Jewish World Review Jan. 18, 2002 / 5 Shevat, 5762

Stanley Crouch

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Consumer Reports

The 'Roots' of huckster Haley's Great Fraud -- IN the early 1980s, when Alex Haley, the author of "Roots," was speaking at Lincoln Center, investigative reporter Philip Nobile asked him a straightforward question. Since he had paid Harold Courlander $650,000 in a plagiarism suit, why shouldn't Haley be considered a criminal instead of a hero?

Haley had no answer. Well, what would you expect from someone who had pulled off one of the biggest con jobs in U.S. literary history?

Yet the "Roots" hoax has sustained itself. Every PBS station in America refused to show the 1997 BBC documentary inspired by Nobile's reporting on the book. And tonight NBC will air a retrospective on the 25th anniversary of the popular TV miniseries.

There are a number of reasons the truth about "Roots" is still ignored. One is that black Americans, primarily because of the influence of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, became obsessed with being a "lost" people in America, people who had "no knowledge of self." Younger black people were told they were not Americans, but victims of Americanism. Their true identity, Malcolm X said, was African and Islamic. The truth had been hidden from them by the white man, who was the Devil.

Another reason the hoax has held is that Haley, riding on the success of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," for which he got "as told to" credit, knew how to hustle. He had already been accused of plagiarizing an interview with Miles Davis for Playboy.

So he traveled the country for years promoting a forthcoming book on the Haley family history, which he had miraculously traced back to Africa. Black college students, swept up in the black power movement and romantic ideas about "the motherland," were thrilled at the idea that Haley had proved it was possible to hold up a lantern in the historical darkness and find one's way home.

But the most important reason for the durability of the hoax is white folks. Those at Doubleday who published "Roots" had a best seller and were not interested in people knowing it was phony baloney. David Wolper Productions created the most successful miniseries of its time and was not interested. Federal Judge Robert Ward, who presided over the plagiarism case, protected Haley's reputation.

Ward urged Courlander - the man whose novel "The African" Haley pillaged - to be quiet about his huge settlement. Ward thought that Haley had become too important to black people to be torn down in public. As I said once before in this column a few years ago, that was paternalism at its very worst: Treat them like children; they can't handle the truth.

Haley called Nobile in February 1979 at New York magazine when he was reporting on the federal case. Haley said he shouldn't report on the case because the Ku Klux Klan could use the outcome against his people.

On another occasion, I heard Haley protest on the radio that "they" were trying "to say that black people have no history." At another point, according to Nobile, "He compared the truth about him to those people who attacked Anne Frank and said that there was no Holocaust. He would resort to anything."

Since "Roots" has brought millions of black tourist dollars to Gambia, one Gambian said to me, "Yes, it is a lie but it is a good lie."

The book remains an opportunistic insult to black people, and no amount of excuses will change that harsh fact.

JWR contributor and cultural icon Stanley Crouch is a columnist for The New York Daily News. He is the author of, among others, The All-American Skin Game, Or, the Decoy of Race: The Long and the Short of It, 1990-1994,       Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives, and Don't the Moon Look Lonesome: A Novel in Blues and Swing. Send your comments by clicking here.


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