‘Roots’… a beloved legacy, but is it?

Tonight comes the long-awaited reboot of a culturally significant story, Roots: The Saga of an American Family. A tale imbued in history, with memorable characters and enduring themes. A narrative said to have impacted millions of lives globally.  This story, first published as a novel in 1976, graced the nonfiction section of book shops and spent 22 weeks on the top of The New York Times Best Seller List.  In 1977, it garnered a special Pulitzer Prize, and later that same year, was adapted as a televised miniseries that reached 130 million households.

Even if this is the best miniseries that has been recreated, even if the stellar cast gives amazing performances, even if the crew has created an important story depicting culturally significant issues, even if it wins every award possible, even if this program becomes as beloved as the original, the fact remains unchanged that everyone involved in the production, or even in the watching of this creation, is supporting a lie.

And that lie is even so brazen as to have esteemed actor Laurence Fishburne play Alex Haley himself, depicting  a man who created and passed off a story alleged to be nonfiction, that wasn’t factual, nor his own.  Yes, Alex Haley (August 11, 1921 – February 10, 1992) was a proven and admitted plagiarist in regards to Roots.

Alex Haley did not write Roots on his own.  He did not claim to utilize a ghostwriter.  He didn’t accidentally hear or read something and think it was his own original idea. He is a literary thief, specifically from Harold Courtlander’s 1967 novel The African. One hundred eighty-two pages have been shown to have no basis in fact. Not only did he lift passage upon passage verbatim from another’s work, but he also invented storylines whenever convenient and promoted this work as being based on an oral history stemming from verifiable facts with some creative license added.

This juicy story may not read as something scandalous as a tale with inflated body counts, but it is a serious case of fraud and misrepresentation, which is widely unknown or just ignored. There is very little outrage.

The public at large seems ignorant of this, and due in part because most of the media are reluctant to mention the scandal at all.  Very few news outlets call-out these issues pertaining to Roots, and most of those who do relegate it to almost footnote status.

Let’s be clear: this is not an alleged crime, it has been proven in a court of law and admitted to by Haley himself.

One place that didn’t minimize this was The Village Voice.  They covered this event in a cover story in 1993, with information supplied by journalist Philip Nobile.  It confirmed - from Haley's own notes - earlier claims that the alleged history of the book was almost completely invention.

The effort to keep this story low-key is far more pronounced than making the truth known.

In 1997, a BBC documentary on the subject was unable to find a distributor, even on public television. The 25th anniversary Roots special made little or no mention of this information. There are some interesting clips available on YouTube. Yet, there is a new version of the miniseries beginning tonight on A&E.

Many organizations and academics have dismissed Roots as being a fraud, including sometimes-controversial professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard. He expressed his doubts about the representation of this book. The work of Alex Haley was notably excluded from the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature.

Another reason why these facts have not been generally accepted by the public is that the story is so beloved that the reader or audience simply may not want to believe the truth, or worse yet, they may know and don’t care.

Roots became an instant classic, and the story behind it spoke to a diverse audience about the importance of family lineage, as well as historical atrocities, that had not been shown in pop culture to a wide audience. Upon reading the book or seeing the miniseries, many people were drawn to looking into their own genealogy.  The book and subsequent TV products accomplished many great things.

Some may say, why drag out the past? What Haley did is irrelevant to the significance of the story itself. This is important.  This story is not shown as a work of fiction.  Even if presented as fiction, it still would have been great. And, it was Haley himself who perpetrated this fraud by discussing his research in depth in the back of the book.

Edward Kosner, noted in his piece "Myths That Changed America" as reported in The Wall Street Journal that Haley "could have avoided all the grief if he and his publishers had simply labeled the book [Roots] what it was—an historical novel valid in its essential narrative but informed by the imagination.”

That still doesn’t address the issue of Haley lifting full passages of text from The African, but it would have made things a little bit better had he been more honest from the start. While he was forced to pay $650,000 in restitution, after being found guilty, he weathered this scandal in the court of public opinion relatively unscathed.

Roots is a compelling story.  Haley himself, does have some literary achievements that have never been disputed.  In 1965, his collaboration piece The Autobiography of Malcolm X, was published. And his interviews with prominent figures such as Miles Davis, Marlon Brando and Johnny Carson for Playboy are still regarded as standard-bearers for what constitutes a great interview and are taught in some journalism programs.

If this story was regarded as a piece of pure historical fiction, and if all authors were given credit and any honors that came about from Roots, including the special Pulitzer Prize awarded in 1977 were stripped (the Pulitzer Prize board has refused to reconsider Haley's prize) then perhaps this would be less of a big deal. But still, none of those things have happened.  This is a story presented as fact, with a man’s name still attached who admitted to not writing all of it himself.

There are other stories worth telling.  There are family sagas that need telling.  There is history that should be exposed to the world. Why are we celebrating a fictitious tale, brought about by a dishonest person, which represents itself as being fact, when clearly, it is not?

Note:  Author has not seen the reboot of the miniseries, but in the teasers and about the actors and the production, it was revealed that Lawrence Fisburne is portraying Alex Haley.

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Michelle Tompkins

Michelle Tompkins is an award-winning media, PR and crisis communications professional with more than ten years experience with coverage in virtually every traditional and new media outlet. She is currently a communications and media strategist and writer, as well as the author of College Prowler: Guidebook for Columbia University. She served as the Media Relations Manager for the Girl Scouts of the USA where she managed all media and talking points, created social media strategy, trained executives and donors and served as the organization’s primary spokesperson, participating in daily interviews with local, regional, and national media outlets. She managed the media for the Let Me Know internet safety and Cyberbullying prevention campaign with Microsoft, as well as Girl Scouts’ centennial Year of the Girl To Get Her There celebration in 2012, which yielded more than 800 million earned media impressions. In addition to her extensive media experience, Michelle worked as a talent agent in Los Angeles, California, as well contracting as a digital content developer and her writing has appeared in newspapers and online. She is passionate about television, theater, classic movies, all things food and in-home entertaining. While she has lived and worked in NYC for more than a decade, she is from suburban Sacramento and gets back there often to watch the San Francisco Giants on TV with her family.