Alex Haley: “Roots”

In January 1977 when I was sixteen, I joined 130 million Americans to watch the television miniseries based on Alex Haley’s book Roots: The Saga of an American Family. It was broadcast eight consecutive nights, and like countless other viewers, I was glued to the TV set every night. I was there, front row, center, for every episode. The concluding episode still ranks as having the third largest audience in television history. Who can forget Kunta Kinte, his daughter Kizzy, or her son Chicken George?

The story Haley recounted in Roots was nothing short of miraculous. After years of genealogical sleuthing, he made his way back to the African village of his ancestors. And there, in a tiny country known as The Gambia, a griot – part storyteller, part genealogist, part priest – told of the capture of Haley’s great-great-great-great-grandfather Kunta Kinte.

The story Haley told went like this. Based on the griot’s revelations about Kunta Kinte and on the many tales passed down through Haley’s family, based on careful searches of slave records and court documents, Haley painstakingly pieced together the centuries-long tale of multiple generations of his African and African American forebears. Haley writes near the end of the book,

To the best of my knowledge and of my effort, every lineage statement within Roots is from either my African or American families’ carefully preserved oral history, much of which I have been able conventionally to corroborate with documents. Those documents, along with the myriad textural details of what were contemporary indigenous lifestyles, cultural history, and such that give Roots flesh have come from years of intensive research in fifty-odd libraries, archives, and other repositories on three continents.

As it turns out, however, this amazing story is not actually true. Since the release of the book and the miniseries, a series of scholars just as painstakingly debunked Haley’s story. The Gambian griot may have told Haley wanted he wanted to hear, and the other links in Haley’s genealogical chain were suspect. The whole thing was much too neat, and Haley simply didn’t have the conclusive evidence to back it up.

When the book was originally published in 1976, it had been promoted as nonfiction and flew to the top of The New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction. Haley described it as “faction.” But on the heels of the charges about the book’s historical inaccuracies, the publisher moved the book to its fiction category. It is now often described as a novel.

Also dogging Haley were two charges that the book was plagiarized. Harold Courlander claimed that large portions of Roots were drawn from his book The African. Haley and Courlander settled out of court, and Haley acknowledged that he did use passages from The African in Roots. Margaret Walker’s lawsuit, which claimed that Haley had plagiarized from her book Jubilee, was less successful; no evidence of plagiarism was found, and the suit was dropped.

Despite these controversies, Roots remains a powerful book indeed. For me, as for many readers, it is the idea of Roots that matters. In the late 1990s, the National Endowment for the Humanities had a slogan: “My family’s history is America’s history.” In my own work and writing, I have deeply embraced that notion. I firmly believe that if any American traced her family history, she would see in very personal terms the history of this diverse nation. This idea motivated my explorations in my 2009 memoir, Power in the Blood: A Family Narrative, and is a driving force as well in my current book-in-progress, Ferguson Girl: A Story of Family, Place, and Race. Regardless

Haley’s family history is perhaps more compelling because it is a hidden, secret history, because slaveowners tore slave families apart and tried to deny them their lineage and history. Haley’s victory is in showing that the slaveowners ultimately weren’t able to stamp out family bonds.

Picking up Haley’s mantle today is the African American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who is fascinated with family roots and ancestry. As the host of the PBS series Finding Your Roots, Gates features genealogical research about well-known Americans, including prominent African Americans such as John Lewis, Cory Booker, and Sean Combs. Gates, who was a friend of Haley’s, acknowledges Haley’s legacy in this way:

Most of us feel it’s highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village whence his ancestors sprang. Roots is a work of the imagination rather than strict historical scholarship. It was an important event because it captured everyone’s imagination.

Gates speaks my mind. Even if Roots does not represent unerring and rigorous genealogy, it is the idea of Roots that signifies. Haley encouraged many other Americans – especially black Americans – to seek and claim their ancestry. It’s a message that continues to resonate today.

To get a taste of Roots, you can read Chapter 1 online. To read Roots, you’ll need to purchase a hard copy or borrow it from your library. Buckle your seatbelt, though: it’s a long book! If you want to watch the 1977 miniseries, you can purchase the seven-disc DVD box set.

To learn more about the controversies surrounding Roots, read The Guardian’s article “Roots of the Problem: The Controversial History of Alex Haley’s Book” or Adam D. Henig’s book Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey. Robert J. Norrell’s biography, Alex Haley: And the Books That Changed a Nation, looks at Haley’s larger legacy, including his writing of The Autobiography of Malcolm X (a book which he wrote in collaboration with the famed civil rights leader). To learn more from Alex Haley himself, you’ll want to read Alex Haley: The Man Who Traced America’s Roots: His Life, His Works.

“My family’s history is America’s history,” said the National Endowment for the Humanities. What is your family history? And what does it tell you about America’s past? Alex Haley inspires me to pursue the answers to these questions – and I hope you’ll take up the fascinating task as well.


Watch:Watch a scene from the first episode of Roots, in which Kunta Kinte discovers whites enslaving Africans. Then watch Alex Haley reflect on Roots in 1991.