Alex Haley and 'Roots': The Lance Armstrong of Literature
During President Obama's inauguration today, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander (R) quoted Alex Haley, the author made world-famous for his Pulitzer Prize-winning literary sensation, "Roots." According to The Washington Post, Haley and Alexander were longtime friends. That's all well and good, but quoting Alex Haley at an important national occasion is not unlike quoting Lance Armstrong. Because what both men are most famous for is based on brazen fraud.
Haley not only lost a high-profile plagiarism suit against his work in "Roots, but any serious look into the Haley family's genealogy has found -- and I'm being generous -- that large portions of what was sold as non-fiction cannot be verified. Charges that "Roots" was largely a work of fiction sold as history have been around for decades now.
The man who sued Haley for plagiarism, author Harold Courlander, won in a rout:
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. …
After a five-week trial in federal district court, Courlander and Haley settled the case with a financial settlement 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." …
During the trial, Alex Haley had maintained that he had not read The African before writing Roots. Shortly after the trial, however, a minority studies teacher at Skidmore College, Joseph Bruchac, came forward and swore in an affidavit that he had discussed The African with Haley in 1970 or 1971 and had given his own personal copy of The African to Haley, events that took place a good number of years prior to the publication of Roots.
In a 2002 column, Stanley Crouch summed it up:
In the early 1980s, when Alex Haley, the author of "Roots," was speaking at Lincoln Center, investigative reporter Philip Nobile asked him a straightforward question. Since he had paid Harold Courlander $650,000 in a plagiarism suit, why shouldn't Haley be considered a criminal instead of a hero?
Haley had no answer. Well, what would you expect from someone who had pulled off one of the biggest con jobs in U.S. literary history?
Yet the "Roots" hoax has sustained itself. Every PBS station in America refused to show the 1997 BBC documentary inspired by Nobile's reporting on the book. And tonight NBC will air a retrospective on the 25th anniversary of the popular TV miniseries.
That same year -- the year the left-wing media was gushing over the 25th anniversary of the miniseries.
In 2009, The American Thinker revealed even more inconvenient truths surrounding "Roots;" truths that went into more detail about the historical lapses and the lengths the media went to to cover it all up:
The [Courlander] settlement got precious little media attention. Only the Washington Post gave the case any ink of note, and even then it used a local hook -- "Bethesda Author Settles 'Roots' Suit for $500,000" -- to justify its coverage. Like the other media who bothered to report on the settlement, the Post neglected to explore the real gist of the scandal: namely that the author of a "nonfiction" Pulitzer Prize-winning book plagiarized from a fictional one.
In the late 1970s, unaware of the plagiarism rap, two leading genealogists, Gary Mills and Elizabeth Shown Mills, decided to follow up on Haley's work through the relevant archives in Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland. They found that Haley's transgressions went well beyond mere mistakes. "We expected ineptitude, but not subterfuge," observed Elizabeth, herself the editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.
In fact, as the Millses discovered, the man that Haley identifies as Kunta Kinte, a slave by the name of Toby, could not have been Kunta Kinte or Haley's ancestor. Toby was in America as early as 1762, five years before his ship was alleged to arrive. Worse for Haley, Toby died eight years before his presumed daughter Kizzy was born.
In 1993, a year after Haley's death, writer Philip Nobile did his best to expose what he calls "one of the great literary hoaxes of modern times." In February of that year, he published "Uncovering Roots" in the influential alternative publication, The Village Voice. The article brought to a larger public the story of the Courlander suit and the Mills's genealogy work. Nobile also revealed that Haley's editor at Playboy magazine, the very white and Jewish Murray Fisher, did much of the book's writing.
Haley's unsuspecting archivists had given Nobile access to the various letters, diaries, drafts, notes, and audiotapes that Haley had kept. They were a veritable gold mine, theretofore unexplored. In working his way trough them, Nobile came to understand the depths of Haley's "elegant and complex make-it-up-as-you-go-along scam."
You can Bing "Alex Haley, hoax" for more. For example, Wikipedia's rundown is absolutely devastating. Many of Haley's explanations for inaccuracies discovered were later discovered to be untrue.
One thing you'll discover is that many of Haley's defenders are reduced to this:
When he was alive, he dodged calling "Roots" non-fiction or even historical fiction. He preferred made-up hybrid descriptions like "faction," much like Norman Mailer used "factoid" to describe his own colorful and Pulitzer-winning reporting of the political events of 1968.
It is not news to black scholars that Haley made mistakes. He, or perhaps lazy assistants, as Haley claimed, might have swiped passages from others, including less celebrated black scholars like Margaret Walker, who also sued Haley for allegedly plagiarizing passages from her Civil War novel "Jubilee."
But, a huckster? A "hoax"? A "fake"? A "con"? Those are Nobile's words. He's a good reporter, good at uncovering facts, but I think he missed the larger, more important truth. If "Roots" was a hoax, it was a hoax Americans wanted desperately to believe, which says something more important about Americans than anything Nobile says about Haley.
What prompted me to write this piece was a Tweet. After Sen. Alexander quoted Haley this morning, I tweeted out the fact that Haley's seminal work was a fraud. I was surprised by how many people tweeted back that they had never heard this. How is it that after a literary and television phenomenon is discovered to be a hoax the whole world doesn't know about it?
But I'm the one who shouldn't be surprised.
Naturally, Haley's a sacred, left-wing sacred cow and therefore among the Left's protected class. It's not unlike what we see with our current president: Facts, history and truth be damned.
If the media wants it to be true, then it's true.
P.S. Haley also coauthored "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," an all-time favorite of mine I've read at least a half-dozen times. As far as I know, there's (hopefully) no controversy around that, and I couldn't recommend it more or the brilliant Spike Lee film upon which it's based.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC
UPDATE: This post has been updated to remove a link to a 2002 "New York Post" story posted at an unacceptable site linked to in error. Two new sources have been added to the post.