Kunta Kinte now joins USS Enterprise Capt. James Tiberius Kirk and Sherlock Holmes in the growing worldwide popular-culture club of the 21st-century reboot. I was shocked to learn that Roots is being remade and will be broadcast Memorial Day on three different networks: History, Lifetime and A&E.
A Roots redux astounds me, because the original Roots television miniseries, a loose adaptation of a loose adaptation of African and African-American history, was a seminal event, not so much made by Hollywood filmmakers but sprouted out from the collective American soil and nourished by the rain of enslaved African blood. Roots, the story of one family’s journey from chattel slavery to a segregated freedom, stirred and revealed the collective unconsciousness of a people. Ogun and Shango even created a major snowstorm to force the East Coast inside all week to watch it on ABC when it dominated nightly prime time in January 1977.
The book’s author, a black freelance writer for Playboy and Reader’s Digest and retired U.S. Coast Guard public relations representative named Alex Haley, had created quite a follow-up from his previous, and first, book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley. He claimed that, almost miraculously, he had found a way to follow his ancestry all the way back to Africa, reattaching the cords of family and heritage that the whites who worked the African slave trade had purposely and comprehensively cut. Roots documents the journey of Haley’s family from West Africa to Tennessee. Haley’s two books became the most important ones in late-20th-century black American homes, other than the Bible and the Quran.
I was 9 years old when Roots premiered on ABC, and I remember shuddering with rage when the enslaved African Muslim Kunta Kinte—played by the then-unknown actor LeVar Burton, not yet engineering starships or reading books aloud—was whipped into his American and Christian name, Toby Waller. To know that was true! That it really happened!
Decades later, I returned to another part of the story in the 1990s as a struggling adult freelancer. I memorized Haley’s professional life as he told it in his collected Playboy magazine interviews, and began watching the last episode of Roots: The Next Generations, the successor miniseries, over and over again.
In that episode, Haley, played powerfully by James Earl Jones, discovers and follows a historical and genealogical trail that leads not only to his lost African surname Kinte and his Mandinka heritage but also to his exact ancestral village in the Gambia! If he can be a successful freelance magazine and book writer, I fantasized, so can I. A little candle of faith flickered inside me, because the episode showed that Haley had trusted in himself and his mission. His massive success proved the power of belief.
So I felt real pain when I found out that Haley was, in the words of the Village Voice, a liar and a fraud. Philip Nobile’s 1993 exposé of Haley, published one year after his death at the age of 70, revealed that he had made up most of the story, with the compliance of white, liberal publishers and a Gambian government hopeful for tourist dollars.
A recent book, Alex Haley: And the Books That Changed a Nation, by Robert J. Norrell—billed by its publisher as the first full biography of Haley—is trying, through scholarship, to rescue his modern reputation. Norrell wants Haley to be seen not as the phony of Nobile’s reporting, or the crass Republican opportunist portrayed by Manning Marable in his controversial biography of Malcolm X, but as a sincere black man dedicated to documenting black history. Haley’s riveting and ultimately triumphant speeches to audiences in the late 1960s and early 1970s about his roots, according to Norrell, served as a perfect white, liberal alternative to the angry black power movement.
The biography’s bottom line: Alex Haley was a black writer who loved a good story and wanted to make money from writing one. After writing Malcolm’s autobiography, he penned a historical novel that, unfortunately, was published, marketed and defended as nonfiction. He and Doubleday decided that if major magazine journalists and authors such as Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and other white writers of the time could get away with mixing facts and lies in their nonfiction because of their works’ literary value, then Haley could, too.
Doubleday accepted what biographer Norrell called “a liberal definition of historical truth,” and the resulting book shook the literary world’s white marble floor. When detractors pulled out historical microscopes, the team doubled down. “The more doubtful his critics were,” writes Norrell, “the more adamant Haley became that Roots was factual.” The winner of a special Pulitzer Prize strove for peace while fighting mostly unfair plagiarism lawsuits and angry ex-wives.
Norrell, who gives Haley the benefit of the doubt when he feels it’s deserved (and he often does), argues that Haley was a victim of fame and fortune, a black storyteller perched on a pedestal too high to ignore in the wake of Roots’ ginormous success. However, the author argues, it’s easy to just dismiss him now, with his phony-plagiarism narrative fixed in time: “It was easier to ignore Haley than sort out the details of his alleged wrongs,” Norrell contends. So Norrell does what biographers do: He takes the time to sort.
Haley’s “faction” (his made-up word for the fact-fiction Roots combo) became black America’s equivalent of the writings of Joseph Campbell, the expert in European myth who influenced Star Wars filmmaker George Lucas. The black American adult imagination was set afire in 1977, not with the idea of using the Force to shoot down the Death Star, but with seeing themselves as Africans, and seeing African people as a powerful, dignified force in American history. Black not only was beautiful, but thanks to Haley, it now also had a beautiful continent and a proud, strong, noble people attached to that color. Thanks to network television as part of essentially a five-channel universe, that beauty reached into and held the minds of millions of American viewers and readers.
The Roots author was a well-meaning hustler who created a myth that black people desperately needed, the nation having recently celebrated its bicentennial in 1976, the 200th anniversary of the founding of what James Baldwin called “these yet to be United States.” The fable that Haley constructed about his black/African past carried such symbolic resonance that 20 years later, another writer, Barack Obama, would structurally borrow from it in his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.
That book climaxes in much the same way as the book Roots, with the sobbing writer connecting to his family and home. Of course, Obama’s story has the added value of actually being true and accurate (as he told it), instead of the collective, symbolically true tale Haley told. Obama documented a complex portrait of his father, a real Kenyan who had often failed in life, while Haley was free to create his great-great-great-grandfather as some kind of Gambian hero who bravely resisted capture in his homeland and slavery in the New World.
Until Henry Louis Gates Jr. began to pull out his DNA kit for PBS, we had all, in all the ways that matter, subconsciously wished that we were descended from the fictional Kinte. And, symbolically, we will wish so again on Memorial Day.
Haley is from our analog era, when desegregated black America was still young and too many still saw Africa through the lens of 1970s television reruns of those old 1930s and 1940s Tarzan films starring Johnny Weissmuller. We are grown and digital and well-traveled and worldwide viewers and communicators now, seeing and knowing the complexity of Africa and Africans for ourselves.
But, like Haley, we still search for what is missing, merging fact and myth in our psyches, looking inside and outside for our personal truths—our best, most powerful versions of ourselves. (It’s why I have to admit here that I regularly watched that Roots episode about the massively successful freelancer Haley well after I had learned and accepted the reality of what he had done, and subsequently bought a copy of the book that I recall was labeled as fiction. Some truths are more powerful than facts, even those in journalism and history.) The power of taking on that search, and what is learned as a result, is why we (should) continue to honor our ancestors Haley and Kinte.
Todd Steven Burroughs, an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J., is the author of Son-Shine on Cracked Sidewalks, an audiobook on Amiri Baraka and Ras Baraka through the eyes of the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign. He is the co-editor, along with Jared Ball, of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X and the co-author, with Herb Boyd, of Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today.