Alex Haley: How “Roots” Seeded a Historical Racial Myth

“I was just trying to give my people a MYTH to live by” (Alex Haley, author of “Roots”).

On February 23, 1993—29 years ago today–an investigative journalist broke a story that Haley’s best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning Roots: The Saga of An American Family was a “hoax.” Haley, this journalist claimed, had “invented 200 years of family history.”

Alex had no reply. He had, after all, died a year earlier.

And while few, at the time, liked this journalist’s verdict (or timing), the evidence was indisputable.

To this day no one questions the facts. Haley, by his admission, plagiarized a 1967 work (eventually settling out of court with the author for $650,000). In 1998 the esteemed black historian and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. confessed: “Roots is a work of the imagination rather than strict historical scholarship.”

I was 13 years old when the “Roots” miniseries was televised.

With my family and 130 million other Americans, I watched every night for a week as prominent actors and actresses portrayed the lineage of Haley’s family. I learned about Kunta Kinte and Chicken George. There was even a sequel. Alex’s story was believable. It played like a “true story” biography. I was moved, saddened, angry, and interested in learning more about the black slave story.

But Haley proved to be no historian. Nor was he a trained journalist.

Alex converted to journalism in the Coast Guard. He was a natural, gifted writer. He later wrote for Playboy and was a senior editor for Reader’s Digest, but that’s where his writing credentials end. Perhaps that’s why his epic story ultimately became a novel work of historical “faction.” After the book’s 1976 release, to raving reviews and multi-million sales, the facts no longer mattered. Haley was honored, celebrated, rich and famous. He died basically unscathed by his fabricated work.

Consequently, the 1993 media panned, ignored, or excused this stunning revelation of a “hoax.”

The bigger story was Rodney King and how four L.A. police officers were acquitted (leading to riots that killed 63, injured 2,383 and caused over a billion dollars in property damage). That was the racial story of 1992 and 1993.

Let’s be honest, history education is a mess…and many Americans are ignorant of our own past.

The Chicago Tribune’s headline reaction to the Haley fabrications was revealing: “Facts Can Be Doubted, But Not [Haley’s] Truths.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if a prolific author got the facts wrong if the story is true. It’s hard to imagine Walter Cronkite or Edwin R. Murrow making that statement. But, since the 1970s, journalism had evolved, shifting from reporting the facts to spinning a story. The facts are secondary if the story is believable.

After the hard investigative journalism that produced Watergate, America was hungry for “feel good” news. Good Morning America human interest stories sold (and told) better than 60 Minutes. In the early 1980s network news got an anchor face lift. Tom Brokaw. Dan Rather. Peter Jennings. Throw in CNN cable news and, suddenly, a ratings war broke out. By the 1990s, it was all about being first to the air, even if the facts weren’t always clear.

The year 1993 was a notable year for fabricated stories.

After all, that’s the same year Michael Crichton published Jurassic Park, a tale about lab-designed dinosaurs that included a completely fictitious new species known as a “velociraptor.” Before Crichton’s science fiction novel, this line of dinosaurs did not exist in the fossil record. But it didn’t take long to start finding “raptor” dinosaurs in those same rocks after publication. Crichton’s story spun speculative dinosaur science into a new dinosaur species…then revised history (and the fossil record) to spin a new dino narrative.

And that’s the problem. History is messy because the facts don’t always fit. But facts are true by nature. Essentially, if the facts are wrong, they aren’t facts. And making up facts doesn’t equate to a truth. Truth emerges through conclusions within a body of known (true) facts. Similarly, falsehood (a lie) is the sum total of a body of errors. You can’t have truth with false facts.

In reality, Alex Haley’s fabricated family history produced unintended consequences for America’s racial divide.

It’s doubtful that Haley fully imagined these results, but here we are living them in 2022. “Roots” was pitched as a historical biography of one black American family, but ultimately it represented black America period. As Haley suggested, a new, believable “myth” was introduced. It’s a myth that even white people can swallow.

Haley’s epic book and movie “rooted” our current national racial conversations for decades. Alex planted the seed for Rodney King and O.J. Simpson (who starred in “Roots”). He nurtured “black rage” and anti-white attitudes now common in the black community. Haley set the stage for Michael “Hands Up” Brown and George “I Can’t Breathe” Floyd. Essentially, the low-hanging fruit of “Roots” is the Black Lives Matter movement.

After all, the historical nuances of black history (since 1975) are easily traced through the stories in Haley’s book. From the angry, captive Kunta Kinte to the violated, enslaved Kizzy to the flamboyant, caged Chicken George, we see their faces. We witness these caricatures in contemporary black reality television shows, films and rap/hip hop music. It’s heard in the heated rhetoric of black politicians, pro athletes and cable news commentators.  We witness them in the Black suburbs, sports and schools.

During February 2022, the Smithsonian Channel aired a documentary series on “A Thousand Years of Slavery.” It’s another beautifully filmed docu-series that’s superficially salted with “myth-information” for how rich White Europeans are uniquely to blame (and shame) for slavery. Every episode spun a story that propagated a “black versus white” historical racist narrative. In one episode a conflicted and angry black actor confronted the white relative who’s distant relative enslaved his distant black great, great, great grandfather. The white man professed sadness in the matter, but felt no shame. How could he be held responsible for something his relative did over 200 years ago? Naturally that didn’t appease this black actor.

But is this racial narrative accurate? Was racism the reason Blacks were enslaved by White Europeans?  

First, slavery has been around since the dawn of time. Over 40 million people are currently enslaved globally, including Africa, India and the Philippines. One of the earliest accounts of slavery is located in the Bible. It’s the story of Moses, when Black Egyptians enslaved Israelites. Nearly every nation, at one time, has employed slavery. So why does Black history focus only upon the last 500 years? To be fair, it shouldn’t.

Second, slavery wasn’t just a white institution in America. Most Americans never owned slaves. Even at its highest point in 1790, three out of four American families did not own a single slave. By 1860, this number dropped dramatically to ten percent. American Indians also had slaves. Cherokees. Seminoles. Chicasaws. Choctaws. Creeks. Many early slaves to America–particularly Virginia–weren’t African nor black…they were European white. In the early 1600s, the British viewed American soil as a “slavery” dumping ground for orphans, vagabonds and criminals. Many slaves were initially indentured servants who accepted bondage for passage to America, and most were freed after their agreed service was complete (“free blacks”).

Third, it’s been mostly rich, White Europeans who’ve eradicated global slavery. In America, it was white Northern Christians (Quakers, Baptists, Congregationalists) who fought for decades to abolish the evil of slavery. Nearly all of the greatest abolitionists were white men and several were women (i.e., John Brown, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe). Why does black history overlook, even ignore, these white personalities? To be equitable, it shouldn’t.

Finally, many American (South) slave owners and traders were black. Ever hear of William Ellison or Antoine Dubuclet, Jr.? Two of the South’s richest black plantation owners (and Ellison arguably among the meanest). In 1924, Carter G. Woodson penned a most inconvenient book titled Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830. It documented hundreds of black slave owners. Woodson was himself black and the editor of The Journal of Negro History. It’s inconvenient history that runs counter to the narrative. How come we don’t study black slave owners owning slaves? To be fair, we should. Furthermore, will black heirs of black slave owners also be responsible for reparations? They should be.

Every February Americans are asked to reflect on black history.

As Americans, we should gratefully accept that invitation to learn. There are dozens of early historical documents (pre-1930) that give an accurate picture of slavery, abolition and Reconstruction, including slave narratives, abolitionist writings and influential black biographies. We should know and appreciate the early black influencers like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington.

And yet, for those who study true black History, the popular narrative will continue to prove troubling.

Yes, the story is compelling and interesting, but the historical facts don’t support it. It’s a MYTH. And it’s Alex Haley’s old “myth” that still percolates. Just like he fabricated his historical story (to inspire “his people”), many black historians, authors, professors, musicians, activists, news commentators, and film makers (all of whom are black) now peddle their own narrative of “white shame and blame.” Slavery is evil. White people owned slaves. White people are evil. And yet, when facts run counter to this narrative, these contradictory stories are buried and history is revised.

The real facts no longer seem to matter. Too many Americans see what they want to see, and most are ignorant of the truth. The larger, inconvenient story is dismissed. But that still doesn’t change the facts…or the truth. Facts do matter. Truth is truth. A myth–no matter how appealing–remains a falsehood. It’s why America is so terribly divided down color “fault” lines. We will never experience racial reconciliation as long as we live in separate historical echo chambers with pointing fingers.

We must do better.

There are always more than one side to a story…and the TRUTH is out there. Beware of the sound of one hand clapping.

+++++++++++

SOURCES:

  1. “Alex Haley” (Wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alex_Haley
  2. “Alex Haley’s Hoax” by Philip Nobile, The Village Voice, 2/23/1993.
  3. “Alex Haley’s Facts Can Be Doubted, But Not His Truths” by Clarence Page, The Chicago Tribune, 3/9/1993: https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1993-03-10-9303190620-story.html
  4. “One Thousand Years of Slavery” (Smithsonian Channel): https://www.smithsonianchannel.com/shows/one-thousand-years-of-slavery
  5. “Blacks Owning Blacks: the William Ellison Story”: https://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/6699
  6. “Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830” by Carter G. Woodson (Washington D.C., 1924). Available as a Google Book download.
  7. D’Souza, Dinesh. The End of Racism. (New York: Free Press, 1993): 69-79.

Leave a Comment