Author Alex Haley Is Sued for Plagiarism

Alex Haley’s quasi-autobiographical and semifictional book Roots, marketed as nonfiction by its publisher, earned him a Pulitzer Prize and raised his status as a writer and model of the value of genealogical research. In 1978, writer Harold Courlander sued Haley for plagiarizing parts of his 1967 novel The African. In later years, Haley faced other charges of falsification of his research. The importance of his landmark work survived, however, and its lasting significance has overshadowed the controversy.

Summary of Event

The publication of Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family in the U.S. bicentennial year of 1976 was a landmark event. The book’s publisher, Doubleday, planned what was, for an African American author, an unprecedented initial print run of 200,000 copies, but that printing quickly sold out. In its first year, Roots would sell more than one million copies, leading to Haley’s receipt of a special Pulitzer Prize. Twenty-five years later, the book had sold more than eight million copies in twenty-eight countries and had been translated into thirty-three languages. [kw]Haley Is Sued for Plagiarism, Roots Author Alex (1978)
[kw]Plagiarism, Roots Author Alex Haley Is Sued for (1978)
Haley, Alex
Roots (Haley)
Courlander, Harold
Haley, Alex
Roots (Haley)
Courlander, Harold
[g]United States;1978: Roots Author Alex Haley Is Sued for Plagiarism[01710]
[c]Law and the courts;1978: Roots Author Alex Haley Is Sued for Plagiarism[01710]
[c]Literature;1978: Roots Author Alex Haley Is Sued for Plagiarism[01710]
[c]Plagiarism;1978: Roots Author Alex Haley Is Sued for Plagiarism[01710]
[c]Public morals;1978: Roots Author Alex Haley Is Sued for Plagiarism[01710]

Haley called Roots “faction,” or a mix of fact and fiction, and later referred to the work as symbolic history, but Doubleday had marketed the book as straight nonfiction, which only worsened the controversy. In 1978, novelist and anthropologist Harold Courlander sued Haley for having plagiarized passages from his novel The African (1967). After a five-week trial, Haley and Courlander settled out of court, with Haley publicly acknowledging his debt to Courlander (claiming research assistants had given him material from the novel without fully citing its source) and paying him $650,000. The incredible success of Roots, first as a book and then, in January, 1977, a twelve-hour television miniseries, seems to have eased the scorn of the plagiarism scandal. Haley’s fabrications seem forgotten in the light of the longevity and popularity of Roots.

Roots the miniseries had been a broadcasting sensation, breaking viewership records as it was watched closely by more than 130 million people over eight successive nights (January 23-30). The story clearly had touched a chord in the American consciousness, not only among African Americans but also among Americans of every ethnicity and race. The story dramatized the violence against one group of Americans by another, and it had viewers learning about an ethnic history not known by many. For the book, Haley claimed that he had traced seven generations of his family, from the coast of Gambia in West Africa—where his distant ancestor, Kinte, Kunta Kunta Kinte, was captured by slave traders in 1767—to the plantation in Tennessee where he first worked and started the family that would lead, two centuries and five generations later, to Haley’s re-creations of his family history. The last three chapters of the book recount this search for Haley’s roots.

This case was only the first of a series of revelations about the questionable research methods used to write Roots. In 1988, novelist Margaret Walker Walker, Margaret sued Haley, claiming he had plagiarized material from her novel Jubilee
Jubilee (Walker) (1966). That case was dismissed, but in 1984, noted historians Gary Mills Mills, Gary and Elizabeth Shown Mills Mills, Elizabeth Shown challenged Haley’s research, showing that his genealogy was flawed in a number of ways. In 1993, writer Philip Nobile Nobile, Philip published in the weekly newspaper Village Voice an exhaustive investigation into the Haley papers (deposited after Haley’s death in 1992 at the University of Tennessee). In the report, “Uncovering Roots,” Nobile details how Haley fabricated much of his family’s story.

The charges against Haley, however, had less effect than critics expected. The book had become a staple in college courses during the late 1970’s, and although fewer courses after the controversy listed Roots as required reading, this dip was mostly likely due to the publication of other related works—books that were sparked in part by Roots. Before the arrival of Roots—the book and the television miniseries—most Americans knew African history only through such caricatures as the Tarzan films and knew of slave life through works such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s melodramatic novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Stowe)[Uncle Toms Cabin (Stowe)] (1852) or Margaret Mitchell’s Mitchell, Margaret romantic novel Gone with the Wind
Gone with the Wind (Mitchell) (1936) and the 1939 film of the same name.

Following Roots, black history became an even greater focus of study in colleges and universities nationwide, leading to the further creation of a stream of ethnic history and literature that would flow from writers of all races and ethnicities into the twenty-first century. Related narratives included Toni Morrison Morrison, Toni ’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved
Beloved (Morrison) (1987), which tells the story of a fugitive Kentucky slave in 1851 who kills her baby rather than return it to a life of slavery; the National Book Award-winning novel Middle Passage
Middle Passage (Johnson) (1990) by Johnson, Charles Charles Johnson, which is a fictionalized account of the journey that captured African slaves were forced to take from their homeland to the Americas; and the National Book Award-winning Slaves in the Family
Slaves in the Family (Ball) (1998) by Ball, Edward Edward Ball, about his family’s slaveholding past and his attempts to connect to those African Americans his family had owned as slaves.

Some scholars have dismissed Haley’s work as something other than historical research; Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., questions whether Haley actually found the Gambian village of Kunta Kinte. Other scholars have challenged the account of the griot, or oral historian, relating to Haley the story of his ancestors. Despite all the criticisms and charges, however, most scholars understand the imaginative power of Haley’s work and its lasting symbolic effect. Like Haley’s other best-known work, The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Autobiography of Malcolm X, The (Haley) (1965), which is based on interviews with the black Muslim leader, Roots remains a key chapter in the American narrative. The book dramatizes the cruelties of slavery—the economic and sexual exploitation and the separation of families.


The effect of the charges against Haley was less severe than experts predicted. Most critics have come to realize that the scandal was caused, in part, by the publisher’s marketing of Roots as a nonfiction work. Readers naturally expected that “nonfiction” meant “not fictionalized,” as are works of history. In retrospect, it is clear that Roots is closer to being a novel, or an autobiographical novel, because so much of its narrative was reconstructed from oral cultures. Had Doubleday advertised Roots as a work of fiction, the controversy would have been negligible. Likewise, if Roots had been marketed more strictly as a memoir, it might have been granted greater latitude as well. In the end, Roots, and even Haley’s reputation, has outlasted the 1978 scandal. The book is a work of imaginative power that filled a crucial gap in U.S. history when it was published. Whether a novel, “faction,” memoir, historical fiction, or straight nonfiction, it tells a necessary story that continues to intrigue. Haley, Alex
Roots (Haley)
Courlander, Harold

Further Reading

  • Bundles, A’Lelia. “Looking Back at the Roots Phenomenon.” Black Issues Book Review 3 (July/August, 2001): 12-15. Pays tribute to Haley for his contributions to African American literature and oral history, and compares other works on African history.
  • Courlander, Harold. The African. New York: Crown Books, 1967. Courlander, who sued Haley for plagiarism, prefigures the story of Kunta Kinte in his novel about a twelve-year-old boy’s capture and horrific sea voyage to the United States and his attempts to hold onto or re-create his African background in the New World.
  • Mills, Gary B., and Elizabeth Shown. “The Genealogist’s Assessment of Alex Haley’s Roots.” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 72 (March, 1984): 35-49. The authors, who visited archives in Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland, reveal evidence to challenge both the chronology and the character identification of Roots.
  • Nobile, Philip. “Uncovering Roots.” Village Voice, February 23, 1993. Nobile followed the court cases, studied the manuscripts of Roots, and interviewed a number of people connected with the book to conclude it was a fabrication.
  • Osagie, Iyunolu. “Routed Passages: Narrative Memory and Identity in Alex Haley’s Roots.” CLA Journal 47 (June, 2004): 391-408. Examines the themes of the book, including collective memory and identity formation.
  • Rasmussen, R. Kent.“’Roots’: A Growing Thicket of Controversy.” Los Angeles Times, April 24, 1977, p. V1. Op-ed article by a historian of Africa challenging Haley’s research methods, particularly his alleged reliance on the evidence of a Gambian griot.
  • Taylor, Helen.“’The Griot from Tennessee’: The Saga of Alex Haley’s Roots.” Critical Quarterly 37 (June, 1995): 46-62. Comprehensive scholarly coverage of the controversy, plus a balanced assessment of the lasting impact of Roots.

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