Alex Haley taught America about race – and a young man how to write

“Roots” was finally published on August 17, 1976, 12 years after he started it. In that American bicentennial, it was the right book at the right time. The author knew it was going to be big, but even he wasn’t prepared for its immense popularity and its burgeoning, mind-boggling celebrity. Fittingly, James Baldwin rated “Roots” for the book review. “Alex Haley’s journey back through time to his ancestors’ village is an act of faith and courage,” he noted, “but this book is also an act of love, and that’s what makes it haunting.” It topped the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for 22 weeks, selling 15 million copies in less than a year.

In 1977, “Roots” won special citations from both the National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prize board. It was more evolved than the story the author described in Hamilton, and it was much more engaging than I expected. Haley and Doubleday might have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they’d recognized from the start that their big-time bestseller was based on a true story. Haley used the word “faction,” a portmanteau of “fact” and “fiction,” to describe what he had tried to do. The concept echoed the term for a then-popular genre, the “non-fiction novel,” the most famous examples being Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” (1966) and Norman Mailer’s “The Armies of the Night” (1968). While those authors played with facts, both books kept the veneer of truth. In contrast, “Roots” was a great yarn. When the miniseries aired, I watched it as diligently as the other 130 million viewers, proud to have ever known its creator.

Then came the backlash. Scholars who had spent their careers studying Africa and American slavery questioned the reliability of Haley’s Gambian sources (one historian called the author’s methods “a virtual scenario for how not to conduct fieldwork in an oral society”) and the accuracy of his research into his enslaved American ancestors. Shortly before Haley received the special Pulitzer citation in April 1977, his book was the subject of a 5,000-word lecture in The Sunday Times of London, which was picked up by The New York Times. “There appeared to be no factual basis,” reported the New York newspaper, “for Mr. Haley’s conclusion that he had actually traced his genealogy to Kunta Kinte in the village of Juffure.”

“Roots” captured the nation’s imagination, reinforcing the nuclear family’s historic importance in black American life at a time when it was under attack (including for an alleged epidemic of “absent fathers”). Still, his performance was marred by his mistakes. Two writers accused Haley of plagiarism; one case was dismissed, and he settled the other out of court for $650,000 (or $2.7 million today). The lawsuits were grueling and humiliating.

The criticism continued after Haley died of a heart attack in 1992 at age 70. “Roots” disappeared from college curricula and fell off the recommended reading lists. Perhaps the harshest condemnation was its absence in “The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature.” Malcolm X is there, but not Alex Haley.

Yes, Haley was not a scholar. He was not a genealogist. He wasn’t even a novelist. What he was was a professional journalist always looking for a good story. And he never found a better one than his own family history. He was a great storyteller. “Roots” was not the black “Gone With the Wind”. It was a unique work of art that touched millions of Americans. If his methods were flawed, his intentions were not. He showed me how to conduct an in-depth interview and ‘saturation research’ in public archives and in obscure places.

Haley wasn’t a historian, but he made history. The tragedy is that the success of “Roots” intimidated and eventually engulfed him. He never completed any other important work. But did he have to? “Roots,” the book and TV series, changed the conversation about race in America, inspiring generations of readers and viewers to look at their own stories, no matter where they lead or how painful they may be.

Michael Patrick Hearn’s books include “The Annotated Wizard of Oz,” “The Annotated Huckleberry Finn,” and “The Annotated Christmas Carol.” He is currently completing “The Annotated Edgar Allan Poe.”

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