Routes to Roots

There was a time I was a Playboy magazine subscriber. You know, I was one of those guys who didn’t care for the pictures, but loved the articles and brilliant writers. Okay, now that you got your “oh-sure” out of the way, I admit I loved both. Seriously, the best writers and journalists of the ‘60s and ‘70s were in Playboy. That’s how I discovered Alex Haley.

I admired Miles Davis, but knew very little about him except for rumors. He wouldn’t talk to anybody. He talked eloquently to Alex Haley in a Playboy interview. And so did Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis, Jr, Melvin Belli and Mohammed Ali. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his longest published interview ever to Alex Haley in Playboy. I became a Alex Haley fan.

Alex Haley co-wrote the Autobiography of Malcom X. Somehow I missed it. I never read it then. But, when Roots, The Saga of an American Family hit the bookstores in 1976, I grabbed it and soaked it in. A tremendous book.

One year later, 1977, Roots the mini-series aired on ABC. All of American watched. By the time the finale was shown, the Nielsen ratings were off the charts. It is still the third-highest watched show of all time.
My feelings about Alex Haley changed a few years later. When the plagiarism law suit was first announced I thought it was some hack trying to grab some money from the fat-pockets of Mr. Haley. I felt bad for him.

I had no Google. The local library in Lafayette had a bibliography of the fellow suing Alex Haley. His name was Harold Courlander. He was no hack. He had written 35 books and plays and numerous scholarly articles. Of his seven novels, one written in 1967, nine years before Roots, was entitled The African.

Alex Haley swore he had never heard of “The African” and he surely had never read it. Unfortunately the fellow that gave Haley a copy of The African even remembered the long conversations they had about the book. Oh-Oh.
Mr. Courlander showed that at least 81 passages were all taken from his book The African. It was also shown that Mr. Haley copied language, thoughts, attitudes, incidents, situations, plot and character.

Mr. Haley settled before the trial for $650 thousand dollars.

The mini-series Roots was nominated for 37 Emmys, won nine plus a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award. We all fell in love with the character, Kunta Kinte.

Better yet, the actor that played him, Levar Burton, went on to become one of our all-time favorites, Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Geordi LaForge

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About bakoheat

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2 Responses to Routes to Roots

  1. joanraymondwriting says:

    Fascinating post. I never knew the story behind the movie or the law suit.

    My 18year old son recently saw an excerpt from Roots and wanted to watch the entire mini-series. I found it in Target for less than $20 and bought it for the family.

    And don’t forget Reading Rainbow – Levar Burton instilled a love of reading in many of our young people because of that show.

    • bakoheat says:

      Right…we are perfect together. I tell the news from “olden times.” You give the updated news from the recent past…of which I have no recollection. I don’t remember what I had for dinner yesterday. The ’70s ruined my brain, but it was worth it.

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