THE CELEBRATED 'ROOTS' OF A LIE
January 16, 2002 -- ON Friday, NBC will air a special commemorating
the 25th anniversary of the landmark miniseries based on Alex Haley's
book "Roots." Ironically, the original series aired on ABC -
but officials at that network took a pass on broadcasting the tribute.
Unfortunately, the general public is largely unaware of how Haley's monumental family autobiography, stretching back to 18th-century Africa, has been discredited.
Indeed, a 1997 BBC documentary expose of Haley's work has been banned by U.S. television networks - especially PBS, which would normally welcome such a program.
Coincidentally, the "Roots" anniversary comes amid the growing
scandal over disclosures of historian Stephen Ambrose's multiple incidents
of plagiarism. Because as Haley himself was forced to acknowledge, a large
section of his book -
But plagiarism is the least of the problems in "Roots." And they would likely have remained largely unknown, had journalist Philip Nobile not undertaken a remarkable study of Haley's private papers shortly before they were auctioned off.
The result was featured in a devastating 1993 cover piece in the Village Voice. It confirmed - from Haley's own notes - earlier claims that the alleged history of the book was a near-total invention.
"Virtually every genealogical claim in Haley's story was false,"
Nobile has written. None of Haley's early writing contains any reference
to his mythic ancestor, "the African" named Kunta Kinte. Indeed,
Haley's later notes give his family name
And a long-suppressed tape of the famous session in which Haley "
found" Kunta Kinte through the recitation of an African "griot"
proves that, as BBC producer James Kent noted, "the villagers [were]
threatened by members of Haley's party.
Haley, added Kent, "specifically asks for a story that will fit
Historical experts who checked Haley's genealogical research discovered
that, as one put it, "Haley got everything wrong in his pre-Civil
War lineage and none of his
Given this damning evidence, you'd think Haley's halo would long ago have vanished. But - given this week's TV tribute - he remains a literary icon. Publicly, at least.
The judge who presided over Haley's plagiarism case admitted that "I did not want to destroy him" and so allowed him to settle quietly - even though, he acknowledged, Haley had repeatedly perjured himself in court.
The Pulitzer Prize board has refused to reconsider Haley's prize, awarded
in 1977 - in what former Columbia President William McGill, then a board
member, has acknowledged was an example of "inverse racism"
by a bunch of white liberals
Yet the uniqueness of "Roots" is that it was presented as factual history, albeit with fictional embellishments. Haley himself stressed that the details came from his family's oral history and had been corroborated by outside documents.
But Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard, a Haley friend, concedes
that it's time to "speak candidly," adding that "most of
us feel it's highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village from
whence his ancestors came.