Remembering Roots

The TV dramatisation of Alex Haley’s novel ‘Roots’ enlightened many UK viewers
The TV dramatisation of Alex Haley’s novel ‘Roots’ enlightened many UK viewers

In the lead up to this years’ Academy Awards, in which 12 Years a Slave is tipped to be amongst the front runners for awards, it is as well to remember Alex Haley, author of Roots, who died this week 22 years ago.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of, to give the book its full title, ‘Roots: The Saga of an American Family,’ claimed to have chronicled his ancestors’ origins in Africa and their passage from slavery to freedom in America, died of a heart attack in Seattle, Washington on February 11, 1992, aged 70.

‘Roots,’ which was published in 1976, spurred an interest in genealogy among Americans of many ethnic heritages. The ABC television mini-series fashioned from the book attracted millions of viewers early in 1977 and is credited with awakening many Black Britons to their links with Africa.

Even if the impact on both sides of the Atlantic of his work is undeniable, doubts as to the veracity of Haley’s ‘research’ have since detracted somewhat from his legacy. One noted reviewer wrote that while “no other novelist or historian has provided such a shattering, human view of slavery,” nonetheless it would be a great loss if Haley “didn’t assemble his factual data into some sort of formal statement.”

Two copyright infringement suits relating to the book were filed against Haley. One was dismissed, but one led to a settlement between Haley and one Harold Courtlander, who had contended that a brief passage in “Roots” was taken from a novel that he had written. Haley contended that the words came from “something somebody had given me.”