I’d heard that a fair amount of Alex Haley’s Pulitzer-prize winning “Roots” was fictitious, but I didn’t know that a considerable amount of the book was plagiarized, or that the entire thing is about as historically legitimate as “Star Wars”.
Unfortunately, the general public is largely unaware of how Haley’s monumental family autobiography, stretching back to 18th-century Africa, has been discredited. Indeed, a 1997 BBC documentary expose of Haley’s work has been banned by U.S. television networks – especially PBS, which would normally welcome such a program.
Coincidentally, the “Roots” anniversary comes amid the growing scandal over disclosures of historian Stephen Ambrose’s multiple incidents of plagiarism. Because as Haley himself was forced to acknowledge, a large section of his book – including the plot, main character and scores of whole passages – was lifted from “The African,” a 1967 novel by white author Hal Courlander.
But plagiarism is the least of the problems in “Roots.” And they would likely have remained largely unknown, had journalist Philip Nobile not undertaken a remarkable study of Haley’s private papers shortly before they were auctioned off.
The result was featured in a devastating 1993 cover piece in the Village Voice. It confirmed – from Haley’s own notes – earlier claims that the alleged history of the book was a near-total invention…. Historical experts who checked Haley’s genealogical research discovered that, as one put it, “Haley got everything wrong in his pre-Civil War lineage and none of his plantation ancestors existed; 182 pages have no basis in fact.”
Given this damning evidence, you’d think Haley’s halo would long ago have vanished. But – given this week’s TV tribute – he remains a literary icon. Publicly, at least. The judge who presided over Haley’s plagiarism case admitted that “I did not want to destroy him” and so allowed him to settle quietly – even though, he acknowledged, Haley had repeatedly perjured himself in court.
The Pulitzer Prize board has refused to reconsider Haley’s prize, awarded in 1977 – in what former Columbia President William McGill, then a board member, has acknowledged was an example of “inverse racism” by a bunch of white liberals “embarrassed by our makeup.”
To paraphrase Rush Limbaugh, the left-wing literary establishment is desirous of the perceived success of black authors. The science fiction community is literally decades behind in handing out affirmative action awards to inept and derivative authors of diversity.