Before Dreams, There Was Roots

"This is the first president that actually writes his own books since Teddy Roosevelt and arguably the first to write them really well since Lincoln," gushed Rocco Landesman, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Landesman was referring, of course, to Barack Obama, specifically for Obama's presumed role as author of the acclaimed 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father.

As evidence mounts that Obama did not exactly write Dreams unassisted, Landesman gives us a good indication of how America's cultural honchos will react. For a century, in fact, they have been heaping uncritical praise on undeserving artists of a certain political stripe, especially minority artists. And for a century, they have been pulling the curtain shut behind their pet wizards when anyone questions their wizardry.

There is no better case study of a literary cover-up than that surrounding the publishing phenomenon known as Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The book, first published in 1976, generated extraordinary reviews and spectacular sales. The mini-series based on the book captured more viewers than any series before it. 130 million Americans watched the final episode alone. And its author, Alex Haley, won a special Pulitzer Prize for telling the true story of a black family.

As Haley tells the story, he decides to trace his family's heritage to its African roots. All that he has to guide him are the tales his grandmother and great aunts have told him about "the farthest-back person" they could recall, "the African."

According to his relatives, the African's master had called him "Toby" after he first arrived by ship in "Naplis." Proud and defiant, Toby continued to call himself "Kin-tay." In time, Toby had a little girl named "Kizzy." Working from little more than this and the names of Kizzy's descendants, Haley finds his way back to an old-time "griot," who tells him the allegedly true story of his own ancestor, Kunta Kinte.

As the story goes, Kinte grows up in a peaceful, sheltering community along the Gambia River in West Africa. He is well-schooled in math, writing, and the Islamic faith. Admittedly, there is slavery in this part of the world, but slaves were "respected people," whose rights were secured by the laws of Kinte's ancestors. There is also war, but it is fought under Marquis-of-Queensbury-like rules. Only the "greed and treason" introduced by white slave traders keeps Kinte's land from realizing its potential as an African Eden.

At age seventeen, Kinte is snatched from his youthful idyll by the evil, club-bearing "toubobs," or white people. When he finally regains his senses four days later, Kinte finds himself chained in the stinking hold of an ocean-going vessel, manned by ugly toubobs, all of them seemingly British or American. After a hellish journey, he arrives in Annapolis, attempts to escape four times, and is subdued only after some poor white bounty hunters chop off half his foot. The year is 1767.

Despite the book's easy-going tone, Haley is quietly laying out an indictment against the United States that is always loaded and often gratuitous. In Haley's tale, it is the whites who enter the forest and enslave the blacks, not Arab slave traders, not other blacks. Since Kinte is unconscious through the period of transaction, the reader has no picture of African participation in the slave market, nor of any Portuguese or Hispanic involvement in the slave trade.

As a Muslim, Kinte does not sense any virtue in Christianity. Indeed, it strikes him as crude and hypocritical. Coming of age during the revolutionary period in Virginia, Kinte sees the revolution as inherently fraudulent: "'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 is the means Haley uses to indulge his bias, and this he does 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.

Approaching seventy when Roots debuted, Harold Courlander was shocked to read it. Courlander, who himself was white, was well-recognized in the field of cultural anthropology since 1947 when he coauthored The Cow-Tail Switch and Other West African Stories. In 1967, he wrote a more conventional novel titled The African. He earned $14,000 for it. Less than ten years later, Haley flagrantly rewrote large sections of his book and made $2.6 million in hardcover royalties alone. Courlander was not a happy camper.

In 1978, Courlander sued Haley in a U.S. District Court for copyright infringement. Throughout the six weeks of testimony, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Ward listened in disbelief to denial after denial by Haley. On one occasion, he noted that Haley used "Yoo-hooo-ah-hoo" as a slave field call with exactly the same spelling as Courlander had and wondered how that could have happened by chance. It couldn't, and it didn't.

Haley's defense fell apart when, during discovery, the plaintiff's lawyers found three quotes from The African among typed notes that he had neglected to destroy. The last thing Judge Ward wanted to do was to undermine a newly ascendant black hero. Midway through the trial, he 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 2009 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. 

In the late 1970s, unaware of the plagiarism rap, 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 Millses discovered, the man that Haley identifies as Kunta Kinte, a slave by the name of Toby, could not have been Kunta Kinte or Haley's ancestor. Toby was 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 alternative publication, The Village Voice. The article brought to a larger public the story of the Courlander suit and the Mills's genealogy work.  Nobile also revealed that Haley's editor at Playboy magazine, the very white and Jewish Murray Fisher, did much of the book's writing.

Haley's unsuspecting archivists had given Nobile access to the various letters, diaries, drafts, notes, and audiotapes that Haley had kept. They were a veritable gold mine, theretofore unexplored. In working his way trough them, Nobile came to understand the depths of Haley's "elegant and complex make-it-up-as-you-go-along scam." 

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 the Gambia. Together, they shared key phrases like "Kamby Bolongo" that Haley could pretend to trace.

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 is heard on the tape raises further questions about Haley's motives. Through a translator, the imperfectly coached griot tells 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 is responsible for those "atrocities," Haley scrubs the Portuguese out of the picture and directs the audience towards America.

In truth, even if the griot had known a Kunta Kinte, there was no way Haley could have written anything approaching a "history" about the first seventeen years of his life. The notion that an oral historian could recall the life of an ordinary young boy two hundred years prior surpasses the preposterous. "There was no Kunta Kinte," says Nobile bluntly.

Nobile and an African-American coauthor put a book proposal together on the subject, but as Nobile ruefully admits, "Nobody wanted to touch it." A Lexis search shows shockingly little follow-up by the media, major or minor.

The New York Times buried the issue in a page 18 "Book Notes" column. There, in discussing whether Haley's new book, Alex Haley's Queen, should be shelved under fiction or nonfiction, the Times had exactly this to say about the controversy: "Two weeks ago, the charges about the authenticity of Roots and the integrity of Mr. Haley were raised anew in an investigative article by Philip Nobile in The Village Voice. Members of the Haley family have rebutted the accusations." And that was that.

Not surprisingly, the Pulitzer people did not ask for their award back, and the book and video have remained a staple in history classes across America. Nobile blames Roots's seeming immunity on his progressive colleagues. "They were all too scared, or dishonest," he writes, "to admit to the public that the most famous black writer had lied about his ancestry."

Sound familiar?
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