"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.
From Stanley Crouch:
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.
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."
Last month, The New York Times ran an article commemorating the “Roots” anniversary. After several paragraphs of ritual praise for “Roots” as “timeless,” “eye-opening,” “poetic,” “gripping,” “a great drama” and containing “visual elegance and emotional power,” the article stated that the sense of horror the show engendered in viewers was real, “even if Kunta Kinte’s story did not ‘really happen’ the way Haley depicted it.” After cataloging some of the discrepancies in Haley’s work, the article rescued the author with this telling statement: “None of those details mar the effectiveness of the drama or the essential reality beneath its story. When his facts were challenged, Haley, who died in 1992, began calling his work ‘symbolic history,’ and on the levels of emotional truth and broad historical strokes, ‘Roots’ remains immensely potent.”
This description encapsulates one of the fundamental problems with modern liberalism. Emotions take precedence over facts and the truth is dismissed as mere “details.” The story of “Roots” is false, but that cannot be allowed to hinder the drama’s “essential reality beneath the story.”
For The New York Times, a foundation of specific false claims and historical inaccuracies somehow helps create broad historical strokes of “emotional truth.” The story may not be true, but the emotions of the viewer are, and this fact supposedly negates the story’s falsified premise. Thus we are told that “Roots” ultimately deserves its iconic status because it “remains immensely potent.” Not true, but “potent.”
As it turns out, there is a word for stories that did not “really happen,” but may be emotionally “potent” anyway. That word is “fiction.” There is also a word for “reality beneath the story,” “emotional truth,” and “symbolic history.” That word is “lies.”