Roots: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

For four days after Memorial Day, 2016, American viewers gave studied attention to a remake of Roots, the 1977 blockbuster film that captured our hearts and minds. Those born after the Roots phenomenon can hardly comprehend what those eight days of television history felt like. We were still reeling from the Watergate scandal (1974) and the end of the Vietnam War (1975), with mixed emotions about whether to celebrate the American Bicentennial (1976). We needed something to call our own. Watching the film became a family affair and the recovery of family history everybody’s business. Although scenes of racial violence on television are now commonplace, Roots placed this violence in the context of an American story bringing past and current social practices together. The author of the book on which the TV miniseries was based, Alex Haley, became our hero with his special gift, the ability to serve two masters well. He had found the perfect venue for feeding our souls, the lucrative entertainment genre, and succeeded in moving black history to the foreground of popular culture. The record of Roots’ viewers—100 million or more—has yet to be broken.

Haley reportedly signed 500 copies of the book daily, speaking to an average of 6,000 people at events. Numerous TV and radio talk shows brought public confessions of appreciation on the lecture circuit. If the novel was faction, the subsequent film, which was in production long before the book’s release, was edutainment. Such a worthy subject would make millions of dollars for all who were involved, Doubleday, ABC, and Haley himself, to name a few. To then National Urban League executive director Vernon Jordon,) Roots was “the single most spectacular educational experience in race relations in America.”

In fact, the creation and production of Roots as novel and film were so successful that the charges of plagiarism and other issues brought against Haley hardly registered in the public consciousness. And yet one by one, Haley’s challengers began to unravel the threads of a very different story on both sides of the Atlantic. British journalist Mark Ottaway questioned the authenticity of Haley’s research in The Sunday Times. Margaret Walker was the first and Harold Courlander the second to sue Haley for plagiarism. Walker identified 156 instances from her 1966 novel Jubilee, outlining them in her journals, in the transcript of her lawsuit, and in a later speech at Wayne State University. She lost her legal suit in a ruling by Judge Marvin Frankel. In the wake of Haley’s vehement denial, she was reviled, tried in the court of public opinion as nothing other than a hater.

Courlander fared much better. He claimed 30 instances of plagiarism from The African, his 1967 novel, some of which were upheld. An acknowledgement of Haley’s wrongdoing accompanied an out-of-court settlement for half a million dollars.

Murray Fisher, the young Playboy editor who had helped write Haley’s prose and worked without pay on Malcolm X, became another disgruntled party. In an article published in New West, Fisher indicated he’d left Playboy to devote full time to Roots, admitting to a close writing partnership over the years. Reportedly, Fisher wanted his long overdue payment—coauthorship of Roots—but was offered a settlement with a confidentiality clause. Fisher would have been the star witness for Walker’s case, but he refused to add fuel to the fire.

None of this mattered to the Pulitzer Prize selection committee, when Roots received the award in 1977, although most agreed that the book, while a compelling read, was poorly written. The lengthy backstory here is not a pretty one.

Fast forward to 1992, the year Haley died. Philip Nobile’s careful examination of Haley’s private papers resulted in the definitive conclusion that Roots had no basis in fact. Nobile detailed his findings in a 1993 cover story for the Village Voice.

In an effort to restore Haley’s credibility, Robert Norrell published Alex Haley: And the Books That Changed the Nation (2015). Peniel Joseph reviewed Norrell’s book for the New York Times, joining the choir with his hyperbolic comment “blacks were no longer a people without a history,” after Roots. As to Haley’s critics, they went too far, Norrell says.

In truth, they didn’t go far enough. Time and distance intervened, and the decision to produce a Roots remake was easy. It needed another well-orchestrated marketing plan. We were reminded well when New York Times Op-Ed contributor Matthew Delmont tried to give it relevance for contemporary audiences. His mildly critical “Why America Forgot About ‘Roots’” made its timely appearance a day before the broadcast of the four program segments.

Delmont elected to look at Roots’ decline in popularity, attributing it to being “out of step with how modern writers and artist approached slavery,” and the “explosion of progressive, black-centered television and culture” alongside the “gains of the civil rights revolution.” Fearing that too many of today’s viewers would take the series for granted, he did the requisite name calling by asserting that Roots became a template for a host of subsequent novels, citing Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage and Octavia Butler’s Kindred.

Delmont could have chosen to delve into the Roots matter in 2016, if only to remind us that heroes do fall from grace. He hesitates to provide full disclosure. Had he done so, we might have come to a deeper understanding of how intellectual dishonesty can claim free reign, how passion and genius can be a deadly combination. Michael Jackson and Prince have shown us that.

At the end of the day, the whitewashing of Haley gives him far too much credit. The massive cover-up is not exposed. We have little understanding of Haley’s intentional deception backed by powerful forces that promised and delivered his fame and fortune. Both came at the expense of ethical standards that Haley saw no reason to uphold.

Changing the view of American slavery during the second half of the twentieth 20th century began long before Alex Haley. Those who fought on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement, for black studies in the universities, or for advancing new views on black art and culture know that. More specifically, Roots followed Jubilee by a decade. Margaret Walker thoroughly documented her research and reconstructed her story from pieces of her family’s history. While her subjectivity could cloud her judgment with regard to Haley at times, one suspects it was both racial and gender politics—not to mention big money—that made her efforts seem foolhardy. With a golden anniversary edition of Jubilee forthcoming, we have an opportunity for real conversations about the good, the bad, and the ugly, making Roots and Alex Haley a critical teachable moment for a new generation.

Jubilee 50th Anniversary Edition, with a foreword
by Nikki Giovanni. Release date: 9/6/2016
Haley deceived America with his myth, and it’s time to give him the credit that he is due. He knew how to strike when the iron was hot. Had he been white and done the same thing, there would have been a public outcry. But he counted on the flip side of racism to protect him, and it did. Haley’s brilliance will not be forgotten. He mined his craft, but not the way we have been led to believe.

Maryemma Graham

June 6, 2016