'More than a decade later, most people remain totally unaware of the troubling issues behind "Roots" — or simply don't want to hear that this still-acclaimed work was essentially a fake.
That view is shared even by such noted African-American historians as Harvard's Henry Louis Gates, a Haley friend who conceded that it's time to "speak candidly" and admit that "it's highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village from whence his ancestors sprang," adding that it was not "strict historical scholarship." The late John Henrik Clarke, dean of Afrocentrist scholars, said he "cried real tears when I realized that Haley was less than authentic."
Genealogists, eager to retrace the historical steps Haley claimed he took in his 12-year search for his family heritage, discovered this early on: Documents didn't match any information Haley cited; the dates were all wrong and so was the supposed slave lineage. Elizabeth Shown Mills, editor of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, went so far as to denounce Haley's "subterfuge."
And the first half of the book — Kunta Kinte's life in Africa — was blatantly plagiarized from an earlier novel by anthropologist Harold Courlander, who sued Haley, accepting a $650,000 settlement after the court's expert witness concluded that the copying in the book and the movie was "clear and irrefutable . . . significant and extensive."
That deal was made after the judge hearing the case, alarmed not only by the extent of the copying but also by Haley's repeated perjury in court, pressed the sides to settle, then sealed the official file from public view. The judge later admitted (in a BBC documentary that has never run on American TV) that he "didn't want to destroy" Haley and his reputation.
Perhaps the most damning exposé of Haley's historical hoax came in a devastating 1993 Village Voice cover piece by Philip Nobile, who'd had access to Haley's personal papers before they were broken up and auctioned off. There he found compelling evidence that the non-plagiarized section of the book had been primarily written not by Haley but by his longtime editor at Playboy magazine, Murray Fisher.
Moreover, the BBC located a tape of the famous session in Gambia with the griot, or oral historian, who supposedly made the link between Haley's slave forebears and their African ancestor, Kunta Kinte. It showed the griot's story being repeatedly corrected by Gambian officials and Haley himself specifically asking for a tale that fit his predetermined narrative.'