Those of you who’ve seen the award winning T-V miniseries Roots will recall it follows the life and the descendants of Kunte Kinte. Adapted from the groundbreaking Alex Haley novel it begins with Kinte’s birth in a small village in Gambia, Africa in 1750. The story develops as the 15-year old Kinte is ordained a Mandinka warrior. Shortly after, while searching for wood near his village to make a drum for his brother, he is captured by slave traders. Ruthlessly snatched from his family and home, never to see either again, Kinte is put on a slave ship and brought to America. After his arrival at Annapolis, Maryland his name is changed by his slave owner to Toby. The proud Kunte resists the change and is beaten until he submits to his slave name, but never forgets.
During Kunte’s/Toby’s lifetime and the generations that follow, we are told an amazing story of family, hardship, suffering, struggle for identity, and ultimate triumphs. The story spans nearly 120 years of family history and ends with the memorable character Chicken George, his son Tom Harvey and granddaughter Cynthia.
When the series was originally aired, over eight consecutive nights in January 1977, it reached an audience of 140-million people. On its final night 71% of all television viewers were watching Roots. It would win nine Emmy Awards as well as a Golden Globe. The series revived interest in genealogical history among both blacks and whites. Roots ends with the narrative voice of Alex Haley who, with a montage of family photos, connects Tom Harvey’s daughter Cynthia, the great-great-granddaughter of Kunta Kinte, to Haley himself.
Alex Haley won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel and became the best-selling African-American author in history. Over the ensuing years other books and television projects would earn him millions. Later a U.S. Coast Guard cutter would be named after him. His life-sized image is memorialized as a sculpture near the Annapolis city dock where Kunte Kinte was said to have been sold into slavery. Another 13-foot, two-ton bronze statue of the author, located at Alex Haley Square a Knoxville, Tennessee park is thought to be the largest statue of an African-American in the U.S.
Claiming to have researched his heritage for ten-years, and visiting Kunte Kinte’s boyhood village, before writing Roots, Haley referred to his book as faction explaining he had discovered his family’s genealogy, but had ‘woven’ imaginary content – what the characters said – and other information from history around his family ‘facts’ to create a realistic narrative story. The truth is that in-fact Alex Haley’s story “(was) a work of the imagination rather than strict historical scholarship.” Alex Haley, it seems, had perpetrated a hoax on the public that many even today are not aware of.
Five weeks into a 1978 copyright infringement law suit, Haley paid a $650,000 out of court settlement following allegations of copying 81 passages, from the novel The African by author Harold Courlander. A pre-trial memorandum said; “Haley had access to and substantially copied from The African” and without that book, “Roots would have been a very different and less successful novel.” The memorandum went on to say, “indeed it is doubtful that Mr. Haley could have written Roots without The African.” Haley’s alleged plagiarism included “copied language, thoughts, attitudes, incidents, situations, plot and character.” Another expert witness during the trial wrote, “The evidence of copying from The African in both the novel and the television dramatization of Roots is clear and irrefutable. The copying is significant and extensive.”
Genealogists and historians who later examined Haley’s research concluded his ancestral claims were false. In several instances it was discovered some of his characters, who did actually live, could not have possibly been related to Haley as he wove his story. In addition, on closer examination, there is no evidence that Kunte Kinte, the man who won the hearts and imaginations of millions, ever even existed.