the link between Haley’s slave forebears and their African ancestor, Kunta Kinte. It showed the griot’s story being repeatedly corrected by Gambian officials and Haley himself specifically asking for a tale that fit his predetermined narrative.

“Roots” — both book and history — touched an understandable nerve in American society. As Gates has noted, it “captured everyone’s imagination.” And it was a story that African-Americans and well-meaning whites very much wanted to be an accurate depiction of slavery’s evils.

But to suggest that an ostensible work of history shouldn’t be held accountable for its deceptions merely because its heart is in the right place is paternalism at its worst. This sentiment explains why there has been so little coverage of this over the years. (Haley himself once compared anyone attacking the historical truth of “Roots” to Holocaust deniers.)

Alex Haley did a great disservice to all blacks in America who are descended from slaves.

He told a lie where none was needed.

When caught, he continued to deny the Truth.

Alex Haley was a fraud and Roots is tainted beyond redemption, just like the the work of Konrad Kujau and Clifford Irving. but, unlike those two counterfeiters, who were merely seeking to perpetrate scams to make money and achieve fame, Haley was worse, even though he surely wanted the same benefits.  He robbed Blacks of their history.  Haley preyed on his own people, like a vampire.

How novel.

How vile.

  1. 12 November 2013 @ 07:38 07:38

    Taking bets that Henry Louis Gates Jr. is now — twenty years later — interested in “speaking candidly” because Haley’s fraud undermines Gates’ business as a high-priced celebrity TV genealogist.

  2. 12 November 2013 @ 07:44 07:44

    And our present day frauds are guys like Sharpton and Jackson.

    • 12 November 2013 @ 08:36 08:36

      Like Gates (and every other race hustler), their credibility within the minds of the public originates not just with MLK Jr. (Jesse held the bloody shirt, after all!), but with Roots, so you have to wonder if they would have been able to amass as much power as they have if we had heard more about Haley’s fraud twenty years ago.

  3. theebl permalink
    12 November 2013 @ 18:32 18:32

    Here is the thing about Roots, the general fictional story lines were partially based on fact. While Haley has “Kunta Kinte” captured by a white slave trader, the truth is almost all slaves were captured by other black tribes and then sold to whoever would pay for them (at that time it was Europeans although plenty were sold to Arabs until Saudi Arabia banned slavery…in 1962).

    That said: The middle passage was a horror, plantation life for the vast majority of slaves was brutal and hard, slaves were often routinely humiliated and degraded, and slave women were often (not universally) sexually abused. Roots was correct in depicting that.

    Where Alex Haley went off is faking that very true factual reality (that could have been portrayed as some James Michener like historical fiction story) and pawned it off as his own family history. So in that regard Alex Haley’s work is sort of like James Frey’s work. Researchers have shown that Haley’s “historical research” was more akin to marketing. He strung together enough BS to sell this story has his own. Was it flat out fraud or self delusion? People convince themselves of all sorts of crazy things. Personally, I think it was fraud.

    Alex Haley also copied portions of Roots from The African. There is a reason that Roots is not included in Norton’s Anthology of African American Literature.

    • 12 November 2013 @ 23:49 23:49

      Alex Haley: a pioneer in truthiness.

  4. 14 November 2013 @ 07:09 07:09

    And then Mike Daisey did it all over again with The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. There’s one advantage to living in the internet age, however small it may be – liars are much more likely to be exposed, and exposed quickly.

  5. 14 November 2013 @ 21:28 21:28

    Haley got a Coast Guard cutter named after him, too.

    • M. Thompson permalink
      15 November 2013 @ 12:39 12:39

      Well, he is a prominent veteran of that service and did retire from it. It’s better than some of the recent ship names…


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