Roots: The Saga of Alex Haley

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S1: On Sunday night, January twenty third, 1977, 10 year old Zenobia Harper found a comfortable spot in the den of her South Carolina home. Zenobia, his mom, had made her take a nap earlier that day to be sure she could stay awake past nine p.m.,

S2: We already had our night clothes on and get our little snack popcorn or whatever, and we’d lay on the floor and we were there ready to watch this, a conversation


S3: about whether or not we should watch. But then it was determined that, oh, no, no, we had to watch it.

S1: Hundreds of miles away in Indiana, Stephanie Dunn was sitting on her mom’s lap.

S3: I was very young, but I still will never forget it.

S1: Tonight, we present a landmark in television entertainment after two years of production, we present this incredible saga in an epic motion picture route’s. Route’s was one of the most ambitious television projects ever, a 12 hour history of American slavery aired on eight consecutive nights. It laid bare the gruesome realities of the slave trade beginning in the 18th century with the capture of an African teenager named Kunta Kinte.


S2: Hey, come on. In you go. And you’re going. Come on. All right. Lock it up. I remember tears in my mom’s eyes just knowing the life that they’re going to go to.

S1: The first episode showed the horrors of the Middle Passage. African captives shackled in the hold of a slave ship forced to lie in their own excrement and vomit.


S3: I mean, Came nightmares, I was traumatized. I mean, I was, you know, really torn up.

S2: Our phone would ring. Did you see that? Are you watching?

S3: And the very next day, that’s all we were talking about was roofs. And after nine one, it was like No one would there be missing NITU.


S1: In the second episode, Rootes Young hero gets brutally whipped by a plantation overseer.

S4: I want to hear you say your name. Your name is Toby. What’s your name?

S2: Kunta.

S3: If this is the first time that I was seeing it’s not that I didn’t know about slavery, but I didn’t know about slavery.

S2: My grandmother, she would come over and she would watch it. She always had her hands busy selling pecans or shell and beans. She wouldn’t really talk, but she would be like. Mm hmm. Uh.

S1: Roots was not eight nights of pain and misery, it was also a story of pride and emancipation of Kunta Kinte family enduring for seven generations and ultimately thriving


S2: you is free and.

S3: We Is Free was something really beautiful about these black folk in this struggle and their survival. This is where I come from. This is who I come from.

S2: It made me start to think about blackness and what it meant to be in this black skin.

S1: ABC’s scheduled routes on eight consecutive nights because it thought the series might flop. In the worst case, the network could limit the damage to one bad week. That worst case scenario, it didn’t

S5: happen every night this week, the big television attraction has been route.

S6: It’s estimated that 60 percent of the population saw one or more episodes of the series as something like 130 million people.


S1: Route’s was the most watched television event in U.S. history, but it was more than just a pop culture phenomenon. Roots was also a corrective to the lies and stereotypes propagated in movies and textbooks.

S2: The narrative around it in the school system where slavery was what helped to civilize uncivilized African savage people.

S1: Now it felt like all those old destructive myths were getting left behind, replaced by something richer and more authentic, something true. That new real narrative came from Alex Haley.

S7: It just seemed to me that if you really knew the story behind us as a people, if you really knew the way that those who are our ancestors had been brought out of what was their home land, that every one of us ought to Weep that that thing called slavery had ever occurred in human Ms.


S1: By 1977, Haley was less a writer than an American folk hero. His book, Roots The Saga of an American Family, came up before the miniseries, and it, too, was a sensation. The book’s jacket said that Haley rediscovered for an entire people a rich cultural heritage, that slavery took away. Some elements of roots like the dialogue were fictional, but the book and the miniseries were both marketed as non-fiction. The Real History of Alex Haley Family Roots, The True Story Alex Haley uncovered in his 12 years search across the seven generations of his ancestry. At the heart of roots was one monumental factual claim that Haley had done something no black American ever had. He traced his genealogy all the way back to Africa and to a specific ancestor who’d been captured into slavery.


S7: It startles me when somebody says you’ve traced your family because the way I think about it is that, in fact, it is the saga of a people.


S1: In 1977, tens of millions of Americans were inspired by Alex Haley work. There was no doubt that his depiction of the barbarity of slavery was accurate. But his roots swept the nation. Journalists and historians started asking questions at Haley really found what he said he’d found in Africa. And what did it mean for Alex, Haley and America if route’s was a work of fiction?

S2: It was really a moment of awakening for this country. I was skeptical, but I kept my skepticism to myself.


S6: He understood something about every single person in this world that their favorite subject, their favorite story is themselves.

S1: I’m Josh Levin, and this is one year, 1977. Roots, the saga of Alex Haley.

S7: When I was a little boy, I lived in a little town of which very probably you never heard, called Henning, Tennessee. We knew that Memphis was 50 miles away. And beyond that pretty much was Mars, as far as we knew at that time.

S1: Alex Haley spent a lot of his childhood at the home of his mother’s mother in the 1920s and 30s. He’d sit on his grandmother’s front porch listening to old folks talk about the past.


S7: As a little boy, I didn’t understand a great deal that they talked about, but it was bits and pieces and patches of what I was later to learn was, in fact the narrative history of the family, which had been passed down literally across generations.

S1: The young Alex would repeat those stories to his black and white playmates, telling them about plantations and overseers. When he talked, the other children listened. Alex liked the attention. Sharing those stories made him feel like somebody special. Haley enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1939 when he was still a teenager at sea. He passed the time ghost writing love letters for his shipmates.


S7: If the guy had told me as many did, the girl’s hair was blond. Well, out there in the middle of the ocean, I’d get in some fit of creativity and come up with something like your hair is like the moonlight reflected on the rippling waves and stuff like that.


S1: Haley submitted stories to pulp magazines like True Confessions. He worked his way up to Reader’s Digest and started doing interviews for Playboy. In 1963, he interviewed Malcolm X and then got hired to work with Malcolm on his autobiography while the two men got along, their political philosophies were totally at odds. Malcolm believed in black nationalism and independence.

S5: And I don’t believe in fighting today in any one front, but on all fronts. In fact, I’m a black nationalist freedom fighter.

S1: Haley, a moderate Republican, idealized his childhood in Tennessee the way he described it. Blacks and whites had lived alongside each other. They’re in peace. And so while he was still working with Malcolm X, Haley started on a new book, a nostalgic look at the 1930s South

S4: as civil rights movement is exploding Alex this story as this quieter, simpler time in American history.

S1: Matt Delmont is the author of Making Roots.

S4: He thinks it’s going to captivate both white and black audiences and be a tremendous publishing success.

S1: As Haley plotted out that project, he went to a family reunion and got reacquainted with the stories that had fascinated him as a child.

S4: He hears family relatives talk about what they’re calling the first African ancestor.

S7: Cousin George was one whose mouth ran like a trap hammer. You could hardly believe the way that later talk. She’s a year boy that African He say his name was Kinte. He called the river can be Mhlongo. He say he was chopping wood for to make himself a drum when they cast him and all the rest of the story told in her own colorful way,


S4: that entirely changes his conception of what the story is that he’s trying to write. He becomes obsessed with trying to pinpoint who this person was and then trace the family story from that original initial African all the way up into the present.

S1: Those small scraps of information were remarkable on their own. The name Kinte the river can be belonged to his ancestors. Words kept alive for generations. Haley wanted more. He saw those snippets of language as potential clues that might help uncover his family’s story. But for American descendants of enslaved people, following genealogical leads was typically impossible. As the CBS News segment

S5: explained, a number of roadblocks can be encountered in tracing a family tree, particularly for blacks. This old ledger, for example, lists slaves only by no age and sex. The only names are those of the owners.

S1: To find out where he’d come from, Haley would need to do something that was basically unprecedented. He’d have to rebuild the connections that slavery had severed. First, Haley went to the National Archives to look for some trace of his family. The U.S. Census and

S7: I wouldn’t even tell the archives attendance what I was looking for. The odds of finding it seem so ridiculous.

S1: He was about to give up when he found some familiar names. Once he’d heard on his grandmother’s porch.

S7: It wasn’t that I had ever doubted what Grandma and the others had said, but the point was it was here in the heavily guarded US archives, the same building under which they had the US Constitution. And there was something about that. It hooked me

S1: as all this was going on, Haley was telling crowds of people about his research journey. After Malcolm X got gunned down by an assassin in 1965, Haley became a coveted public speaker. He’d start by lecturing on Malcolm’s autobiography, but then quickly pivot to his quest to track down his African ancestor. That story, the saga of his family, captivated audiences,


S4: his great skill as he was a tremendous storyteller. There was something mesmerizing in the way that he spoke.

S7: I am telling you this morning what sounds like a chronology of triumphs I’m not telling you about in terms of feeling almost suicidal because I couldn’t find something I was looking for so hard I didn’t care about eating, sleeping, anything I had to find. In fact, for us, the people whose story was being put together for the first time,

S4: the way it’s presented on the lecture circuit, it’s an amazing detective story about how one man is able to identify seven generations of his family’s history.

S1: Haley could make even archival research sound impossibly thrilling.

S7: I got on a plane. I went to London. In another type of situation. It can hit a writer where he operates purely by impulses, by what his senses tell him to do, because he’s so deep in what he’s doing in his subconscious, directs him.

S1: But Haley still had no idea where in Africa his ancestor had lived. According to family law, that ancestor used the phrase can be Belenko to refer to a river. But Haley didn’t know what language those words came from. He asked an expert on African linguistics for

S7: help, and I was told now that in Mandinka, without question, the word though translated to large moving running stream such as a river and that preceded by the word can be. It very probably meant Gambir River

S1: Haley finally have a lead on where to look for his ancestor. The Gambia is the smallest country on the African. Land a sliver of land on the Atlantic coast, it won its independence from the United Kingdom in 1965, Haley traveled to West Africa in 1967. He then set out by boat for the Gambian village of Geffray.


S7: I had to literally to assemble a safari. Turned out a total of 14 people, three interpreters, each in a different dialect that we would encounter on the way. Three musicians, because they all Chinese don’t like to talk without music in the background, kola nuts, all these sorts of things. And up the river we went, I want to tell you, I never dreamed it would be me in the helmet going up the Gambir River. Crocodiles, baboons. Unbelievable.

S1: It was there in the village of Geffray where Haley had what he called the peak experience of his life.

S7: It was the the first time I have been hit by an emotion, almost as if a tornado hit me and I just had to hold myself to to withstand the force of it.

S1: In Dupré, Haley met an old man wearing a white robe and a skullcap. That man, Keber, Kanye Fofana, was Agrio, a traditional storyteller.

S7: And then he proceeded to tell me the story of the Kinte clan. I’ve never witnessed such a man. The man talk three and a half hours, telling in detailed account the story of a family.

S1: The longer the Grio spoke, the closer Haley Came to the answers he’d been searching for.

S7: He waved his hand below the village and he said, and of these four sons, in the time that the King’s soldiers Came the eldest of these Kunta was away from this village to collect wood when he disappeared and the families searched and searched and searched for him and they could never find him.

S1: For Alex, Haley and the audience, he told the story, too, this was the climax of a 200 year journey. This Grio, in a remote village in the Gambia, had just confirmed the Haley family legend. There was an African who got caught by slave traders while he was off chopping wood and that African Alex Haley ancestor. He had a name. Kunta Kinte.


S7: I sat there like a graven image. Goose pimples all over me. I knew at that moment that I had become, as far as I knew, the first one of the 22 millions of us who had been enabled, privileged, honored mission to cross that ocean, to cross all that span of knowing nothing about us and maybe to know something about us.

S1: Alex Haley got a book contract to write about his family history in 1964 over the next 10 years. He traveled the world doing interviews and research. He gave hundreds of speeches to universities, historical societies and corporations. He published a well-received excerpt and Reader’s Digest, and he secured a deal for a television miniseries. The only thing he hadn’t done was finished the book.

S6: He had only written the first third and the screenwriters were writing behind him. They were right on his heels.

S1: That’s Alex Haley, his third wife, Myron Lewis, Haley. She goes by my before she met Alex in the mid 70s. She was getting her doctorate in communications and African-American studies at Ohio State University. On the same day she defended her dissertation, she heard a recording of one of Alex lectures.

S6: I listened to that speech and I thought, Oh my God. By the time he finished telling the story, you could hear people in the audience just popping up like popcorn, just like I was listening to it in your own emotions were building. And I thought, wouldn’t it be just wonderful to be able to work with my hero here?

S1: Myosin Alex her resume Alex sent me a ticket to meet him in Jamaica, where he was holed up working on his manuscript.

S6: By the time we got to his cottage, he was telling me about how he was so under the gun. He had missed every deadline, you know, at least ten times or more. The publisher was on him and he was showing the stacks of telegrams, telling him it was urgent to finish in the mail. Lady would arrive by donkey and she have all these telegrams that had arrived maybe a week ago, a week before, you know, the Alex would take the telegram. He had a box that he would just dump all these telegrams because he knew what they said


S1: made a difference right away. She typed 120 words a minute and she got up early every morning to write out possible dialogue for route’s

S6: Alex was always clean. He always came to the copy after a shower. He said that it was almost surgical to him. He always used the green Pentel Pins He Said because he wanted the universe to know that he wanted money. I mean, let the universe know here we going to keep this thing go it. And he would sit there and when the copy was right, he would pad his foot to it. Because the rhythm was all the way through.

S1: Roots opens with the birth of Kunta Kinte in the Gambia in the spring of 1750 and then moves forward bit by bit. These are the stories that Haley heard on his grandmother’s porch, supplemented by a decade of research, the slave ship that brought Kunta to America, the Lord Ligonier, which landed in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1767. The plantation Kunta was sold to in Virginia, where he had part of his foot cut off after he repeatedly tried to run away. The story of Kunta daughter, Kizzie, and her son, Chicken George. And on down the line. By early 1976, my and Alex had left Jamaica for New York. Their work was nearly done.

S6: Finally, they got to the last paragraph of the last chapter. It’s the middle of the night. It’s snowing like fat flakes. And so he decided that he wanted to go out for a coffee. And I’m saying you want to go out in the snow. We had to go. And he’s getting himself together for this last paragraph. And he took a napkin in his green Pentel pen. And while he’s writing the lady who’s serving us coffee, both of us seem to see the same thing. There was this kind of shimmer around him and, you know, he put the pen down. And then we both watched the Shemer go away because she said to me, Did you see that? I said, Yeah, I saw that. And we went back to the hotel and I typed that up. And Roots was on.


S1: After a decade of missed deadlines, Roots was published in October 1976. By that point, the miniseries had already started filming. The original plan was to open the series with the character of Alex Haley, the dogged researcher trying desperately to unlock his past. But television didn’t work the way a lecture did when the scripts got revised, Roots had a new main character.

S2: I am Kunta Kinte they a Mandingo from the village to Dupere. I was at USC. I was a sophomore in college.

S1: That’s LeVar Burton, who played the young Kunta Kinte before roots. He had never been in front of a camera.

S2: My very first days, a professional actor, Cicely Tyson, played my mother, Dr. Maya Angelou played my grandmother. I mean, who was I was this 19 year old kid from Sacramento.

S1: The cast was loaded with black luminaries Louis Gates Jr., John Amos, Leslie Uggams, Richard Roundtree. Madge Sinclair, Ben Vereen. But LeVar Burton’s young Kunta Kinte was the key to everything, the character that viewers needed to fall in love with and mourn for.

S2: I recognize now that that vulnerability that they saw in me was absolutely key and then watching that vulnerability be shattered. That was the journey that we wanted to take the audience on. And I was down for Alex.

S1: Haley was off and on set in Savannah, Georgia, to help Burton prepare for the role of Kunta. He gave the actor a prepublication copy of Route’s.

S2: He just casually dropped by my motel room. And here it was, the entirety of the story. I stayed up all night. The man was brilliant. I consider myself really, really lucky to have had that man as a part of my life.


S1: The book that Alex Haley gave to LeVar Burton had a bookmark in it. That bookmark flagged the section describing the Middle Passage. Nothing like that sequence had ever been shown on television. Burton and dozens of Black extras had to lie on wooden planks. Shackled to the person next to them,

S2: I think was two or three days that we were in that set. And I really feel like the ancestors came in and helped me get through those moments. Reliving those moments reenacted those moments.

S5: All the merciful, the compassionate

S2: pleas here proves the reality of the horrors that took up some space inside of.

S1: Alex Haley’s book was everything he’d wanted it to be. Route’s was the two hundred year saga of one Black family, but it was also the story of a people

S7: I hate to say it because I don’t. It sounds so funny, but I really feel I have been almost elected by obviously a force beyond me that I have been sort of a conduit

S1: route, sold a million hardcover copies in just a few months.

S6: It was just simply crazy.

S1: My Haley was living with Alex as the book became a massive hit and she had a close up view of his growing fame. Fans would approach him everywhere, desperate to meet the man who’d written Roots.

S6: You know, he’s standing at the urinal with people holding their books up for him to say, you know, he said, well, I guess they do think that was you know, there was one lady who fell on the floor prostrate and kissing his shoes and he’s going to get up from there. You know, it was it was wild.


S7: The other night, I was up at Abyssinian Baptist Church. I’m sitting there signing books as rapidly as I can. An old lady put the book down. I looked at the figures and I have seen those fingers hundreds of times. They’ve been in so many washtubs knuckles, a little knobby. And that lady came there and she was almost aglow. Tell you the truth, I had the feeling I want to spring up and embrace her. I didn’t know what to do, so I just signed the books route’s.

S1: The miniseries started airing three months after Route’s. The book hit the New York Times bestseller list

S2: the morning of day three of route’s. I was at the supermarket and got recognized for the first time. That’s the moment I recognized that my world was changing.

S5: The AC Nielsen Company, the leading measure of television audiences, today gave the ultimate accolade to the American Broadcasting Company. It announced that the program Roots had broken all the records for size of audience

S1: for eight days. In January 1977, roots reshaped American life. Attendance at movie theaters and restaurants dipped a Los Angeles disco, put a sign out front saying it was shutting down for the week. A bar in Harlem hosted watch parties and kept the jukebox turned off afterwards so patrons could talk about what they’d just seen.

S6: People naming their kids. The woman who has twins and Fame’s one Kunta and the other Kinte.

S1: Hey, Kellie Carter Jackson is the co-editor of Reconsidering Roots.

S6: Historical societies and Genealogy Clubs Exploded. So many African-Americans have wanted to know who their ancestors were. Roots addresses that core longing for their identity.

S1: It wasn’t just African-Americans who were inspired by Alex Haley search for his ancestor.


S6: It’s white people who are trying to figure out, well, when did we get to this country? What is our story?

S5: Because of the new interest in genealogy, spurred on by Alex, Haley and roots, we now know that President Jimmy Carter’s first America—and forbearer arrived in Virginia. Three hundred and forty one years ago in sixteen thirty five,

S1: the Roots miniseries have been crafted by white producers and white screenwriters to appeal to a majority white TV audience. For one thing, they added white characters who didn’t exist and Alex Haley book. In the first episode, Ed Asner played a slave ship captain who felt conflicted about his role in the African slave trade in a 2005 interview with screenwriter William Blinn. Explain the purpose of that character.

S8: It’s difficult to portray the man in doubt and torment, but I think it’s very valuable because the fact of the matter is, for a lot of us, that’s where we are. And I think we needed. To say to the majority of our viewers were white. You may be as much the victim as the villain.

S1: Those new white characters likely made roots more palatable to some white viewers. But not everyone was one over newspapers ran letters calling routes, a distorted piece of propaganda and saying that slavery wasn’t something the white race did to the black race because not all white people were involved. Ronald Reagan, the former governor of California, said that all the good people being one color and all the bad people being another was rather destructive

S2: in the South. It made white people very uncomfortable and some black people very uncomfortable because some of those black people were trying to figure out what would happen if white people were uncomfortable. Does that make sense?


S1: That’s Zenobia Harper again in 1977. She was 10 years old and watched roots in her den in South Carolina. She’s now an artist specializing in handmade dolls that reflect her Gullah heritage.

S2: It made a lot of people on edge as to what they would have to deal with if people were to see a different narrative around the institution of slavery.

S3: Even at school the next day, there was a lot of tension, you know, doing a great deal of frowning, kind of looking sideways at, you know, our white classmates and teachers like, you know, you know, and they were looking sideways, too, and I think feeling very uncomfortable.

S1: Stephanie Dunn, who watched Roots on her mom’s lap, she’s now a professor at Morehouse College.

S3: I never forget a little white girl that we were very cool, buddy, buddy. I’ll never forget her. Offer me something I can’t remember was a lollipop. It was a piece of candy. But I just remember this kind of deferential, like, you know, this is a gift is the peace offering.

S1: The conversation around roots was messy and awkward and it wasn’t always productive, but it was happening in schools and offices and churches. Barbara Jordan, the Black congresswoman from Texas, said that roots had come at the right time, that things had cooled down since the 1960s and the country was ready to talk about race. But that discussion was almost entirely focused on the past roots as a story of triumph over tragedy. The book and miniseries end with Haley forebears settling in Henning, Tennessee, and thriving their

S6: nice little bow on it. Everybody’s happy we got our freedom.

S1: Kellie Carter Jackson.

S6: There is no understanding of how systemic or structural racism works. I think the detriment of roots is that there is no challenge at the end for white people. There’s no feeling other than oh man, that was bad.


S1: Alex Haley didn’t see roots as a call to action. He’d accomplished exactly what he had set out to accomplish, exposing the American masses to the viciousness of slavery and uplifting his audience with his family’s story of survival. In the first few months of seventy seven, he was the most famous person in the United States. My Haley, again,

S6: he felt that he was representing a station that a Black writer had not had before. He just wanted to represent black people with dignity.

S1: The final episode of Roots ended with Haley on screen, the living embodiment of his ancestors perseverance in 1921.

S7: The Hill is welcome to this seventh generation descendant of Kunta Kinte. That boy was me Alex Haley.

S1: Haley was staying in a hotel when that last episode aired. The next morning at three thirty AM, a white bellboy bust his door and woke him up. Sir, the bellboy said, I want to thank you for what you’ve done for America. It seemed like Alex Haley and his work would be celebrated forever. But everything changed very suddenly, just a few months after route’s went off the air,

S5: a major controversy has cropped up over Alex Haley roots. The historical accuracy of Roots, a hugely successful book and television series, has been.

S1: Alex Haley’s roots forced the country to confront the horrors of American slavery, many people knew only a distorted version of that history, but there was a huge body of scholarship on the Atlantic slave trade. And there were historians who work specifically on the slave trade in the Gambia, the nation where Haley tracked down his African ancestor. One of those historians was Donald Wright.

S2: I’m a retired professor from the State University of New York College, Cortland.


S1: When Wright was a grad student, he met Alex Haley. It was around 1974 before Route’s was published.

S2: My advisor to half a dozen of us over and I literally sat at his feet as he told his story and he was charming and he said he had gone to the Gambia, located this man named Keber Kanye on a Kabba.

S1: Kanye Fofanah was the Grio that Haley met in the remote Gambian village of Juffer and the old man who recited Haley family history from memory.

S7: I was absolutely all that out of this man’s memory and his mouth was coming. Such an incredible array of lineage. Who married, whom, what children in what order?

S1: Haley told Donald right that the Grio had spoken for hours on end and had at last arrived at the name of his African ancestor.

S7: Now I heard this wizened old Creole see the eldest of these four sons, Kunta went away from this village to chop wood and he was never seen again.

S1: This was Alex Haley Eureka moment, the story he’d been desperate to confirm to connect him back to his origins in West Africa.

S7: Well, I said there is if I was carved of rock. Goose pimples that felt to be the size of grapes all over me.

S1: Donald Wright was planning a trip to the Gambia himself a few months later, he was collecting oral histories from Gritos and family elders,

S2: spending most of my time with a Sony tape recorder going around and trying to get people to talk about their past. And because Haley had made a great deal about Fofanah, I thought it would be a person to talk to.

S1: Wright found about Kanye Fofanah in the village of Geffray.


S2: He had on a very typical African robe, a loose cotton garment, and he had a little pillbox cap on his head.

S1: This was the Grio who’d given Alex Haley goose pimples the size of grapes. Now, Donald Ray was hoping that he might benefit from the old man’s knowledge. So Wright asked him some questions. With the help of a Mandinka interpreter,

S2: very little of the interview went as Haley indicated it did with this Krio spewing out lines of ancestry going back four generations. I never, ever heard that as much as I tried.

S1: The only individual the Grio spoke about with any specificity with Kunta Kinte Alex Haley South African ancestor. The Grio said that Kunta had gone off to collect wood and was never seen again,

S2: and that was it, and he didn’t know much else,

S1: Wright felt certain that the Kunta Kinte story was a sham, but he wasn’t interested in publicly attacking Haley or his work. And so when the Roots miniseries became a huge hit in 1977, Wright grumbled in private.

S2: I think my wife got fed up with me talking about some of the bogus things that were in there. I’m not big on historical fiction,

S1: but Alex Haley had other doubters and not all of them stayed quiet.

S5: British reporter Mark Ottoway says he discovered that a vital link in Haley is claimed to have traced his ancestors back to their African village was based on information from a source of notorious unreliability.

S1: Mark Otherways report ran in London’s Sunday Times on April 10th, 1977. It said that the Kunta Kinte story was almost certainly untrue. Here’s what Ottoway found out when Alex Haley came to the Gambia. He told officials there that he was searching for his African ancestor, someone named Kinte, who’d been captured into slavery when he was out collecting wood. Those Gambian officials then went and found Agrio, Cavaquinho, Fofana, and that grea repeated the story to Haley the Kunta Kinte had been captured when he was out collecting wood.


S2: The mistake Haley made was he went there early and told the story he wanted to hear, and then people there went out and found someone to tell it back to him.

S1: There was more Kabba, Cognos. Fofana was not a real grea. Actual Greers are tribesmen trained to recite past events from memory. Fofana was just a man who liked to tell stories. The Gambia’s national archivist had sent Alex Haley a letter explaining that. But Haley, it seemed, had chosen to ignore it. Historian Matt Delmont

S4: Haley was so eager to to believe the story. You want to believe something is true and you’re willing to to not poke holes in it because the value of believing it’s true is so powerful.

S1: This debunking of Alex Haley research was big news in the United States. The New York Times ran a story on the front page and two more inside the paper. At first, Haley sounded sheepish. He admitted that he may have been misled during his research in Africa.

S5: Haley adds, though, that route’s is a true representation of the kind of life blacks lead in this country and in Africa before they were taken slaves.

S1: As the coverage intensified, Haley grew more defensive. I take great pride in being a good, solid, hard working author, he said. I resent an opportunistic person seeking to say it’s hogwash. As we worked on this episode, we found something that wasn’t available while this debate was happening in 1977. A tape of Haley meeting with the supposed Gambian grea Ka’bah Kanafani,

S7: sir, could you tell me, please, the name of the tune you’re playing now?

S1: That tape is part of the Alex Haley papers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The recording seems incomplete, but the tape does include an account of Kunta Kinte capture. This is what Alex Haley heard in the Gambia and made the centerpiece of his lectures, the story of his African ancestor, as told by Cavaquinho Fofana through a translator.


S2: Now, Kunta disappeared

S7: and they couldn’t find him anymore.

S2: They thought he’s been caught by the slave dealers and taken to the island.

S1: The way Haley always described it, this was a moment of serendipity. This grea, in a remote village in Africa, had spontaneously confirmed the story that Haley heard as a child in Tennessee.

S7: And I just felt like helium had been pumped into me. I popped up like a jack in the box, just stood up.

S1: On the tape, it doesn’t sound like a spontaneous moment of magic, this next part is a bit hard to hear, but Haley mentioned some specific dates at the end. He says something like, I know that the thing was in 1760,

S7: what I wanted to do was get away. If we could get specific date like 18, if you like, and put it to any win. Like, I know that the thing was that 17

S1: Haley believed his ancestor had been captured in the 1767. He’d already found a document in America that suggested as much, although that claim would also be disputed. When Haley went to the Gambia, he wasn’t looking to follow the facts wherever they lead him. He was trying to find a puzzle piece that fit. I don’t think this tape reveals that Alex Haley was a fraud in his lectures, he changed around chronologies and played up the beats that audiences responded to. He was trying to tell a better story and he was going to stay committed to that story no matter the contrary evidence.

S4: What is it that people usually want from a good story? They don’t just want a litany of facts, dry, sort of truthful statements. They want to be moved in some way for what Altimari is trying to do with Route’s fact and fiction were meant to be blurred, the parts that the audience responded most powerfully to or the parts that really strained credibility, the parts that almost seemed impossible to believe.


S1: The story of Kunta Kinte is really two stories. The first is the story of a teenager being kidnapped and brought to the United States, where he was treated as property. All of that happened to hundreds of thousands of Africans, and it was important to share that truth and to get as many Americans as possible to understand it and feel it Alex Haley did that. The second story of Kunta Kinte is the story of Haley unearthing his long lost African ancestor appart was wishful thinking. The traumas that so many black Americans had been subjected to included violence, captivity and exploitation, but also the erasure of their past. Alex Haley promised that at least this injustice might be repaired, that if he’d found his roots, then others could too.

S7: If any black person in this auditorium or in this country only could know a few vital clues, it is not improbable that somewhere in country Black West Africa, there is a real who could tell literally the ancestral clan history from whence he or she sprang.

S1: Haley was selling a fantasy, a vision of how things could be in a more just world.

S6: So many people were willing to say it doesn’t matter if it’s natu. I need this

S1: historian Kellie Carter Jackson.

S6: They were willing to give Haley a pass because he spoke to their desire to know themselves and to know their history. And that, I think, complicated it for scholars who are like, hold on, wait a second, you have to get this right.

S1: Haley reputation took another hit in 1978 when he settled the lawsuit accusing him of plagiarism, Haley acknowledged that various materials from Herald Queenslander’s book The African had found their way into Route’s. He blamed sloppy research methods and reportedly paid Kurlander 650000 dollars


S6: where he didn’t talk with me about it much, but it deflated him very much like a punctured balloon. My Haley the few things he did say was that, you know, I only wanted to do good. And, you know, I’m sleeping around here for all these years with, you know, trying to to write this and before that, pulling together this material. He was crushed because he said nothing negative was my intention. You know, and I know that to be so in his heart.

S1: After Route’s Haley published only one more book, a novella. He died in 1992. He was 70 years old. The scholar Donald Wright did eventually write a paper casting doubt on Roots as a work of history.

S2: I wish a clearer story would have been told, but it wouldn’t have had the impact it did. I can’t imagine anything having that kind of impact.

S1: To understand the impact of routes, you have to know what came before it. The most watched television event in U.S. history before Roots aired Came just a few months earlier in November 1976, the broadcast debut of Gone with the Wind. Margaret Mitchell’s book and the 1939 movie that followed portrayed the antebellum South as a beautiful romantic place, and it presented enslaved people as happy, simple and obedient.

S6: And David, all the and I wanted to buy. Oh, yes, I mean, is use quantitive a month and I don’t think people realize how harmful Gone With the Wind is because it’s so delicious. Gone with the Wind is this very harmful, toxic, racist’s presentation of an America that just did not exist, never existed.

S1: In January 1977, more than 100 million Americans saw a representation of slavery as it did exist, roots showed enslaved people getting tortured and families being torn apart.


S6: Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow. That is not the fairy tale version of the lost cause history of the Confederacy. So that’s powerful. People have an emotional, visceral response. They light up, especially people who watched it on TV like who watched it in 1977. It’s unforgettable to them. Unforgettable.

S1: Roots floors are a part of Alex Haley legacy, but so is the larger story that he put into the world.

S6: I can look at roots and see its flaws and see where it falls short and see where it’s an accurate and still see the beauty and the power.

S7: What this book, in essence, supplies is the history of black people, which has long been a missing element of

S1: DNA testing and improved research methods, have now made it possible for some African-Americans to do what Alex Haley Kunta in 1977 to retrace their family histories to find their roots.

S7: Once the legacy comes of the talents of the black people permitted to unfold at this country will become for the first time as it can be, and is always could have been quite literally, quite truly the greatest country on the face of this earth. I’ve talked over long, and I thank you.

S1: If you want to listen to our full interview with LeVar Burton and hear more about his experience making roots, that will be in our Slate Plus Episode Trouping tomorrow, that show will also feature a conversation between decoder rings Willa Paskin and Slate culture writer Matthew Dasan about what else was happening on television in 1977. Next time on one year, 1977, the final episode of our season, A Family in New Mexico makes an amazing discovery when that changes their lives forever.


S6: I remember hearing my mom calling me. She was like, there is something interesting here. There’s like a burn on the tortilla. Tell me what it looks like to you. And so I looked at it and then I’m like, oh, my God, that looks like the face of Jesus.

S1: One year is produced by me and even charged with editorial direction by Levin Lou and Gabriel Roth, Madeline Ducharme is one year’s assistant producer. You can send us feedback and ideas and memories from 1977 at one year at Slate Dotcom. We’d love to hear from you. Our mix engineer is Merritt Jacob. The artwork for One Year is by Jim Cook. Matt Delmont book is Making Roots A Nation Captivated and Kellie Carter Jackson is the co-editor of Reconsidering Roots, Race, Politics and Memory. Robert Generals Alex Haley and the books that Changed the Nation was also a valuable resource for this episode. Some of the audio you heard in this episode comes from UCLA and Warner Brothers Records. Thank you to Kyle Jervis at University of Tennessee, Knoxville special collections and special thanks to Lalita Tagami, Alicia Montgomery, Sung Park, Katie Raeford, Aisha Solutia, Amber Smith, Seth Brown, Rachel Strahm and shout to. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back with our final episode of 1977.