Is Roots a true story? Why this tale of slavery and family history is so controversial

Historians and genealogists have cast doubt on Alex Haley's narrative about seven generations of his family, starting with Kunta Kinte

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Roots: The Saga of an American Family was a cultural sensation when it was published in 1976. African American author Alex Haley claimed to have traced his family history back through seven generations to Kunta Kinte, a Mandinka Warrior from the Gambia who was enslaved in 1767.

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In Roots, he told the story of his ancestors down to the present day – a narrative which was brought to TV the following year for an Emmy Award-winning TV series. The new adaptation is currently airing on BBC4

But as Roots dominated the bestseller lists, sold more than 1.5 million copies within seven months of its release, and inspired a huge swell of interest in genealogy and the history of slavery, there was a backlash: was everything as it seemed? And was this a historical account or a work of fiction?

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The 2016 adaptation of Roots, starring Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte 

Is Roots a true story?

Initially, Roots was promoted as “faction”, appearing in the non-fiction section of many bookshops: obviously dialogue and many of the small incidents were made up, but Haley was at pains to explain that the core story was all true. 

Having first heard of Kunta Kinte from family legend, Haley made heavy use of oral tradition, but he also described painstaking research in archives and libraries that backed up his findings. 

He writes in the final chapter: “To the best of my knowledge and of my effort, every lineage statement within Roots is from either my African or American families’ carefully preserved oral history, much of which I have been able conventionally to corroborate with documents. Those documents, along with the myriad textural details of what were contemporary indigenous lifestyles, cultural history, and such that give Roots flesh have come from years of intensive research in fifty-odd libraries, archives, and other repositories on three continents.”

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Roots author Alex Haley on set in 1977

Why did people cast doubts on the authenticity of Roots?

With the spotlight on Roots and Alex Haley, it soon emerged that not everything was as it seemed. 

Firstly, there was the question of plagiarism. Author Harold Courlander took Haley to court and proved that Roots had been plagiarised from his novel The African (1967), with the judge commenting: “Copying was there, period.” There was a hefty out of court settlement as at least 81 plagiarised passages were identified. 

Historians and genealogists also spoke up after following Haley’s paper trail and finding critical errors in his research work: much of the story is not supported, or is actively contradicted by the evidence.

For example, the slave “Toby” (supposedly Kunta Kinte) was owned by the Waller family five years before Kunta’s arrival in Virginia. And other timings do not match up: Toby died years before his daughter Kizzy was supposedly born, and in fact, there is no record of a Kizzy at all. In Roots, the people of Juffure have only heard rumours of white men in 1767 – but in reality the village was only two miles from a major British-occupied trading outpost that had been operating for years. 

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Alex Haley and Levar Burton, who played Kunta Kinte in the 1977 series 

Haley put a lot of focus on the oral history he heard from a griot in Juffure, which appeared to confirm his lineage.

A true griot can speak for days, accurately recalling the history of their village and the families who live in it. But the Roots author relied on the story of his family’s history he heard from Kebba Kanga Fofana, who was not a genuine griot – even the head of the Gambian National Archives wrote a letter to Haley telling him so. 

Fofana knew exactly what to tell Haley, because the author had already told Gambian officials the story he was trying to authenticate. Haley also created a case of circular reporting by telling so many people his story that it became a reality in the oral tradition of the area. 

As a historical novel, Roots’ essential narrative echoed the experience of many African slaves and their families – but it is now widely agreed to be a novel and a work of imagination and invention.  

How did Alex Haley respond?

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Laurence Fishburne plays Alex Haley in the 2016 version of Roots 

Haley did at one point concede that he may have been led astray in some parts of his research. But he also hit back, arguing that the written records were less reliable than oral sources when it came to the history of slavery in Africa and the US. 

However, even Haley’s friend, Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates, later conceded that Roots was not “strict historical scholarship” and “it’s highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village from whence his ancestors sprang.”

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Roots continues on Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC4