Sunday, November 1, 2009


Jack Cashill, fresh from his debunking of the idea that Barack Obama wrote Dreams From My Father, takes a few minutes on a quiet Sunday to remind us that Alex Haley's Roots also has elements of fakery (via Bookworm Room): Before Dreams There Was Roots
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.
I'll be honest; I read Roots when I was a kid (well, half of it; it's pretty boring), and assumed it was a work of fiction. Oh, I'm sure there was some stuff in the jacket flap about Haley's research; but Roots reads like one of James Michener's best-sellers from the era; a work that was obviously the product of a lot of research and referred to historic persons and events, yet was still a work of fiction. I'm surprised any one who read Roots could conclude otherwise. I don't even remember if it had an index.

Cashill's point is not that Roots was a hoax. His article is about other's research. Rather, his point is that works like Roots exist in a sort of cultural witness protection program. While America's founding documents get the full "Lies My Teacher Told Me" treatment, books like Roots benefit from a sort of delicate incuriosity, the same way the truth about Donovan McNabb's career - he is overrated - is known, but not discussed. The facts about Roots have been known for decades, and were covered in the Washington Post and Village Voice, yet we are stuck with the legend rather than the truth.

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