On August 17, 1976, 12 years after he began writing it, “Roots” was published for the first time in the United States. It was the ideal read for the country’s bicentennial year. Even though the author foresaw its enormous success, he had no idea he’d become such a household name. For the Book Review, James Baldwin wrote a glowing review of “Roots.”
As he put it, “Alex Haley’s taking us back through time to the village of his ancestors is an act of faith and courage,” but “this book is also an act of love, and it is this that makes it haunting.” In less than a year, it sold 15 million copies on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list.
Both the National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prize board gave “Roots” special citations in 1977. After reading it at Hamilton, I found it to be far more engrossing than I anticipated.
Having acknowledged from the beginning that their best-selling book was actually inspired by a true story would have saved them a lot of headaches. To describe what he had attempted, Haley coined the term “faction,” a combination of “fact” and “fiction.” Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and Norman Mailer’s “The Armies of Night” are two of the best-known examples of the “nonfiction novel” genre at the time (1968).
In spite of their sleight of hand, both books had a veneer of truth to them. On the other hand, “Roots” was an excellent yarn. While 130 million other people tuned in to watch the miniseries, I was proud that I had once known the show’s creator.
After that, the backlash began. Accuracy of Haley’s research on his enslaved American ancestors was questioned by scholars who had spent their careers studying Africa and American slavery (one historian called the author’s methods “a virtual scenario for how not to conduct fieldwork in an oral society”)
The Sunday Times of London ran a 5,000-word expose on Haley’s book, which was picked up by The New York Times shortly before he was awarded the special Pulitzer citation in April 1977. Mr. Haley’s conclusion that he had actually traced his genealogy back to Kunta Kinte in the village of Juffure appeared to have no factual basis,” the New York Times reported.
It captured the attention of the country and reaffirmed the historical importance of nuclear families in Black American life at a time when they were under attack (including for a purported epidemic of “absent fathers”). However, its success was tarnished by its mistakes.
The first case was dismissed, and the second was settled out of court for $650,000 (or $2.7 million in today’s dollars), both by Haley. Legal proceedings were debilitating and humiliating.
After Haley’s death from a heart attack at the age of 70 in 1992, the criticisms persisted. “Roots” was removed from college reading lists and syllabuses. That it wasn’t included in “The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature” was perhaps the most damning indictment. Malcolm X is present, but Alex Haley is absent.
She was a non-scholar, that’s for sure. He wasn’t a genealogist, so he couldn’t help you. In fact, he was not even a novelist. He was a seasoned reporter who was always on the lookout for an interesting story to cover.
As far as he was concerned, he couldn’t find anything better than his own family history. He had a gift for telling stories that had audiences spellbound. It was not “Roots” that was the Black “Gone With the Wind.”
Millions across the United States were moved by this one of a kind piece of art. Even though his methods may have been questionable, his goals were not. It was he who taught me how to conduct an in-depth interview and how to conduct “saturation research” in public archives and obscure locations like libraries.
Haley may not have been a historian, but he did contribute to the writing of history. This is a tragedy, because he was engulfed by the success of “Roots.” He never completed another major projectdeath .’s But did he really have to? As a result of the groundbreaking book and television series “Roots,” a new generation of Americans have been inspired to examine their own personal narratives, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable they may be.
This author’s work includes the annotated versions of The Wizard of Oz and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as well as A Christmas Carol annotated by Michael Patrick Hearn. “The Annotated Edgar Allan Poe” is his current project.