Book Author: Adam Henig
Whenever I think of Alex Haley, my mind goes to two of his books, The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots. That’s because of the profound impact these two books have had on me as an African and millions of others around the world.
My first encounter with Roots was in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in the mid 80s. As a student from Liberia, I had gone to the Ivory Coast for vacation. Ivory Coast being a French speaking country, I watched the French translation of the miniseries. Not being a French speaker, I had to rely on friends to translate to me in my native Mandingo language.
Though I could not speak nor comprehend French, I was emotionally glued to the TV just like any other Ivorian. I could clearly identify with the raw human emotion of the main character. On the nights the movie was shown on the Ivorian national TV, RTI, the streets in our neighborhood of Youpougon, Sicogi used to be deserted. People crowded around TV sets in various compounds. Two names that stuck in my mind as I watched the miniseries were Toby or Kunta Kinte. But I knew both belonged to a fellow African who was captured long long time ago during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I was proud of him for rejecting Toby, the name the slave masters forced on him. For rejecting that name and sticking to his African name, I regarded Kunta Kinte a hero.
To be frank, at that moment, I didn’t know the miniseries was actually based on a popular book. It took several years before I came across the book, Roots in Liberia. Reading the book, I was reminded of the movie I watched in Abidjan. So to see that Alex Haley was the great grandson of that captured African was indeed a great source of inspiration for me. It was after reading the Roots I came across the Autobiography of Malcolm X, also written by Alex Haley in collaboration with the legendary Pan-Africanist, Malcolm X.
Given the above scenario, I have not been aware of any controversy regarding the book. I had not read any review of it in the past, either negative or positive until I recently read “Alex Haley’s Roots, An Author’s Odyssey” by Adam Henig. Henig’s book, which was published as an eBook in 2014 is a well-researched book based on interviews with Alex Haley’s contemporaries, personal communication, legal documents, newspaper accounts, etc. The 52 page book chronicles the success, criticism, and controversy that dodged Alex Haley until his death in 1992.
This book is simply an indication of the fact that no matter what a person chooses to do in this world, the more successful you become, the more people will oppose or criticize you, even some with the intent to destroy you. So while the whole world along with the US celebrated the famous writer for his remarkable literary achievement, there were others who could not resist the temptation to aim their bows and arrows at him with the intent to discredit or destroy him. Some critics, such as David Duke of KKK and Nancy Reagan, wife of the then California Governor Ronald Reagan, feared that it might ignite racial tension. Other critics felt it was fraudulent because of the “questionable research” method applied by the author in the process of writing the book. The third group of critics were those who charged the author of “plagiarism.”
At some point, Alex Haley sued his publisher for reasons that didn’t make sense because he was earning hefty sum of royalty that many writers can only dream of. But from the “publishing industry perspective,” the sole intent of this suit was to “renegotiating” the agreement with the publisher.
With the Gambian government, hoping to cash in on the success of Roots, declaring Juffure, Kunta Kinte’s village as a “national monument,” a skeptical British journalist by the name of Mark Ottaway began investigating “the changes this impoverished nation had experienced” as a result of the book. Perhaps Juffure did not live up to the romantic picture he might have had in his mind after reading the book. In his investigation, he “uncovered” what was reported as “great flaws” in whatever research the author made in the process of writing the book. According to Ottawa’s report, Juffurre was an “established European trading post” as opposed to a typical African village as portrayed by the author.
While Alex Haley might have considered blacks to be innocent victims of Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Ottawa’s article showed that Africans themselves were willing participants in slavery and profited from it as well. Of course, this is not a new argument. Ottaway went further to say in his report that the griot who narrated the story of Kunta Kinte could not be a “reliable source” and therefore the story of Kunta Kinti was a “figment of Haley’s imagination.”
As if to say Ottawa’s efforts to discredit Alex Haley was not enough, another detractor came forward. She was Margaret Walker, a professor of literature at Jackson State University in Mississippi. Unlike journalist Ottawa who was white, Prof. Walker was black. She was the author of a civil war novel titled Jubilee. Though she was well known and respected within academia, Prof. Walker “was largely unknown to the general public.” According to Adam, “Walker was livid about Roots,” as she accused Haley of lifting portion of his book from her novel. From the look of things, while Walker might have had reasons to accuse Alex Haley and charge him of “plagiarism,” one may say she might have been motivated by envy and jealousy. This is easy to see when she believed that her novel would have been a best seller if “she was white” like Margaret Mitchell, an author of another bestselling book, “Gone With the Wind” or male like Alex Haley.
From Walker, another writer jumped the band wagon of accusation against the writer of lifting portion from his work. He was Harold Courlander, a Caucasian. Courlander had written over twenty books but had not enjoyed the great success of Alex Haley. Just like Prof. Walker, he was known and respected within academia but not known in the mainstream. Of all his books, “African,” published in 1967, was his biggest literary success. The fact that Courlander asked for “more than half of the profits of Roots” only indicates that his motivation was not only to correct the wrong but he was also in it for the money. Even though Haley agreed to settle out of court with Courlander for the amount of $650,000 (equivalent of a million dollar today, according to Adam), Haley believed he “was just another envious author trying to cash in on his success.”
That Alex Haley could face all these negative criticisms and challenges to the authenticity of his groundbreaking work is not surprising because in any area, more success brings along not only attention but intense scrutiny and criticism. Some may be justifiable and others may not. Whether the work was a fiction or non-fiction should not matter more than the fact that it represents a vivid account of the brutality and inhumanity of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. To put it in another way, the question should not be whether Juffure was a “British colonial outfit” according to Ottaway or an African village where Kunta Kinte was kidnapped by the slave raiders, according to Alex Haley.
The question should be whether the book gives a realistic portrayal of this horrendous history of man’s inhumanity to man. Nobody can deny that slavery was brutally inhuman. The fact that Alex Haley was able to capture this in his book and compel not only the US but the rest of the world to pay attention and take stock of this historical occurrence is indeed a success worth celebrating despite all the criticisms some of which are motivated by sheer envy and jealousy. In conclusion, one may quote the author when he said, “Story of Roots represented the symbol of the fate of my people.”
Adam Henig attended California State University (Chico), majoring in political science with emphasis on cultural and international studies. Since his graduation he has pursued his interest in African American history and literature. While this 52 page book, “Alex Haley’s Roots, An Author’s Odyssey” may be his first, it represents a major literary achievement. For a Caucasian, his research for the book was meticulous and honest.
This book may renew scholar and the general public’s interest in Roots once again.
About the this Reviewer.
Nvasekie Konneh is the author of the book, “The Land of My Father’s Birth,” a memoir of the Liberian civil war and “Going to War for America,” a collection of poems about the Liberian civil war as well as his experience in the US Navy from 1996 to 2005. His latest book is The Love of Liberty Brought Us Together, a collection of poems.
He can be reached at 267-407-5735 or Knvasekie@yahoo.com or Konnlove@aol.com
Main photo: Alex Haley