Author Archives: John Dugdale

Roots of the problem: the controversial history of Alex Haley’s book

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A work of imagination … Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte and Christ Obi as Kintango in the new adaptation of Roots. Photograph: Unknown/BBC/A+E

Haley’s influential family saga about 18th century slavery is back on TV, but its literary reputation is still tarnished by questions of authenticity

This week saw both the debut on BBC4 of a star-studded mini-series based on Alex Haley’s Roots, and the 25th anniversary of Haley’s death on 10 February 1992. That the latter was not accompanied by a clutch of major reassessments testifies to his fascinatingly ambiguous status: he is the most-read African American author ever – The Autobiography of Malcolm X (which he co-authored with the black nationalist leader) sold 6m copies in its first decade, Roots sold the same number in its first year alone – yet is forever tainted by controversy and kept out of the canon.

What’s strange about the sniffiness towards Haley is that his impact was felt in literary fiction, as well as by the 130 million Americans who viewed the (much less classy) original adaptation of Roots in 1977. Published the previous year, the saga charts the lives of six generations of Haley’s family, starting with a putative 18th-century ancestor in the Gambia, Kunta Kinte, who is enslaved and transported to America, and put slavery and Africa back on the agenda. Before Roots, leading black novelists – Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin – had largely stuck to contemporary or recent-past American subject matter. But after it, Octavia Butler used time travel to explore slavery in Kindred (1979), Alice Walker deployed an African subplot in The Color Purple (1982) and Toni Morrison made a fugitive slave her protagonist in Beloved (1987).

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