Fact Or Fiction? Hoax Charges Continue to Dog "Roots" 20 Years On
Calvin Reid -- 10/7/97
Twenty years after the late Alex Haley published Roots, the captivating saga tracing his family's history back to the African village where his ancestor Kunte Kinte was captured by slave traders, the book continues to be dogged by charges that its text is plagiarized and that many of the events central to the book were faked by Haley.
Indeed, as Doubleday prepares to honor Roots: The Saga of An American Family as part of its centennial anniversary in October, a TV documentary produced in England by the BBC has rekindled many of the questions about the integrity of both the book and its author, and the continued publication of it as a nonfiction title. And while many of these charges have been made before, the BBC is suggesting that, unlike other literary profiles released in its Bookmark series, the Haley film is being avoided by politically correct U.S. TV networks worried about offending African American viewers who continue to hold Haley in high esteem.
Noting that no one at BDD had seen the documentary and therefore could not comment on it, Stuart Applebaum, senior v-p and director of public relations, told PW that although it was "premature" to release information on Doubleday's centennial plans, "it won't come as a surprise that Roots will be a centerpiece of that celebration." Applebaum noted that "Roots is a book that has had tremendous impact on its readers. Whether the book is fiction or nonfiction is not a concern of the greater world. Its impact is emotional rather than factual, which is why the book remains enduring." And while Applebaum said Doubleday has no argument with "scholars who have concerns about Roots," he emphasized that the house would not "participate in a literary lynching," noting in particular "one individual who strikes us as prosecutorial, with an anti-Haley bias."
Roots was published in 1976 (accompanied by the equally popular TV mini-series) to immediate acclaim and commercial success, selling more than a million copies in the first six months of publication and being awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1977. Almost immediately copyright infringement suits were filed by two authors (both of whom appear in the film): the late Harold Courlander, a novelist and folklorist, and Margaret Walker, a p t, novelist and literary biographer. Courlander charged that Haley plagiarized extensively from his 1967 novel The African, and Walker's suit, which was dismissed by the court, claimed similar copying from her 1966 novel Jubilee. However, despite Haley's sworn testimony that he had never seen The African until after Roots was published, Courlander was offered and accepted a $650,000 settlement, and Haley admitted that "various materials from The African found their way into Roots."
Called The Roots of Alex Haley, the BBC film is an investigation into Haley's life, the writing of Roots and the plagiarism charges, and features interviews with his original editor Lisa Drew, journalists like Clarence Plage and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and Haley's family. Clearly unhappy with Haley's subsequent acclaim, Courlander and Walker both speak out, as d s a very candid Judge Robert Ward, who presided over the 1977 copyright infringement trial ("Haley perpetrated a hoax on the public," says Ward). The film claims Haley was a hoaxer and airs a tape recording from 1967 that claims to prove that Haley orchestrated the historic meeting between himself and the man he claimed was a village Griot, providing him beforehand with the Kinte family history Haley wanted to hear. The film crew also interviews noted genealogists who point to "intentional misreadings" by Haley of the historical record of his family. Indeed, the film g s on to suggest that the Haley estate maintains the myth of black familial reunion with an African past because of its travel businesses which arrange for African American tourists to visit Gambia.
Although not necessarily widely known, all the film's claims against Haley have been argued in the press before. Indeed, much of the current research into Haley's life and work has been by Philip Nobile, an investigative reporter who wrote an extensive article debunking Haley in the Village Voice in 1994; he figures prominently in the film, and is clearly the "prosecutorial" individual referred to by Applebaum.
Nobile told PW he is motivated by an "interest in literary controversy and race. I'm interested in the Roots phenomenon as a cult, a literary church built on faith." To Nobile, a dogged researcher who has examined Haley's papers at the University of Tennessee and is writing a literary biography of Haley, it is a question of simple fraud -- by Haley, by his editors at the time and by Doubleday for publishing and continuing to publish the book. Nobile claims that "most of the book is plagiarized.... Virtually everything was taken from somewhere else," that "the epilogue contains lies about its preparation" that Haley was "semi-literate" and that most of his works (including the Playboy interviews and The Autobiography of Malcolm X) "have been written or mostly rewritten by others."
"If they [Doubleday] didn't know before," says Nobile, "they knew after publication, and the book has never been withdrawn. Its resonance in the culture is an artifact of hype." Indeed, Nobile noted that black historians like John Henrik Clare and Henry Louis Gates "do not defend Roots" and points out that despite the book's acclaim, it is often left out of important anthologies of African American literature.
John Hawkins, the agent who represents the Haley estate, told PW he was "not persuaded" by the film. "It didn't prove anything. I worked with Haley, and trust his honesty totally." Hawkins dismissed most of the charges as "biased" and "old stuff."
Applebaum points out that no one remains at Doubleday from the period of Roots's original publication. "Of course we don't allow plagiarism," he asserted, but he notes that legal challenges to Roots were "dealt with during Haley's life and have been satisfactorily resolved," though he added that Doubleday was unaware of many of the allegations about the book. "But we are interested in responsible investigations." Asked whether a change of classification or the addition of an explanatory foreword in future editions might put the controversies to rest, Applebaum said there are no plans to change its nonfiction classification, but that Doubleday would be willing to work with the Haley estate on that possibility. And Hawkins also told PW, that if there is reason to reclassify the book, the Haley estate "would consider it. But no one has come upwith a reason."
Back To News