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Alex Haley and ‘Roots’ Plagiarism Changed American Indian identity

Updated: Sep 8, 2023




WHAT WAS COURLANDER’S LAWSUIT AGAINST HALEY ABOUT?

In 1977, Courlander filed suit in federal district court in New York charging that “Defendant Haley had access to and substantially copied from The African. The material he copied constituted the framework, life and substance of Roots. Without The African, Roots would have been a very different and less successful novel, and indeed it is doubtful that Mr. Haley could have written Roots without The African…. Mr. Haley copied language, thoughts, attitudes, incidents, situations, plot and character.” Source: Harold Courlander, et ano. v. Alex Haley, et al., 77 Civ. 2546 (RJW). Plaintiffs’ Pre-Trial Memorandum and Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law. Volume I, page 1.


Plaintiffs stated: “[T]he copyings from The African were organized and purposeful. They were intentional and massive.” Source: Harold Courlander, et ano. v. Alex Haley, et al., 77 Civ. 2546 (RJW). Plaintiffs’ Pre-Trial Memorandum and Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law. Volume I, page 115.




HALEY DENIED SEEING THE AFRICAN BEFORE HE WROTE ROOTS, BUT WHAT DID A MINORITY STUDIES PROFESSOR SWEAR UNDER OATH? In his answer to an Interrogatory question, Haley stated, “Neither I, nor any person acting on my behalf or in cooperation with me has read the work ‘The African,’ but I intend to read it in the near future.” Source: Harold Courlander, et ano. v. Alex Haley, et al., 77 Civ. 2546 (RJW). Defendant Alex Haley’s Answers to Interrogatories Nos. 2, 7, 8, 9 and 10 of Plaintiffs’ First Set of Interrogatories, page 1.

On direct examination during the trial Haley under oath was asked, “Had you ever read the book The African prior to the publication of Roots?” He answered, “I had not.” Source: Harold Courlander, et ano. v. Alex Haley, et al., 77 Civ. 2546 (RJW). Haley-direct, transcript page 1387

However, after the trial, in a sworn affidavit by Joseph Bruchac, a teacher of black literature at Skidmore College, Mr. Bruchac states: “During either 1970 or 1971, Alex Haley came to Skidmore to lecture on the research he had been doing for a book which was at that time to be called Before This Anger. I went to his lecture and after the conclusion of the lecture, spent some time in conversation with Mr. Haley at a reception following his talk. During our conversation at the reception, I mentioned the book The African to him and he seemed very interested…. I drove 3 miles back home, obtained my copy and brought it back to the reception. I then read several sections of The African to Mr. Haley and after having pointed out some parts I thought especially good in the book, I gave my own personal copy of The African to Mr. Haley. Mr. Haley thanked me for giving him my copy of The African and said he would find it very useful.” Source: Harold Courlander, et ano. v. Alex Haley, et al., 77 Civ. 2546 (RJW). Affidavit.


HOW MANY PASSAGES FROM THE AFRICAN APPEARED IN ROOTS?

Plaintiffs charged that more than 80 passages in Roots had their origins in The African. Source: Harold Courlander, et ano. v. Alex Haley, et al., 77 Civ. 2546 (RJW). Plaintiffs’ Pre-Trial Memorandum and Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law. Volume II, pages PC1-PC136.


HOW SUBSTANTIAL WAS THE COPYING?

Plaintiffs stated, “[In] addition to copying language and expressions from The African, Haley copied attitudes, reactions, situations, story line, plot and characters. The African served as a blueprint for Haley and guided him in formulating Roots.” Source: Harold Courlander, et ano. v. Alex Haley, et al., 77 Civ. 2546 (RJW). Plaintiffs’ Pre-Trial Memorandum and Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law. Volume I, page 104. IS PARAPHRASING THE SAME AS COPYING?

“It is not necessary for the infringer to literally reproduce the plagiarized material since paraphrasing is tantamount to copying.” Source: Harold Courlander, et ano. v. Alex Haley, et al., 77 Civ. 2546 (RJW). Plaintiffs’ Pre-Trial Memorandum and Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law. Volume I, page 106. WHAT DID EXPERT WITNESS MICHAEL WOOD, PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY SAY ABOUT THE COPYINGS IN HIS EXPERT’S REPORT?

“The evidence of copying from The African in both the novel and the television dramatization of Roots is clear and irrefutable….[Roots] takes from The African phrases, situations, ideas, aspects of style and of 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 of 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.” Source: Harold Courlander, et ano. v. Alex Haley, et al., 77 Civ. 2546 (RJW). Plaintiffs’ Pre-Trial Memorandum and Proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law. Reports of Plaintiffs’ Experts. Volume III, pages 1,13. WHAT DID PRESIDING DISTRICT COURTJUDGE ROBERT J. WARD SAY ON THE RECORD ABOUT HALEY’S COPYING DURING THE TRIAL?

“Copying there is, period.” Source: Harold Courlander, et ano. v. Alex Haley, et al., 77 Civ. 2546 (RJW). Transcript of trial proceedings, page 1327. WHAT WAS THE OUTCOME OF THE TRIAL? After 5 weeks of testimony, on the day the final arguments were to be made, this statement was issued: “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.” WHAT DID JUDGE WARD SAY AFTER THE TRIAL?

“Alex Haley perpetrated a hoax on the public.” Source: BBC Television, “The Roots of Alex Haley.”


Alex Haley lost a $650,000 lawsuit (to a white author) citing plagiarism in ROOTS





Courlander wrote "The African" as a work of fiction, originally.


Harold Courlander was an American writer who authored more than 30 theatrical productions, novels, folklore tales, and sociology papers. His expertise included Haitian, African Caribbean, Afro-American, and Native American cultures. Courlander wrote The African, a fictional account of the slaves’ journey from Africa to the United States.

Alexander Murray Palmer Haley was an American writer and journalist who specialized in historical novels. He wrote the 1976 book Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The book has become synonymous with U.S. slavery and the toll in took on African slaves.

Courlander’s friends tipped him off to the potential plagiarism


Courlander first discovered the plagiarism after watching the televised rendition of Roots. The miniseries was a hit, Courlander’s friends recommended he study the miniseries as it related to his academic studies.

After seeing the similarities between the miniseries and his novel, Courlander bought a copy of Roots and compared it to The African. His discovery was startling. The book borrowed from his ideas, and even copied the character types. There were enough similarities to convince Courlander that Haley intentionally copied his work.

Courlander and his publisher Crown accused Haley of stealing ideas, passages, and characters from his book The African. The similarities between Roots and The African are striking, and the case ended in a copyright settlement.



ROLLING STONES JAGGER FBI TV SHOW SLAVE SHIP ALEX HALEY July 16 1972 NY Times







New York Times Article :


‘Roots’ Plagiarism Suit Is Settled 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‐yearold 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.” https://www.nytimes.com/1978/12/15/archives/roots-plagiarism-suit-is-settled-roots-plagiarism-suit-is-settled.html?auth=login-google1tap&login=google1tap


But plagiarism is the least of the problems in “Roots.” And they would likely have remained largely unknown, had journalist Philip Nobile not undertaken a remarkable study of Haley’s private papers shortly before they were auctioned off.

The result was featured in a devastating 1993 cover piece in the Village Voice. It confirmed – from Haley’s own notes – earlier claims that the alleged history of the book was a near-total invention.

“Virtually every genealogical claim in Haley’s story was false,” Nobile has written. None of Haley’s early writing contains any reference to his mythic ancestor, “the African” named Kunta Kinte. Indeed, Haley’s later notes give his family name as “Kante,” not “Kinte.” "Historical experts who checked Haley’s genealogical research discovered that, as one put it, “Haley got everything wrong in his pre-Civil War lineage and none of his plantation ancestors existed; 182 pages have no basis in fact.”


The Pulitzer Prize board has refused to reconsider Haley’s prize, awarded in 1977 – in what former Columbia President William McGill, then a board member, has acknowledged was an example of “inverse racism” by a bunch of white liberals “embarrassed by our makeup.” Yet even today, much of America – both black and white – continues to perpetuate the “Roots” myth.

In 1997, Haley’s older brother George was named U.S. ambassador to the Gambia – his family’s supposed homeland. Then-Vice President Al Gore said at the time, “George Haley is the direct descendant of Kunta Kinte.” Added Gore: Haley’s appointment would “complete a cycle of history.”

Haley himself later admitted he was “caught up in the sweep and the swell of the overall thing,” saying that “the quest for a symbolic history of a people just swept me like a twig atop a rushing water.”

Maybe. But as the late John Henrik Clarke, dean of Afrocentrist scholars – who admitted that he “cried real tears when I realized that Haley was less than authentic” – argued: “We don’t need no more fakers. We don’t need no more phonies. We can take our tea with or without sugar.”














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