The Prize that Taints the Pulitzer's Ethics and Honor

Historians/History
tags: Pulitzer Prize, Roots, Alex Haley



Philip Nobile is an investigative reporter who has written for several national publications. He lives in Scarsdale, NY.


In the 101-year history of the Pulitzer Prize only one award has ever been returned and/or revoked. On April 15, 1981, two days after conferring the 1980 feature writing prize on Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke, the Board received a telegram from the paper's executive editor Ben Bradlee stating that Cooke had declined the award and resigned: ''She told Post editors early this morning that her story—about an 8-year-old heroin addict—was in fact a composite, that the quotes attributed to a child were fabricated and that certain events described as eyewitnessed did not in fact happen.'' The members of the 1981 Board were polled by telephone and the award was officially withdrawn.

The 1977 Board faced a similar situation with another prizewinner who was likewise accused of making up people who never existed and events that never occurred in his bestselling book. This time the Board did not withdraw the award, nor would successive Boards when the same writer was tarred with mounting evidence of plagiarism and fraud in the same book. "Nobody wanted his ass," cracked Bradlee, a member of the perennially segregated Board. He was speaking of Alex Haley and Roots, a giant hoax whose untarnished Pulitzer standing continues to sully the ethics and honor of the organization.

On April 18, 1977 Haley's monumental 1976 bestseller was lionized with a Special Award. The citation read: “For Roots, the story of a black family from its origins in Africa through seven generations to the present day in America.”

The Board's announcement came eight days after a front page New York Times story, following up on a London Sunday Times exposé, debunked Haley's historic African genealogy: 

In a copyrighted article by Mark Ottaway, the [Sunday Times] said that investigations in Africa and examinations of British colonial records and Lloyd's shipping documents indicated that Mr. Haley had been mistaken or misled in his African research.


There appeared to be no factual bases, the article said, for Mr. Haley's conclusion that he had actually traced his genealogy back to Kunta Kinte in the village of Juffure, Gambia, and that Kunta Kinte had been captured by slavers in 1767. The account of Kunta Kinte, it said, was “provided by a man of notorious unreliability who knew in advance what Haley wanted to hear and who subsequently gave a totally different version of the tale.” 


The 1977 Board ignored the Sunday Times’s devastating refutation of Haley's African fieldwork.

On December 14, 1978, Haley admitted plagiarizing The African, a slave novel by prolific folklorist Harold Courlander, in Roots and paid $650,000 (worth $2,580,000 today) to make the copyright infringement case go away on the eve of the judge's decision. A page one New York Times story reported: 

Alex Haley settled a lawsuit yesterday by acknowledging that his world renowned book “Roots” contained some material from a relatively unknown novel about slavery that was published nine years earlier.


The settlement ended the six week trial of a suit by Harold Courlander, a 70 year old author from Bethesda, Md., who contended there were substantial similarities between “Roots” and his own earlier novel, “The African.” He sued in Federal District Court in Manhattan for more than half the profits of “Roots.”


As the trial was about to reach a climax with summations by the opposing lawyers, they issued the following statement: “The suit has been amicably settled out of court. Alex Haley acknowledges and regrets that various materials from ‘The African’ by Harold Courlander found their way into his book ‘Roots.’


The 1979 the Board took no action on Haley's massive piracy. 

On February 23, 1993, a year after Haley's death, the Village Voice published my 9000-word analysis of Haley's private papers and tapes bequeathed to the University of Tennessee (Knoxville). From these materials emerged the picture of an irredeemable literary scoundrel who polluted black history and genealogy with an avalanche of lies in Roots: “All of Haley's ripping yarns about his search for Kunta Kinte and his ten year struggle to write Roots were part of an elegant and complex make-it-up-as-you-go-along scam.” One stunning example: a reel-to-reel tape on file at UT revealed that Roots's climactic, sacramental, tear soaked scene with an imposter Gambian griot (oral historian) who confirmed the existence of Haley's 18th century slave ancestor Kunta Kinte was a charade: “[The griot] recited no lineage of the Kinte clan as worshipfully portrayed in Roots. Instead Haley fed him a few prearranged questions, and the griot replied with answers massaged by Haley's Gambian government associates. As long as he lived, Haley apparently never let anyone hear the tape.”

This time around the 1993 Board dealt with Roots in its fashion. At my urging, Chairman Claude Sitton opened the door to a review of Haley's prize. He distributed the Voice piece to Board members and placed the matter on the annual meeting agenda. But no discussion ensued. Sitton's colleagues, including Harvard philosopher Sissela Bok, Des Moines Register editor Geneva Overholser, and New York Times columnist Russell Baker, unanimously declined to reconsider Roots's status.

*****

Thus on three occasions the Pulitzer Board willfully whiffed on the authenticity of Roots, despite the deprecations of prominent members. "If we blew the Haley Prize, as we apparently did, I feel bad," Columbia President William McGill, an ex officio member of the 1977 Board, admitted in the Voice. In a letter dated June 22, 1998, Baker mocked the Roots Board sideways by referring to "the Jonsonian comedy of so many vital citizens being so thoroughly hoaxed." 

The hardest hit on Haley's bona fides came from Harvard professor and 2006 Chair Henry Louis Gates. In his role as general editor of the canonical Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1996) Gates took the extraordinary step of denying an entry for the first black male Pulitzer winner! In effect, he annihilated Haley's legacy and delegitimized Roots's prize. “Let's speak candidly," he made plain in the Boston Globe. "Most of us feel it’s highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village from whence his ancestors sprang. Roots is a work of the imagination rather than strict historical scholarship." (Dec. 3, 1998) Some years later, as his PBS genealogy series "Finding Your Roots" took off, Gates slyly promoted Haley in public appearances though never daring in print. “You can say I had a severe case of Roots envy. I wanted to be like Alex Haley," he gushed on NPR in 2012. When asked recently and repeatedly about his convenient turnaround, he conveniently clammed up.

The original sin of the Pulitzer Prize organization is racism. From 1917 to 1979 the Board was segregated, which explains why black icons like Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Duke Ellington, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin et al. were ghosted. President McGill granted that the vestigial all-white 1977 Board was biased in Haley's favor. "We were embarrassed by our makeup," he said in the Voice. "We all labored under the delusion that sudden expressions of love could make up for historical mistakes.... Of course, that's inverse racism. But there was no way to deal with sensitivities like this." Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, a former Pulitzer winner and Board member, had a more positive slant. "People say there was some institutional guilt on the part of the Pulitzer Board regarding Haley's prize," he told the BBC2 in 1996. "I laughed because my personal feeling is I hope so." 

Nevertheless, as Harvard historian and 1952 Pulitzer winner Oscar Handlin observed of Roots, "A fraud's a fraud.... Most historians are cowardly about reviewing history books. The whole idea of being factual about material has gone out the window. Historians are reluctant —cowardly—about calling attention to factual errors when the general theme is in the right direction. That goes for foreign policy, for race and for this book. I think it's a disgrace.”

According to Baker, cowardice was not in play when the 1993 Board boycotted discussion of Roots. "We're not in the business of passing judgment on the dead," he said at the time. "We decided not to do anything. Turnover is such that I suppose people on the Board don't feel any responsibility to judge what past Boards did. We had this problem before with Walter Duranty. Somebody came up with documents and proposed that we strip him of his medal. At that time the Board decided there was no point in trying to revise history—both sides are stuck with it. This was essentially the mood of the Board on the Haley thing. I was with those who felt that once you start taking things back, there's no end. The history of the Board is not pure. Should we make an effort to amend the past. What's done is done. Speaking as a reporter, I don't have any trouble imagining why people were reluctant to rescind Haley's prize in the past. P.C. didn't exist then though the thought was in the air, but P.C. was not operating with the current Board. I thought the sentiment was more 'who are we?' " 

Asked if ethics spurs universities to revoke plagiarized Ph.D. theses and museums to remove counterfeit art, why should the Pulitzer Board  care any less for the integrity of their prizes? "We never went to the ethical question," said Baker "You're giving a lot of weight to honor." Baker barely amended his opinion in his 1998 letter. "A formal denunciation of Haley, perhaps? My position has always been that trying to rewrite our cultural history is a dishonest and self-serving act, which can only call attention to the superior quality of the people who do it. I notice with regret that the present board recently granted a posthumous prize to Duke Ellington, thus applauding itself for being less bigoted than the one that denied him the award when it mattered. This does not diminish the shame of the Ellington case."

Departing from Baker's apologia, the 2003 Board went to the ethical question and gave a lot of weight to honor regarding Duranty's 1932 Pulitzer. Duranty was the New York Times Moscow bureau chief between 1922 and 1936. He won for a series of thirteen articles on Stalin's Soviet Union—quoting only Stalin himself. But his later dispatches disavowing the savage Ukrainian famine ruined his reputation and eventually led to calls to repeal his prize. Herewith the Board's statement on the Duranty case that set a standard for revocation: 

After more than six months of study and deliberation, the Pulitzer Prize Board has decided it will not revoke the foreign reporting prize awarded in 1932 to Walter Duranty of The New York Times.


In recent months, much attention has been paid to Mr. Duranty's dispatches regarding the famine in the Soviet Union in 1932-1933, which have been criticized as gravely defective. However, a Pulitzer Prize for reporting is awarded not for the author's body of work or for the author's character but for the specific pieces entered in the competition. Therefore, the board focused its attention on the 13 articles that actually won the prize, articles written and published during 1931. 


In its review of the 13 articles, the Board determined that Mr. Duranty's 1931 work, measured by today's standards for foreign reporting, falls seriously short. In that regard, the Board's view is similar to that of The New York Times itself and of some scholars who have examined his 1931 reports. However, the board concluded that there was not clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception, the relevant standard in this case. Revoking a prize 71 years after it was awarded under different circumstances, when all principals are dead and unable to respond, would be a momentous step and therefore would have to rise to that threshold. [Emphasis added.]


To a moral certainty Haley crossed the Pulitzer threshold of deception. Clear and convincing evidence exists that he deliberately deceived the readers of Roots both in his fiction and non-fictionNor is there the slightest counter-evidence anywhere from Haley's family, editors, and associates, or from journalists, historians and genealogists, arguing that he was an honest writer. It seems the opposite is true. Even Michael Eric Dyson's beneficent introduction to the Da Capo Press paperback reprint acknowledged that parts of Roots had been "rigorously criticized and debunked." (2014) Nor could Haley's tender biographer Robert Norrell, in Alex Haley: And the Books That Changed a Nation (2015), escape his subject's manifold personal and professional derelictions. Rather than hold Haley strictly accountable for endless "just so" stories wrapped in pious allusions to dead relatives up there watching and guiding him, Norrell stooped to dangle the race card: "In some instances, the provocation to disparage him was simply racial prejudice.... In Haley's case, there was too little reflection about whether the allegations were as bad as some alleged, whether the punishment of wrongdoing fit the crime, or what, exactly, were the motives of the accuser."  

Haley's Deceptive Fiction

Haley burgled much more than The African in Roots. Under cross-examination he admitted copying from public domain works like Travels of Mungo Park (1816), The Story of Phyllis Wheatley (1834), the Slave Narratives compiled by the WPA's  Federal Writers Project (1938), and Carl Sandburg's Lincoln biography (1940). One afternoon in 1980, Osborn Elliott, then dean of the Columbia Journalism School and a member of the 1980 Board, appeared on a New York city radio show. Curious about the Board's recent whitewash of Haley's theft from The African, I called in to inquire whether Elliott would rescind the prize of any book proven plagiarized. "Of course," he replied. Asked why Haley retained his for Roots, "I wasn't on the Board at that time," he harrumphed, obviously embarrassed by the ambush.

One would suppose that stealing words is unforgivable in the Pulitzer domain. After all, a resistant Doris Kearns Goodwin, winner of the 1995 history prize, was forced to resign from the 2002 Board for borrowed plumes in her 1987 book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. Surely, Haley's heist was far greater and more notorious than Kearns's. Yet she was disgraced by the Pulitzer folks and he was not. Inverse racism again?

Exactly when Haley started down the road to piracy is unknown. The earliest verified instance appears in his Playboy interview, the magazine's first, with jazz trumpeter Miles Davis (September 1962). "We had agreed to an interview on tape, but Miles quickly became impatient with sitting, taping," Haley wrote in his discarded original introduction. "His responses grew monosyllabic, his voice rasping more harshly than usual. To achieve the desired relaxed free flow, the taping ended. With notebook in hand, I followed Miles around upstairs, downstairs as he pursued his restless home routine." In neat handwriting, Haley filled twenty or so pages on what he saw and heard that day in Davis's Manhattan apartment. Despite detail aplenty his jottings did not add up to a saleable product. "Interview: Get all you want at that one meeting. Won't be anymore," read one of his notes.

What to do? The same as he would in similar circumstances with Roots—fabricate and filch. "I didn't like that Alex dressed shit up," Davis complained in Miles: The Autobiography. Needing  more content to bulk up the Q & A, Haley tracked down previously printed quotes and weaved them into his manuscript. The heaviest lifting came from Marc Crawford's Ebony profile headlined, "Miles Davis: Evil Genius of Jazz" (January 1961):

Ebony: "I don't like to stress race because I have friends of all colors."


Playboy: I hate to talk about what I think of the mess because my friends are all colors.


Ebony: "People say, 'would you want your sister to marry a Negro?' That's jive even to ask the question."


Playboy: Prejudiced white people ask one another, "Would you want your sister to marry a Negro?" It's a jive question to ask in the first place ....


Ebony: "And Negroes who try to act the way they think other people want them to act bug me worse than Uncle Toms."


Playboy: It's plenty of Negroes I can't stand, too. Especially those that act like they think white people want them to. They bug me worse than Uncle Toms.


Is it possible that Haley posed the same questions as Crawford and got the similar answers? If so, where, when? The Playboy quotes above are not in his interview notes. Inexplicably, Haley did not dispose of the evidence of his stealth. He seems to have hoarded every incriminating scrap now preserved at Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Playboy purchased Haley's ten-subject interview archive at a posthumous auction of his papers and donated the collection to the center in 1993. Among the memorabilia in the Davis files are a photocopy of the Ebony article with two typed pages of eighteen quotes and a cache of a hundred or more unsourced, typed-up Davis remarks cut into snippets and organized under Haley's handwritten subject headings—e.g., race, Toms, critics, stereotypes, etc. His brick-by-brick pilfering made faking an interview easy.  

In 1985, Haley casually confessed to his annexation, as reported in Lawrence Grobel's book of author interviews, Endangered Species: "After five weeks I realized I had fascinating things about his night life, but I didn't have enough quotes from Miles. So I took a gamble: I wrote 3,000 words about the nightlife of the king of jazz, and then for the other 3,000 words I went through every quote I could find, made up questions to fit, and that was how the Playboy Interview took form." (Emphasis added.)

Method-wise, the Playboy interview previewed the making of Roots. Just as Haley padded his Q & A with Davis dicta from sundry sources, lumped them into categories, tinkered with their wording, and ultimately copied them without much disguise, so too with his novelbut on a far larger scale. Summing up the defendant's MO., federal Judge Robert C. Ward, who presided over Courlander v. Haley, stated from the bench: "Mr. Haley, as I see it, got hold of [The African] or substantial portions of it ... made a lot of notes on cards or pieces of paper, shoved them in different folders on subject matter, and then took the bits and pieces, and worked them in, plugged them into the different subjects he was addressing in his much longer book."

Precisely. In court, Haley was boxed in by his Himalayan research displayed in several cartons on the exhibit table. His own worst witness, he said that he wrote the opening African section with a jeweler's eye on his notebooks crammed with chips of typed or Xeroxed Africana extracted from myriad unnamed sources and stapled on the pages. But lest he appear over-dependent on his notes, he distanced himself at the same time. "I happen to be a professional writer. I have an imagination. I might write literally for weeks and never consult the notebooks because I had a picture in my head." As if!

This was not Haley at his most candid. Among his UT papers is a note dated July 27, 1972 revealing an umbilical attachment to his research. "Starting to draft copy from collective notebooks," he wrote while crossing the Atlantic on the Coast Guard ship Eagle. Despite this retrieval method (or plagiary enhancer) Haley testified that he could not remember whether he copied directly from his notebooks. Courlander's lawyer pressed him on this point and evoked the perjurer's privilege--a faulty memory: 

Q. And when you had them in front of you, did you ever, to the best of your recollection, copy something from a notebook into a first draft of a manuscript?  


A. As I have said, there is no rule. I don't recall that. I think probably the most likely thing would have been to type all this material for the purpose I have stated, simply to have an impression of it, then rewrite without reference to the notebooks. And it was later along, if I needed something specific, that I would come back to the notebook. 


Q. So what you say is you don't recall whether you did or you did not?


A. No, I don't.


And why would a plagiarist remember a thing like that?

The capper to copying The African is circumstantial. In April 1971, Haley sent his publisher Doubleday a first draft stinkeroo of 185 pages taking Kunta from birth to capture. His editor Lisa Drew was appalled by the Dick 'n Jane device of telling the story in the voice of little boy Kunta with words no longer than two syllables. Five years post deadline, Haley was in deep distress. But how could he quit now? In addition to Doubleday, he had a condensation deal with Reader's Digest, a paperback deal with Dell, and a movie deal with Columbia. Even his lucrative lecture tour depended on the ballyhoo over the forthcoming book. Up to his neck in spent advances and overextended in every direction, the muse-impaired author was desperate. 

But something happened in 1971 that would relieve Haley's predicament. After delivering his standard uplifting my-search-for-roots speech at Skidmore College that February, a young teacher named Joseph Bruchac approached him at the campus reception and told him about The African that he taught in his black literature class. Bruchac was so intrigued by the parallels that he heard from Haley and read in Courlander that he drove home to retrieve the book, returned to campus, and recited several passages to the receptive guest speaker. "Mr. Haley thanked me for giving him my copy of The African and said that he would find it very useful," he recalled in a post trial affidavit dated February 8, 1979. The novel's front cover blurb read: "An extraordinary novel of epic proportions exploring the transition from freedom to slavery—and focusing on the uprooted Africans trying to survive in alien surroundings." 

Two years later, Haley submitted an expanded 408-page version of the African section that just happened to hijack the exact theme, viewpoint, and main character of The African. Editor Drew testified that the redraft "was considerably more sophisticated. For instance, he had decided to use words of three or more syllables, which he had not used prior to that." 

Haley's Deceptive Nonfiction

What Haley did not steal in Roots, he manufactured. His Mandinka masquerade outlined in the final pages of Roots was the most creative con in his genealogical quest. Herewith his account of the miraculously serendipitous Mandinka language fragments allegedly preserved for 200 years in his family's oral history ...  and without which there was no Kunta Kinte, no mega-selling novel or record breaking miniseries, no zillion dollar royalties, no honorary degrees, and positively no Pulitzer Prize:

I had an unknown quotient of in those strange words or sounds passed on by the African. I got to thinking about them: 'Kin-tay" he had said was his name. "Ko" he called a guitar. "Kamby bolongo" he had called a river in Virginia. They were mostly sharp, angular sounds, with k predominating. These sounds probably had undergone some changes across the generations of being passed down, yet unquestionably they represented phonetic snatches of whatever was the specific tongue spoken by my African ancestor who was a family legend. My plane from London was circling to land at New York with me wondering: What specific African tongue was it? Was there any way in the world that maybe I could find out?


The sheer improbability of the k-sounds leading to the African location and tribal name of his slave ancestor raises the question where did Haley get this clever idea, if not from family history? Most likely Malcolm X was his source according to a passage in the epilogue to the Autobiography:

[Malcolm X] came back again and again to the books that he had studied when in prison. "Did you ever read The Loom of Language?" he asked me and I said I hadn't. "You should. "Philology—it's a tough science—all about how words can be recognized, no matter where you find them. Now you take 'Caesar,' it's Latin, in Latin it's pronounced like 'Kaiser,' with a hard C. But we anglicize it by pronouncing a soft C. The Russians say 'Czar and mean the same thing. Another Russian dialect says 'Tsar.' 


Of course, there is an infinitesimal chance that Malcolm X's and Haley's interest in linguistics was coincidental, but there is no chance that "Kin-tay" and "Kamby bolongo" originated with Kunta Kinte. My authority is the author himself. On January 30, 1965, five months after contracting Before This Anger, the book proposal that evolved into Roots, he informed his agent Paul Reynolds that he was shifting the concept from a memoir of growing up in a small segregated Tennessee town to his family's history harking back six generations to his African forebear. But the latter, whoever he was, did not call himself "Kin-tay" or anything else! "His name no one seems ever to have heard," Haley wrote to Reynolds, negating the family oral history conceit of Roots. (Alex Haley and the Books That Changed a Nation, p. 98.)

Another tip-off that the sensational k-sounds were later add-ons was "My Search for Roots," a 2,500-word article published in Tuesday Magazine, a supplement to the Milwaukee Sentinel, in 1965. Haley's opening read:

In the beginning there was, of course, the African who had been brought to this country in 1766 on a slave ship. The stories I heard during my young life all began with him. He wasn't really unique. He hated enslavement, he kept trying to run away, he always got caught, was brought back and beaten. But he never stopped trying to escape.


This was the beginning of the Family history I heard time after time from my grandparents when I was growing up in Henning, Tenn. (pop. 500). And the African was implanted in my mind like some primeval memory. [October 12, 1965.]


Once again, "the African" was anonymous—despite the memory implant.  

A year later, Haley was interviewed in Saturday Review with "Kin-tay" still offstage:

Let me tell you about Before This Anger. It's a biography of my family, a chronicle of how an American Negro family rooted itself in this country over a 200-year period. I can take us back to the beginning of us here. He was very likely a Mandingo from Gambia, and he was brought to South Carolina as a slave in 1766. I know this because the daughter of that first African was a fortunate enough to have been kept on the same plantation as her father until she was fourteen. She told the story of her father to her son, and a tradition of oral history was born into our family. 


I remember when I was fourteen, I was sitting in a window watching my grandmother baking biscuits. She said to me, 'Boy, sit down. You need to know where you came from. She talked for hours. I've been told our history over and over again through the years. Story telling was our family's television. We've been lucky enough to have a storyteller in each generation. I guess it's me now. [February 5, 1966]


A sure sign that Haley was still improvising was the assertion that his freshly arrived ancestor was sold to a plantation in South Carolina in 1766, whereas in Roots, Kunta Kinte landed in Annapolis in 1767 and was enslaved in Virginia.

*****

Owing to the settlement in Courlander, Judge Ward did not render a decision on the defendant's guilt or innocence. But during a subsequent interview with BBC2 he issued an opinion on Haley's Pulitzer: "He won an award under what I will now characterize as false pretenses. In academia, if someone were to have obtained a degree and it later came out that he had copied major portions of his thesis, the degree would likely be taken away. I don't know if there's a parallel with respect to the Pulitzer Prize, but I think a good argument could be made that given the circumstances, an award that was not properly earned could very well be taken away." The jurist's remarks remain unheard on this side of the Atlantic because our usual documentary outlets of the period—e.g. PBS, the History Channel and A&E Biographies—shied away from director James Kent's 1997 film, The Roots of Alex Haley, which was based on the Village Voice article.

The current Pulitzer Board is headed for the first time by two African Americans—Chair Eugene Robinson, Washington Post columnist, and Administrator Dana Canedy, formerly an editor of the New York Times, and both prize winners themselves. They need not spend months reevaluating the validity of Haley's award. If members are unswayed by Haley's half-hearted confession after Courlander they need only examine two expert pre-trial memos for the plaintiff; and scan an excerpt from On the Fringes of History (2005), a memoir by the late eminent African scholar Philip Curtin, whom Haley consulted on his language clues. 

The report of Columbia University English professor Michael Wood (13 pages): 

I have read, very carefully, Harold Courlander's novel The African and Alex Haley's novel Roots, as well as a transcript of the telecasts based on Haley's novel.... The evidence of copying from The African in both the novel and television dramatization of Roots is clear and irrefutable. The copying itself is significant and extensive.... 


Roots copies from the whole of The African, but the intensity of the copying is most evident in local instances. Between pp. 158 and 184 of Roots, for example, I count only four pages where I find no copying from The African. Conversely, between pp. 17 and 36 of The African, I count only four pages where nothing appears to have been taken for Roots.


The significance of Roots' utilization of The African is best summarized by a consideration of  the kind of material which is copied or adapted. As my examples have indicated, Roots takes from The African phrases, situations, ideas, aspects of style and plot. But more important still, Roots finds in The African essential elements for its depiction of such things as a slave's thoughts of escape, the psychology of an old slave. the habits and mind of the hero, and the whole sense of life on an infamous slave ship. Such things are the life of a novel; and when they appear in Roots, they are the life of someone else's novel.


The Report of Columbia University English Professor Robert Hanning (41 pages):

... The similarities between The African and Roots are substantial, and the material in Roots that shows these similarities is both qualitatively and quantitatively important to the language, plot, content, form, and overall impact of Haley's novel. Haley found in The African much of the material that gives Roots its form and content, and that contributes to its success as a book. Without the materials Haley copied from The AfricanRoots would have been a far different  and, in my opinion, a less effective novel. I believe the materials Haley copied from The African were crucial to the success that Roots has achieved....


Haley's copyings from The African for Roots include verbal copyings, nearly literal or as close paraphrases; the borrowing of the structure of Parts One and Two of The African for the structure of the first eighty-three chapters of Roots; the close modeling of the central character of the first 83 chapters of Roots, Kunta Kinte, on the character of Hwesuhunnu, protagonist of The African; and the appropriation or adaptation of many important and peripheral situations and episodes from The African which appear in Roots, either in the same sequence, or redistributed in a different order.  ...


The elements copied by Haley from The African are crucial to both novels. Kunta Kinte dominates Roots for 427 of its 688 pages, and his character and adventures are constantly dependent on those of Hwesuhunnu, the protagonist of The African. ...


Without the copyings from The AfricanRoots would not exist as a coherent narrative, nor would the Roots teleplay adapted from Haley's novel. 

It is unsurprising and undeniably damning that no experts testified on Haley's behalf!

Excerpt from On the Fringes of History:

Curtin met Haley initially on October 15, 1967 at the Madison, Wisconsin home of Jan Vansina, a fellow Africanist and Mandinka specialist at the University of Wisconsin. Pretending puzzlement, Haley interviewed the professors about the translations of  "Kin-tay" and "Kamby bolongo."  Unknown to them, he had already travelled twice to Gambia and with the connivance of government officials and a phony griot settled on an imaginary slave ancestor named Kunta of the Kinte clan. As Haley dissembled in Roots: "Since my forefather had said his name was 'Kin-tay', properly spelled 'Kinte', [the officials] said, and since the Kinte clan was old and well known in The Gambia, they promised to do what they could to find a griot who might be able to assist my search."

Obviously, he expected his marks to provide scholarly cover for his Gambian gambit. But they threw him a big curve—a different spelling for the sound "Kin-tay" and thus a different Mandinka clan ... news of which he naturally suppressed in the text of Roots.  Herewith Curtin's searing recollection:

In Madison 1970 [1967], Jan Vansina called me with some interesting news. He had with him a man named Alex Haley who was able to trace his ancestry back to Africa on the basis of oral tradition. Because I had done research on Gambian history, I was invited to come over to hear what Haley had to say. It was most interesting. The African ancestor had identified a wide river as Kamby Bolongo. Present day maps still show the Gambia River as Kamby Bolong, its name in Malinka [sic]. The African also passed down his surname Kante, which I identified as probably belonging to a cast of blacksmiths. ...


Haley was overjoyed with our identifications. He was especially complimentary that two men in Wisconsin should know so much about Africa. He insisted on using both our names to authenticate his account, both in Playboy articles that preceded Roots and in the novel itself, when it was finally published in 1976. Meanwhile I began to be suspicious ....


After talking with us, Haley went to Gambia [apparently Curtin was unaware of Haley's previous two trips]. Still later I asked him if he had been able to locate the Kante family. He explained that he had been mistaken at first, that his family name was actually Kinte, and that he located them in Juffure, a village on the banks of the Gambia. I hastened to explain that, in that case, his ancestor could not have belonged to the cast of blacksmiths. As it turned out, the Kinte family were commercial, which in eighteenth century Gambia would almost certainly have meant that they were involved in the slave trade. Haley, however continued to describe them as blacksmiths.... His account of  Kunta Kinte and his trip to America was an elaborate hoax.


"Haley got 'Kante' from me," Vansina said shortly before his death last year. "I specifically explained to Haley that the American sound 'Kin-tay' is pronounced 'KAN-tay' and spelled K-a-n-t-e in Mandinka. That's how he came to use 'Kante' with Curtin." Haley backed up the professors in three pages of never before seen and utterly self-incriminating typed and handwritten interview notes confirming that he faked the name of his fake African clan. (See below.) 

*****

"I think what Roots gave African Americans was a sense of their history as something other than a series of victim episodes," former NPR African correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault told the BBC2. "And it's like my own experience when I walked on the campus of the University of Georgia [in 1961] after 170 years of segregation and the first thing I hear is 'nigger go home.' Well, if I thought of myself as a victim, that could have been devastating. But I wasn't brought up that way. Roots was important in helping African Americans appreciate that they had come from a rich heritage and that they had nothing to hang their heads in shame about. All of a sudden in the aftermath of Roots every baby that was born either had an African name or was named in the naming ceremony that Haley described so beautifully where the father takes the child away and whispers his or her name into the ear so that he or she is the first person to hear the name. We did that with our son. For the first time we knew our ennobling traditions. So that if there were things that were not quite right or historically accurate [in Roots] the overall power and message was something I've never seen in my lifetime."

Hunter-Gault softly echoed Clarence Page's column lambasting the Village Voice reckoning under the headline "Alex Haley's Facts Can Be Doubted, But Not His Truths." "Nobile came late to Haley's lynching.... Yet, despite the chips, Haley's image survives like Teflon because of a larger truth: Whether Kunta Kinte existed or not, Haley's African ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower. Like other African-Americans, they are living evidence of a brutal institution whose legacy Americans are still trying to live down." 

Nevertheless, larger truths—even the holocaust of the Atlantic slave trade—ought not condone untruths ... or justify Pulitzer Prizes. 

Haley’s Interview Notes with Philip Curtin and Jan Vansina

Haley’s Typed Notes

Philip Curtin Notes

Jan Vansina Notes

I alighted upon these smoking case-closed documents at Haley's posthumous literary auction in Knoxville in September 1992.  Realizing their importance, I rushed to photocopy them before being told that duplication was not permitted. The two handwritten pages, penned in Haley's characteristic green ink, seemed too neat to be contemporaneous. Vansina told me that Haley taped the interviews and surmised that he distilled the recorded conversations on paper at a later date. The typed page catches Haley in flagrante, fuzzing the distinction between clan names, implying that Kinte was somehow a variant of Kante or Kanty, which is contradicted by the first generation handwritten notes where Kinte never appears. 

For example, at the top of Haley's typed page recapping his chat with Curtin, we read: "'KANTE' was a widely-used name used by blacksmiths in Old Mali and Senegal.... So the name Kante, Kinte does apparently come from old Mali." But the earlier handwritten note on Curtin's comments contains no mention of Kinte. Instead Haley wrote only: "Kante do come from Mali." 

Haley committed the same sleight of clan with Vansina further down the typed page that reads under the heading "KANTY": "The KENTE CLAN all descended from one original Kente. Originally it was one prosperous family. People who worked for them also took the Kanty or Kinte name. Then all descendants did likewise. Probably the original Kanty, Kinte chiefdom existed in old Mali, in north-eastern Senegambia about, 1300-1400." 

In the handwritten version of Vansina's remarks there was no mention of Kinte, just simply: "... People who worked for them took the name, Kanty. Then all descendants. Prob. orig. Kanty chiefdom existed in Mali n Eastern Gambia. 1300-1400."

Vansina had no explanation for the misspelling of Kante as Kanty. Still, Haley's scheming insertion of Kinte in his typed page showed that he misrepresented what he heard in Madison. I sent Vansina a copy of these documents as I was researching the Voice article. "It is evident that the K.K. story of Juffure is a hoax," he concluded in a reply letter (December 23, 1992).

Postscript

As a courtesy, I emailed Eugene Robinson and Dana Canedy a draft of this article on March 30 along with a list of questions. I followed up with phone calls to the Pulitzer office at Columbia on April 2, 4, 6. My courtesy has not been returned.

N.B.  –  In 1991, Boston University did not revoke Martin Luther King's 1955 Ph.D. after a committee of scholars found that he had copied major portions of his doctoral thesis, but in good faith "the committee did recommend that a letter stating its finding be placed with the official copy of Dr. King's dissertation in the university's library" (New York Times, Oct. 11, 1991). Without any similar action on Roots, the Pulitzer Board will persist in allowing its prestigious imprimatur to sell a perversion of black history—e.g., the sole blurb on the cover of Da Capo Press's reprint is "THE PULITZER PRIZE WINNER." 



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