Forefathers  of  Fantasy

In the 1970s, the harrowing story of Kunta Kinte - an African stolen in the 18th century from his tribe in the Gambia to become a slave in the New World - became a world-wide bestseller. But the book's author, Alex Haley, was not telling the whole truth.

In 1976 alone, 1.6 million copies of a 700-page blockbuster were sold in the USA. It went on to be translated into 37 languages.

Alex Haley's book told the history of his family, which he had traced back seven generations to 1750. During his childhood, Haley had listened avidly to his maternal grandmother's tales of the family's ancestors in the Gambia and their fate as slaves in the USA. In the mid-1960s he began to delve into the history of his forebears.

Eventually, his research took him to the Gambia and the village of Juffure, where he met an oral historian, an old man who told him the story of Kunta Kinte.

In 1767, 16-year-old Kunta Kinte had been gathering firewood when he was captured by slave traders who shipped him to America. Haley thought he remembered hearing the name Kinte many times in his grandmother's tales. He believed he had  discovered the African roots of his own family.

(Roots was broadcast early in 1977 in eight episodes, screened on eight successive evenings. It broke every ratings record, with more than 130 million tuning into the gripping story)


The book was such a runaway success that the American television network ABC decided to make it into a film series. The series was a huge hit, drawing 130 million viewers and sparking a new interest in genealogy, particularly among African-Americans. In 1977 Roots won the National Book Award and a special Pulitzer Prize. It had challenged the prevailing view of black history, showing that slaves did not give up all their ties to African culture but valued their heritage, keeping words and stories, songs and folk beliefs alive.

The book brought success, but also controversy. In 1977 Haley was accused by two other authors of plagiarism and the cases went to court. Margaret Walker claimed that Haley had lifted entire scenes from her novel Jubilee, but the action was dismissed. Harold Courlander accused Haley of having lifted 80 passages from his novel The African, published in 1967. Haley denied ever having read the novel and maintained that Roots was based on oral testimonies and his own research. But there were so many parallels with The African that Haley was forced to settle out of court, paying Courlander $650,000. The judge who presided over the case, swore Courlander to silence about the settlement. He felt that Haley was such an important figure for African-Americans that his image should not be tarnished.


In 1993, a year after Haley's death, journalist Philip Nobile unearthed evidence in Haley's papers indicating that much of his family's 'history' was invention. 

The notes Haley made during his early research had no mention of Kunta Kinte, while in later papers, the family name Kante appeared. A tape-recording of Haley's conversation in the Gambia with the oral historian who knew of Kunta Kinte, suggested that Haley had pressed the old man to tell a story that fitted one he had already thought up.

Nobile wrote an article for The Village Voice about his discovery. As a result, several historians examined the facts in Roots, and concluded that there were discrepancies in Haley's family tree, particularly before the American Civil War (1861-65). The ancestors who were supposed to have lived on a slave plantation had simply never existed, which implied that at least 182 pages of the book had no factual basis.

The BBC made a documentary about Nobile's findings but it was never shown in the USA. 

Instead, the NBC network broadcast a special programme in 2002 to mark the 25th anniversary of the first screening of Roots. The programme failed to mention that parts of Haley's book were either invented or copied. Today, the book is still being reprinted by its publisher, Doubleday, with no foreword to this effect. Commentators suggest that no publisher with such a long-running bestseller on its backlist would wish to debunk it. 

Meanwhile, for the Gambia, the book attracted, and continues to draw large numbers of African-Americans searching for their roots.