The History Channel’s Unhistorical 'Roots'

The lie that won’t die.

Wow.  White folks really are wicked. 

At any rate, this is the only judgment for a viewer to make upon watching the History Channel’s recent remake of Alex Haley’s Roots.  

A mini-series coming in at over eight hours and airing over four nights, the newest Roots features numerous white characters: men, women, and children; Union and Confederate soldiers; British Red Coats and colonial American troops.

With a single exception—a white female Union spy—they are all portrayed as evil.  

Granted, some white characters are more sadistic than others, but virtually all—including the children—are indistinguishable from one another with respect to their unrelenting obsession with subjecting blacks to every conceivable kind of torture.  

Indeed, it is no stretch to say that the villains of Roots are about as nuanced—and evil—as such iconic comic-connish villains as Darth Vader and the Joker.  

These frames of reference from contemporary pop-culture are even more apropos than one may initially think given that Kunta Kinte, the main protagonist, and his descendants are depicted not just as heroes, but as superheroes: From enemy tribesmen in Africa to crew members on board the slave ship that transported him to America; from an overseer at the plantation to which he’s been sold to American colonists fighting in the Revolutionary War—Kunta’s kills are many.

On the Lord Ligonier, in spite of having been confined to unimaginably brutal conditions chained in the ship’s hull for months, Kunta manages to break his shackles with one swift stroke of a blade and instantly batter to death several of his captors.

That this version of Roots is made in an age in which superheroes dominate both cinema and television is also gotten easily enough by the fact that upon receiving rigorous physical training by her father, Kunta’s daughter, “Kizzy,” manages to escape her chains and drop a male slave trader several times her size all within seconds.

As for “Chicken George,” Kizzy’s son, he seems more like Marvel comics’ “The Punisher” or Sly Stallone’s “John Rambo.”  George goes from fighting chickens to dodging bullets and gunning down Confederate soldiers during the War Between the States.  During the controversial Fort Pillow battle, only George and his friend (for whom George must do the thinking) escape the bloody fate that awaited the black and white Union soldiers who lost the battle to Nathan Bedford Forest and his troops.  After the war ends, Chicken George jumps at the chance to do but more fighting against renegade Bushwhackers, and when he returns to his family for good, he shoots to death their former master right before the malevolent demon shoots George’s son Tom—who, as it turns out, engages in some super heroics himself:

Tom, while still a slave, goes on a secret mission as a spy for the Union and participates in the shooting deaths of Confederate soldiers who are friendly with his master’s vicious son. 

A critic for Time wrote in 1977 that the original miniseries’ dearth of “sympathetic” white characters and surplus of saintly blacks made its depiction of slave life at once “dramatically vulgar and historically preposterous.”  

He didn’t see anything until he saw this latest incarnation of Roots. 

Roots is fiction.  It is the roots of Roots, i.e. the truth behind the fiction, that have been suppressed like any other scandal.

And no wonder.  Readers interested in a thorough disclosure of the facts can consult here and here.  For now, a brief recap will do:

One year after the original Roots aired, Haley agreed to pay Harry Courlander, a white writer, a settlement of $650,000 (2 million dollars today) after Haley admitted in court to having plagiarized Courlander’s 1967 work, The African.  I was just trying to give my people a myth to live by,” Haley was quoted as saying. 

Not only is it the case that there is no formal corroboration of the oral tradition regarding his ancestors that Haley alleges to have received; historians and professional genealogists alike have established that all such evidence as exists—“plantation records, wills, census records”—actually contradicts Haley’s antebellum genealogy.  

Nor does his account of his post-bellum ancestry fare much better.  Courlander wasn’t the only person to have sued Haley for plagiarism.  Black poet and writer Margaret Walker charged Haley with stealing from her Civil War novel, Jubilee.  

Of course, Haley doesn’t shoulder the sole blame for all of this, for those portions of the book that he didn’t plagiarize were ghost written by “the very white, and Jewish, Murray Fisher.”  

In February of 1993, Philip Nobile, writing in The Village Voice, described Roots as “one of the great literary hoaxes of modern times.”  The late distinguished Harvard historian Oscar Handlin, a pioneer of ethnic history, declared of Haley: “A fraud’s a fraud.”

The famed black historian and “dean of Afrocentrist scholars,” John Henrik Clarke, confessed to having “cried real tears” when he discovered that Roots was a fake. Another Harvard professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—a personal friend of Haley’s—spiked the first black author to have won a Pulitzer-prize from the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature that he edited.  “Roots is a work of the imagination,” Gates told The Boston Globe, “rather than strict historical scholarship.” 

He continued: “Most of us feel it’s highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village from whence his ancestors sprang.”

Even Clarence Page, of the Chicago Tribune, a Haley defender, in the end had to begrudgingly concede that Roots was myth.  The New York Times, in a 2015 review of a Haley biography, states that this “literary Kim Philby” (a British traitor and Soviet “master spy”), as his own agent described him, “seems to have made up a great deal of the book [Roots] nearly wholesale.”

And yet the History Channel, along with producers Levar Burton and Mark Wolper, dishonestly insist that this remake of a fake is an “historical presentation.”   

 

Share