Ahhhh, its February, and you know what that means… That’s right, its time for the greatest television mini-series ever produced. ROOTS. I can’t wait! No seriously. Some people get excited every year to watch all those claymation Christmas movies, some live to see ol’ Linus be disappointed yet again at the non-appearance of The Great Pumpkin. But me, I dig ROOTS!
Well that was until I recently learned it was a an epic deception. I mean, don’t get me wrong. Slavery DID happen. And there were many thousands of Africans kidnapped and forcefully brought to America in servitude. And yes, thousands fought ferociously to retain their heritage and suffered as a result. But alas, none of them was my childhood hero, Kunta Kinte. The truth is, Alex Haley made the whole thing up and what he didn’t make up, he plagiarized from another novel named “The African” written by Harold Courlander (a white man :-|).
The ROOTS miniseries originally aired in 1977. I foggily remember watching nightly with my family. It was a special bonding moment. The t.v. mini series, broadcast over 7 nights, was an adaptation of Alex Haley’s groundbreaking novel. Roots was a case study in genealogy and oral tradition. Supposedly a recount of Haley’s family’s origins as far back as could be told. The story centered primarily on the life of his great-great-great-great grandfather, a Mandinka tribesman named Kunta Kinte. Kinte, kidnapped by slave catchers is brought to colonial America and sold into slavery. But Kinte is proud and knows himself and never lets his dream of reclaiming his freedom die. He passes his story to his daughter and the story is told over generations, eventually becoming Haley’s novel.
However, in 1978, Haley was charged with plagiarizing broad sections of his story, nearly verbatim from Harold Courlander’s “The African”. He initially denied knowing of or reading “The African”, but was later ousted when a former colleague swore on affidavit to discussing at length Courlander’s novel with Haley and even loaning Haley his copy of the book. At the judge’s urging, Haley later settled out of court with Courlander and apologized before a final verdict in the manner was handed down. The matter has been kept relatively quiet in an effort to preserve Haley’s dignity and legacy.
I feel somewhat like Charlie Brown myself at this news. No Great Pumpkin for me this year. Though, I’ll still watch ROOTS like I always do about this time, this new revelation kinda saps some of the joy and pride out of it. I guess this new truth wouldn’t sting so bad if I hadn’t been taught to believe it was really true. I could live with this being a fictional story. It’s a good story.
As we celebrate, reflect and remember this Black History Month, let us really focus on C. G. Woodson’s reason for calling for this acknowledgement of African diasporic influence in America and beyond. We do in fact have a story to tell, and one that must be told. But, uhhh, let’s just tell it like it is. (I’ma go cry in my cereal now. Damn.)