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A Note from Mr. Gage

Here is another look at Alex Haley. And your grandma is uglier than mine, too.

-- Ken Gage, 8 January 2002

MEDIA DISSENT: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in the Dock

Another Look at Alex Haley's Roots

Philip Nobile is a former media columnist for New York magazine and is completing a novel about the pope.

How hard is it for the editor of an encyclopedia to say whether he read a biographical entry before running it under his imprimatur? Too hard for Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., editor of Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. When I asked Gates if he had read the book's entry on Alex Haley prior to publication last year, he refused to answer. Instead he passed me off to his co-editor and Harvard colleague Anthony Appiah, who then likewise clammed up on his foreknowledge of the Haley bio.

What is the big secret? Why the unacademic silence from Gates and Appiah? Because the glowing Haley entry--written in eight hours by a moonlighting Harvard kid who never read Roots---not only portrays the troubled author in a false light, but also clashes with Gates's previous rebuke of Haley's African claims.

As reported in last week's column on the New York Times's Haley problem, Gates excluded Roots from the 2660-page Norton Anthology of African American Literature, which he edited in 1996. This was a stinging blow to Haley's legacy. After all, he was the first black novelist to earn a Pulitzer Prize and Roots is generally ranked with the great black books of the twentieth century. What possible reason could justify Gates's disappearing act?

"Let's speak candidly," Gates explained to Alex Beam of the Boston Globe (November 3, 1998). "Most of us feel it's highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village from which his ancestors sprang. Roots is a work of the imagination rather than strict historical scholarship. It was an important event because it captured everyone's imagination." Translation from Gates's buttery diplomatese: Haley was a literary imposter who slicked the discovery of Kunta Kinte, and ripped off black history as well as other writers' words, and I'll be damned to stick him in the Norton just because Roots sold a zillion copies and the miniseries broke Neilsen records. Sometimes race solidarity demands too much.

Gates's stand in the Norton Anthology seems honorable, though misguided. It would have been better to excerpt Roots, thereby recognizing its cultural significance, while simultaneously noting Haley's admitted plagiarism and proven fabrications. Making Roots invisible is a disservice to scholarship. On the other hand, the treatment of Haley in the Africana is an affront to black studies.

The amateur, 625-word bio extols Haley as a noble, hardworking, and accomplished writer who (a) "attempted to recreate the Middle Passage experience of enslaved Africans by sleeping in the hold of a transatlantic ship;" (b) "traced [his] own maternal lineage back to an enslaved West African named Kunta Kinte;" and (c) regarding a costly plagiarism case, "concede[d] that given his extensive and often unannotated note-taking, he had accidentally used material from author Harold Courlander's book The African (1968)."

In reality, Haley was a literary rogue with more credibility issues than Lillian Hellman. His prose was so inept that he required ghosts throughout his career. The true author of Roots, as I learned from reading Haley's posthumous papers and interviewing his original editor at Doubleday, was Murray Fisher, Haley's editor at Playboy.

As for the three factual claims cited above: (a) Haley sailed the Red Star from Dakar to Florida in 1973, but the hold story was counterfeit. "That never happened," said the ship's first mate, Frank Ewers. "I had the keys to the hold and Haley never went down there at night. He would have died from the cocoa fumes." (b) Kunta Kinte was an historical imposter invented by Haley with the full cooperation of Gambian government officials according to tapes left in Haley's archives and featured in a BBC documentary. (c) No unwitting word thief, he stole the main plot and character from Courlander's novel, which is why he paid a huge $650,000 settlement in 1978 -- but only after a threat of perjury from the trial judge. None of these corrections is contested. All were previously published in reputable newspapers and magazines.

Consequently, Gates's evasion is understandable. If he says that he read and okayed the Haley bio, he appears intellectually dishonest. If he admits that he did not read it, he confirms the complaint that he has abandoned scholarship for entrepreneurship. Which is it?

Probably a combination of both. With a staggering workload and busy travel schedule, Gates surely did not devote much time, if any, to reviewing copy. The Africana itself was notorious for its shoddy labor practices -- e.g., low pay, unqualified writers, and assembly-line production.

The intellectual dishonesty comes in for certain ex post facto. Brushing off my criticism last year, Appiah wrote, "We will continue to work to improve the content of the encyclopedia if there are any future editions, and we are grateful to all those who identify factual errors for us." Yet both he and Gates have declined either to retract or correct the erroneous bio.

Although the book and CD-ROM versions of the encyclopedia resist quick fixes, the online version can be altered with a few clicks. But to this day a search for "Alex Haley" on brings up the misleading entry transforming a pious fraud into an approved classic.

SUBTEXT: I knew that it would be difficult to get a straight answer from Gates after he told me, contrary to his disparaging remark in the Boston Globe, that Haley's absence from the Norton Anthology was unrelated to previous demolitions: "We didn't exclude Alex Haley from the canon, he just didn't make the cut. They're a lot of people who were good who just didn't make the cut. It didn't have anything to do with the issues you raise."

Click here to read more on this topic. The above info has been preserved here because it's the sort of knowledge that seems to disappear in this age of ephemeral information. I first learned about it a decade or so ago from Kurt Saxon. Personally, I take the advice of Wiliam S. Burroughs and "borrow" freely when writing fiction. Samples, cut ups, fold ins -- all apply to the manipulation of the written word, its meanings and contexts. That Alex Haley's fictionalized account of a search for his African origins (Roots) was largley plagiarized from white author Harold Courlander's The African is just a minor denigration. That it's mistaken for truth is funny, sad, absurd, infuriating and expected; the fact is that fiction makes up a lot of our history, but usually there's no one alive (nor experienced enough) to keep out the errors and raise the important disputes. Tomorrow, our lives may be blotted out of history books with a casual, ever-so-light, unobserved striking of a DELETE key.

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