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Alex Haley Taught America About Race — and a Young Man How to Write

“Roots” was finally published on Aug. 17, 1976, 12 years after he began it. In that American bicentennial year, it was the right book at the right time. The author knew it would be big, but even he was unprepared for its immense popularity and his burgeoning, bewildering celebrity. Appropriately, James Baldwin reviewed “Roots” for the Book Review. “Alex Haley’s taking us back through time to the village of his ancestors is an act of faith and courage,” he observed, “but this book is also an act of love, and it is this which makes it haunting.” It ranked at the top of the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list for 22 weeks, selling 15 million copies in less than a year.

In 1977, “Roots” won special citations from both the National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prize board. It had evolved beyond the story its author described at Hamilton, and it was far more engrossing than I expected. Haley and Doubleday might have saved themselves a lot of trouble had they acknowledged from the first that their big best seller was based on a true story. Haley used the word “faction,” a portmanteau of “fact” and “fiction,” to describe what he had tried to do. The concept echoed the term for a then popular genre, the “nonfiction novel,” the most famous examples being Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” (1966) and Norman Mailer’s “The Armies of the Night” (1968). While those authors toyed with facts, both books retained the veneer of truth. By contrast, “Roots” was a great yarn. When the mini-series aired, I watched it as diligently as the 130 million other viewers, proud that I had once known its creator.

Then came the backlash. Scholars who had spent their careers studying Africa and American slavery questioned the reliability of Haley’s Gambian sources (one historian pronounced the author’s methods “a virtual scenario for how not to conduct fieldwork in an oral society”) and the accuracy of his research on his enslaved American ancestors. Shortly before Haley was awarded the special Pulitzer citation in April 1977, his book was the subject of a 5,000-word exposé in The Sunday Times of London that was picked up by The New York Times. “There appeared to be no factual bases,” the New York paper reported, “for Mr. Haley’s conclusion that he had actually traced his genealogy back to Kunta Kinte in the village of Juffure.”

“Roots” captured the country’s imagination and reinforced the historical importance of the nuclear family in Black American life at a time when it was under attack (including for a supposed epidemic of “absent fathers”). Yet its accomplishment was marred by its errors. Two writers accused Haley of plagiarism; one case was dismissed, and he settled the other out of court for $650,000 (or $2.7 million today). The lawsuits were debilitating and humiliating.

The criticisms persisted after Haley died from a heart attack at 70 in 1992. “Roots” disappeared from college syllabuses and fell off recommended reading lists. Perhaps the severest condemnation was its absence from “The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature.” Malcolm X is there but not Alex Haley.

Yes, Haley was not a scholar. He was not a genealogist. He was not even a novelist. What he was was a professional journalist always on the lookout for a good story. And he never found a better one than that of his own family history. He was a superb storyteller. “Roots” was not the Black “Gone With the Wind.” It was a unique work of art that touched millions of Americans. If his methods were flawed, his intentions were not. He showed me how to conduct an in-depth interview and do “saturation research” in public archives and obscure places.

Haley was not a historian, but he made history. The tragedy is that the success of “Roots” intimidated and finally engulfed him. He never finished another major work. But did he have to? “Roots,” the book and the TV series, changed the conversation about race in America, inspiring generations of readers and viewers to look at their own stories, no matter where they might lead or how painful they might be.

Michael Patrick Hearn’s books include “The Annotated Wizard of Oz,” “The Annotated Huckleberry Finn” and “The Annotated Christmas Carol.” He is currently completing “The Annotated Edgar Allan Poe.”

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