Monday, December 05, 2005

Alex Haley and Roots

Several months ago, I posted an item on this blog mentioning that for my English Composition project, I was going to do a research paper on Alex Haley’s blockbuster book, Roots. I chose this project because author Jack Cashill, in his latest book, Hoodwinked, stated that Roots was a hoax and that it wasn’t the “true story” of Alex Haley’s family as has been widely portrayed in the media.

The point of my paper was to determine, at least in my mind, if Roots was a true story or was, as Cashill states, a hoax.

I’ve come to the conclusion that Cashill was right – Roots is a fraud, and a big-time one at that. In Roots, Haley claims that he is a direct descendent of Kunta Kinte (aka Toby), a slave brought to America in 1767, and says he was able to trace Kinte’s (and his) lineage back to a village in western Africa. But research shows that much of what he writes is either stolen, embellished or just factually wrong. To wit:

Haley committed plagiarism, a Federal crime for which he had to pony up a half-million dollars in an out-of-court settlement to one of the authors he plagiarized, Mr. Harold Courlander. At the trial, Courlander was able to demonstrate how dozens of passages from his book, The African, found their way into Roots. As an aside, Courlander is a white author – the irony is rich indeed.

Haley claimed that his alleged “direct ancestor”, Kunta Kinte, came to America in 1767 aboard the Lord Lignonier, a British slaver. Yet a check of the records available show slave ownership records for this same Toby as far back as 1762, five full years before he allegedly was brought to America. These same records also shred much of the oral history he claims was carefully preserved by his family.

Finally, Haley claimed that Kunta Kinte came from a village in The Gambia, a country in western Africa. In Roots, Haley writes about the tremendous emotion caused within him by his meeting with a griot, a village elder charged with keeping oral records of the local goings-on. This same griot “identifies” which village Kunta Kinte came from. But research shows that this meeting was a setup, controlled and primed by government “minders” who made sure that Haley “discovered” exactly what he wanted to discover and no more.

In short, little of Roots has any historical value as a non-fiction work. As a novel, it’s not bad, but I didn’t find it as riveting as its reputation would have you believe. Yet the legend of Roots lives on. As I conclude in my paper, it’s a little like the legend of George Washington and the cherry tree; apocryphal, but few seem to care.

I’m not the first person to “uncover” this hoax. In addition to the writings of Jack Cashill, other writers and columnists, among them Philip Nobile, Mark Ottaway and Stanley Crouch, have also written about this fraud. Even Wikipedia mentions the plagiarism, though they stay away from the historical errors. In addition, the BBC produced a documentary about this subject, a documentary that has never been aired in the United States. After a lot of sleuthing, I was able to acquire a copy of this program and its transcript and it is a fascinating look at this subject.

I turned in the Final Draft of this term paper today. While much of what I wrote about was previously covered ground, I do think I was first in offering a reasonable explanation as to why Haley did what he did and why he probably saw nothing wrong with it. If anyone is interested in reading it, you can access it here. Note that you’ll need Microsoft Word (97 or later) to open it.

This was the first academic research project I have ever done, and it probably shows. I have no idea what grade I’ll get on it, but I’ll let you know when I find out. There’s an art and skill to doing this type of work that I frankly hadn’t appreciated before. Doing research in the business world, in order to accomplish a specific task, is one thing. I’ve done a lot of that and was pretty successful at it. But doing academic research to gather facts and then writing up the results to prove a point one way or the other is quite different. As I match up my work with the previously mentioned ones by Cashill, Ottaway and Nobile, I can see I have a long way to go. But I found the process fascinating and absorbing and am looking forward to doing more of it.

I’ve also learned a new respect for Librarians. If you can get them interested in your project, they can be of immense help. I’ve also had the value of eBay reconfirmed for me. There is a lot of Alex Haley “memorabilia” available on eBay and I purchased much of it. This included a copy of the Roots DVD set, a 1977 Playboy magazine with an Interview of Alex Haley, a 1977 Ebony magazine with their interview of Haley, an LP containing a speech by Alex Haley (and then I had to find a record player to play it on) a PAL-capable VHS player so that I could play my copy of the BBC program about this subject, etc. There is no doubt about it, eBay rocks...

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