At the inauguration just past, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee shoehorned a quote by Alex Haley into his introduction of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
“The late Alex Haley, the author of ‘Roots,’ lived his life by these six words: ‘Find the good and praise it,'” said Alexander. “Today we praise the American tradition of transferring or reaffirming immense power as we inaugurate the president of the United States.”
Like so many patronizing gestures by establishment Republicans to minority communities, Alexander’s forced non-sequitur rang hollow. Haley was the last person he should have been holding up as a role model on Inauguration Day.
Haley did not find the good in America, just the opposite. Despite the easy-going tone of “Roots,” a mega 1976 best-seller that is still being read and watched by unsuspecting schoolchildren, Haley quietly laid out an indictment against the United States that was always loaded and often gratuitous.
In Haley’s tale, white men entered the forest to enslave blacks. In real life, this almost never happened. Europeans found it much easier and healthier to let Arab slave traders or rival tribesmen handle that part of the job.
Haley had his young protagonist, Kunta Kinte, conveniently knocked unconscious when captured, and he remained so until shipboard. Through this plot trick, Haley prevented the reader from seeing any African, Portuguese or Hispanic involvement in the slave markets or slave trade. In “Roots,” slavery was an all-American affair.
Although scholars estimate that no more than 20 percent of Africans transported to America were Muslims, Kinte just happened to be one. Not surprisingly, he found little good in Christianity, a faith he saw as cold and hypocritical.
Nor did Kinte find much good in the American Revolution. Wrote Haley, “‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ Kunta liked that, but he couldn’t understand how somebody white could say it; white folks looked pretty free to him.”
Fraud was the means Haley used to indulge his bias, and this he did in an extraordinarily reckless fashion. Unfortunately for Haley, at least one person in the cultural establishment was not about to give him a pass because of race or agenda.
The respected cultural anthropologist Harold Courlander was shocked to read “Roots.” Large chunks of it had been lifted word for word from his 1967 novel “The African.” Courlander, who himself was white, had earned $14,000 dollars for his efforts. Haley made $2.6 million in hardcover royalties alone.
In 1978, Courlander sued Haley in a U.S. District Court for copyright infringement. Midway through the trial, the judge counseled Haley and his attorneys that he would have to contemplate a perjury charge unless they settled with Courlander. They did just that to the tune of $650,000, or more than $2 million by 2013 standards.
The 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. Haley was never asked to give the Pulitzer back.
In the late 1970s, 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 Mills discovered, the man that Haley identified as Kunta Kinte, a slave by the name of Toby, could not have been Kunta Kinte or Haley’s ancestor.
Toby had been 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 left-leaning publication, The Village Voice.
The article told the story of the Courlander suit and the Mills’ genealogy. Nobile also revealed that Haley’s editor at Playboy magazine, the very white Murray Fisher, did much of the book’s writing.
Apparently, when Haley first conceived a family research project in 1964, he had no plans to find an African ancestor. That thought did not occur to him until much later when he met an exchange student from Gambia.
The student’s African contacts arranged for Haley to meet a “griot,” who had been coached in advance to say what Haley wanted to hear. “It was sort of like Piltdown Man,” says Nobile. “Haley would plant the evidence and then find it.”
What was heard on the tape raised further questions about Haley’s motives. Through a translator, the imperfectly coached griot told Haley that Portuguese soldiers helped capture Kinte and send him “back home to the Portuguese.”
To preserve the purity of his story, to remind his audience just who really was responsible for those “atrocities,” Haley scrubbed the Portuguese out of the picture and directed the audience’s animosity toward America.
In truth, the notion that an oral historian could have recalled the life of an ordinary young boy 200 years prior surpassed the preposterous. “There was no Kunta Kinte,” says Nobile bluntly. But as he soon learned, the media would refuse to share any of this with the larger public.
Let’s see: a concocted biography about a child with African roots and an anti-American bias written by someone other than the named author and shielded by the media. Hmmm … maybe there was a reason to quote Haley at the Inauguration after all.