Is Alex Haley’s Roots part of the fabric of American history — or a fabrication? New charges of fraud are being leveled at the late author just as the newest chapter in his family saga, CBS’ Queen, has become the season’s top-rated miniseries. In a recent Village Voice exposé, author Philip Nobile labels Roots a hoax — prompting Alex’s brother George to complain of ”a literary lynching” and the author’s former editor, Walter Anderson, to add, ”The dead can’t sue for libel.”
In Roots, Haley — who died on Feb. 10, 1992 — recounts how he pieced together his family’s arrival in America through a few African words passed from generation to generation. Historians have long charged that Haley distorted documents. ”There is no evidence that Kunta Kinte existed,” says genealogist Elizabeth Shown Mills. ”For everything prior to the Civil War, he wrote a story — a darn good story.”
With the opening of Haley’s papers at the University of Tennessee, Nobile claims to have found the ”smoking gun” — tapes and transcripts proving Haley’s discovery of ”Kunta Kinte” was a lie. Among the complaints against the celebrated author:
*In Roots: Haley locates his ancestor Kunta Kinte via a Gambian griot (oral historian). The charge: There were no griots left in that part of Gambia by the mid-1960s.
*In Roots: Kinte lands at Annapolis, Md., in 1767 and is given a new slave name, Toby. The charge: Plantation records directly contradict the genealogy of Roots and indicate that Toby wasn’t Kinte.
America’s love affair with Roots, the most revered miniseries of all time, allowed Haley to emerge unscathed when writer Harold Courlander sued him for plagiarism of his novel The African. (Haley paid him $650,000 in 1978.) Will Nobile’s smoking gun revive the historians’ case against Haley’s integrity? The Pulitzer Prize committee currently is considering Nobile’s brief to rescind Haley’s 1977 prize. The controversy may also cast a shadow on the book version of Queen, due from Morrow this May.
Haley’s brother Julius, who lived with their grandmother Queen, insists that Queen was accurate and defends Alex’s reliance on oral sources. ”You dig deep enough in anyone’s works and you end up with negatives,” says Julius. ”I can’t see this going much further.”
Philip Curtin, a Johns Hopkins historian who tried to advise the author in 1967, doubts history stands a chance of denting Haley’s Teflon halo. ”You can’t win,” says Curtin. ”You’re fighting TV.”