Accurate history is tricky with manipulators at work

February 27, 2002|By Gregory Kane

DARE I ALLOW Black History Month 2002 to end without some mention of the Roots controversy?

You know I daren't.

Roots was a novel written more than 25 years ago by Alex Haley, whose previous claim to fame was being the "as told to" writer for The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Haley said his book traced the story of his ancestor Kunta Kinte and his descendants. Kinte was supposedly kidnapped from his village of Juffure in present-day Gambia in the late 18th century, sold to slave traders and shipped to Annapolis.

Kinte was bought by a Virginia planter, and the rebellious Muslim Mandinke - after having half a foot chopped off to keep him from running away - soon adjusted enough to marry and sire several generations, from the likes of his daughter, Kizzy, his grandson, Chicken George, and finally, way down the line, Haley himself.

ABC executives turned the novel into a television miniseries, which premiered to record ratings in 1977. Haley gained riches and fame, with more than a dash of infamy along the way.

A writer named Harold Courlander charged Haley with plagiarizing parts of Roots from Courlander's novel The African. A settlement was reached. Later, there were allegations of problems with Haley's account of a Kunta Kinte from the village of Juffure being kidnapped and enslaved.

When Roots appeared in reruns recently as part of a 25th anniversary celebration, several writers had a field day roasting Haley anew, claiming that none of his story was true.

It's easy to kick a dead guy. The living-impaired are so, well, compliant. They protest not. Haley, who died in 1992, can't defend himself. Not that he had much defense to offer. But the question those waxing so righteous about Haley's trying to pass fiction off as history need to answer is this: What took you guys so long?

I don't say this to brag - OK, let's not discuss one lie by telling another, I do say this to brag: I had suspicions about Haley's account of Kunta Kinte earlier than most folks, right after I read Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali.

Sundiata is a mythical account of the founder of the West African empire of Mali. I was struck by the account given of Sundiata's griot - in African tradition one who has memorized the oral history of the tribe or village. Sundiata's griot was named Balla Faseke. When Sundiata smiled, Balla Faseke smiled. When Sundiata frowned, his face mirrored the expression of the future emperor. On command, Balla Faseke would recite the daring deeds and exploits of Sundiata.

"Boy," I said while reading the book. "It sounds like this Balla Faseke fella was kept around to tell Sundiata what he wanted to hear. I wonder if all griots were kept around to tell folks what they wanted to hear. Wait a minute! Wasn't that guy in the Gambia who confirmed Alex Haley's account of Kunta Kinte's lineage a griot? Uh, oh."

That was my first reason for doubting the veracity of Roots. The second was the doubts I had about the book Haley wrote before it: The Autobiography of Malcolm X. You have to wonder why the same writers who pillory the accuracy of Roots haven't criticized Malcolm X's life story as told to Haley. Perhaps it's because with the latter, you have to read it several times to pick up that something is terribly wrong.

It's not that Malcolm X lied in his autobiography - although, like all such works in the genre, it's heavy on the auto and light on the bio. It's that he skillfully played everybody - his publishers, the readers, Haley - for saps. He painted a picture of himself as Mr. Innocent Victim while portraying Elijah Muhammad as evil incarnate. The truth is a bit more complex.

Malcolm X said he was forced out of the Nation of Islam when he was accused of spreading rumors that Muhammad impregnated several of his secretaries. The women filed paternity suits, Malcolm trumpeted in his autobiography. His "chickens coming home to roost" comment about President John F. Kennedy's assassination was used as an excuse to silence, suspend and eventually banish him, Malcolm protested.

Chokes you up, doesn't it? What Malcolm didn't mention - and Haley didn't bother to check - was that the paternity suits were filed at Malcolm's insistence and with his assistance. Malcolm X said that Muhammad issued two directives to his ministers regarding the Kennedy assassination: to make no comment and to say "no comment" if pressed.

Malcolm disobeyed both but never told why.

In fact, on the occasion when he made the "chicken roost" statement, Malcolm read, at length, from a prepared speech in which he made disparaging remarks about Kennedy at least 10 times. Don't take my word for it. Buy the book The End of White World Supremacy - the text of that speech - and check it.

Malcolm had adeptly baited reporters into asking the very question he wanted them to ask. Only he knew why, and he took that secret to the grave.

What is no secret is that this business of getting accurate accounts of history is a tricky one indeed. It's even trickier when a Malcolm X or an Alex Haley try to manipulate it.

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