3 Mark Ottaway

In the midst of Haley’s legal difficulties, the country of Gambia, which Kunta Kinte had called home, had become a popular tourist attraction—especially for affluent African Americans in search of their ancestry. The tiny coastal West African nation had been propelled into the spotlight for the first time since its independence in 1965 from the United Kingdom. The Gambian government declared the village of Juffure, where Haley first had located his ancestors, as a national monument. The village, a throwback to the eighteenth century, became so popular that it had been overrun with foreigners, forcing government officials to limit the number of days the public could visit.

Recognizing a potential story, a shaggy-haired British journalist convinced his employer, The [London] Sunday Times, to cover his costs while he investigated the changes this impoverished nation had experienced since the Roots phenomenon began. His name was Mark Ottaway. Upon arrival, Ottaway noted that Juffure, national monument or not, looked like every other village along the Gambian River. It was as if time had stood still. Villagers lived in mud-walled huts with no windows. Paved roads, electricity, and indoor plumbing were nowhere to be seen.

Hoping Rootsmania would revitalize its lackluster economy, the Gambian government was in the process of planning to turn this village into an attractive destination. The Juffure residents, who rarely had had visitors before, were also hoping for a trickle-down effect. They all knew the protocol—greet the rich foreigners (everyone was rich in comparison to them) and walk them over to the Kinte family quarters. It wasn’t the original hut of Kunta Kinte, but it was the current home of his supposed ancestors. This little finagling of the truth the British journalist expected. What he did not anticipate, after speaking with several villagers, was that Kunta Kinte, upon whom Haley had based his genealogical story, was beginning to sound questionable and possibly made up. Though Haley had admitted that the dialogue in his book was mostly fiction, the story was presumed true since the publisher itself labeled Roots nonfiction. The author had never discussed the validity of the timelines, locations, or characters and there were no footnotes, endnotes, or a bibliography. After conducting interviews with local villagers and government officials, Ottaway’s travel assignment evolved into an exposé.

After a week of fact checking in Gambia and another in London, Ottaway, whom the New York Times described as a “reporter with a reputation for integrity,” uncovered “grave flaws” in the author’s research. Juffure, according to Ottaway, was not a little hamlet inhabited by docile Africans during the eighteenth century as Haley inferred. Rather the village was an established European “trading post,” where even the Gambians themselves took part in the slave trade.

There was more.

When Haley taught at Hamilton College, a small liberal arts school in upstate New York, he met a Gambian student, Ebou Manga, who joined him on his first trip to Gambia in 1967. Manga’s father, a high-ranking government official, arranged for Haley to meet with a committee of powerful citizens assigned to help trace the author’s ancestors.

When Haley returned to the United States, a telegram arrived from Gambia informing him that the committee had found Haley’s ancestors. Haley caught the next flight back, met with committee members, and then traveled to Juffure by boat. At the village, Haley was introduced to an elderly man in his seventies, a “griot” (the village’s chief storyteller).

Ottaway also spoke with the griot. He was savvy enough to see that the storyteller was hardly a reliable source, and he was shocked to learn that Haley had not verified any of the griot’s stories. Further inquiry uncovered enough details to suggest that Kunta Kinte was a figment of Haley’s imagination. Haley had shared his own theories and research with the committee in advance of his meeting with the griot in Juffure; the committee had economic motives to find a griot who would confirm Haley’s story. The griot, Ottaway determined, was a man of “notorious unreliability,” who had no training (traditionally received from the village’s previous griot) and was known for his “playboy” lifestyle. Ottaway soon discovered that the head of the Gambian National Archives had tipped off Haley three years before Roots went to print, writing that he had “doubts about [Kebba] Fofana’s [the griot’s] reliability.” Worse, Fofana’s son admitted to Ottaway that his father was not a griot at all. There had been no legitimate griot in Juffure for quite some time.

Continuing on his mission, Ottaway was unable to verify the author’s assertion that in 1766 slave traffickers had seized Kunta Kinte. The alleged slave ship records used to trace Kunta’s whereabouts from Africa to America were not listed where Haley said they were. Ottaway sifted through documents Haley had researched years earlier but came up with nothing. There was no list of cargo in any of the records, let alone itemized details of which slaves were taken on which ship.

When interviewing the Gambian villagers about their own heritage, Ottaway grew more skeptical. He found it suspicious that none of the Gambians were able to recite or even recall any historical tales that went beyond a hundred years except for one—that of a lowly villager named Kunta Kinte.

Before The [London] Sunday Times went public with Ottaway’s piece, Haley was given an opportunity to respond. Based on the reporter’s recollection of the conversation, Haley admitted that his research, accumulated over the years, had become “so confusing, so obscured by contradictory statements from different sources, that he [Haley] very nearly decided to make the African section, if not the entire book, a mere historical novel.” Although “neither you nor I know exactly what happened,” Haley allegedly said, the story of Roots represented the “symbol of the fate of my people.”

“Tangled Roots” was published on April 10, 1977, in The [London] Sunday Times, the same week Haley was due in London for a publicity tour in anticipation of Roots’ UK premiere broadcast. The New York Times and the wire services quickly picked up the five-thousand-word article. Bombarded by the international media, Haley’s response was different from the one he supposedly gave to Ottaway. “I spent twelve years doing this book,” he said, “and I resent any person who is obviously opportunistic, spending seven days in Africa and then writing a story which seeks to blemish the deepest, strictest, most honest research I could do, given the materials I had to work with.” In other interviews, he suggested that Ottaway was the fraud. On Good Morning America, Haley accused his British antagonist of “looking for a headline.” He went as far as to charge Ottaway with racism. To suggest Roots did not occur was “like saying that Anne Frank never existed or that the whole Nazi thing was a hoax.”

The archivist from the Gambian National Archives, who had expressed doubts about Haley’s sources, now defended the author of Roots, suggesting the information that he had provided the reporter was “misconstrued.” John Henrik Clarke, a leading African American historian, believed the attacks on Haley were part of a “broader attempt to demean anything Black people have to say about the slavery experience.” Literary critic Herb Boyd thought Haley to be a “man of great integrity” and that Ottaway’s accusations “should be relegated to obscurity.”

When Ottaway publicly challenged Haley to a debate during the author’s London visit, Haley agreed to take the critic “head on,” but then backed out.

A diversion came at the perfect moment. Haley was asked to make a return pilgrimage to Gambia. Unlike his first visit a decade earlier, when he was an unknown writer escorted by a college student, now he was accompanied by a full-fledged entourage, including his brother George, an attorney; his brother Julius, a US Navy architect; agent Lou Blau; his public-relations representative Ofield Dukes; reporters from People, Newsweek, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Ebony; and an ABC camera crew. Haley was welcomed by dancers, drummers, soldiers, and prominent members of the government. The Gambian officials were delighted to see the American media represented. Perhaps it would generate much-needed tourism dollars. For the villagers of Juffure, it proved a historic day—for many, it was the first time they had ever seen a camera, let alone one that shot video. Haley asked his younger brother Julius to construct a new mosque for the local inhabitants, many of whom were Muslim. Haley would pay for it.

On his way back to New York, while held up in customs on a layover in London, Haley was notified that he’d been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Surrounded by journalists from the leading newspapers and magazines from back home, the media immediately demanded a response. One reporter said he uttered only three words, “I’ll be damned.” Another quoted him as saying, “Aw shit, baby. Ain’t that incredible?”

Back in the United States, he returned to his routine of hotel rooms, book signings, and public talks. News of the prize seemed to have reduced the Ottaway incident to a hiccup. But within a week of his return, there was a new detractor.

Like Haley, Margaret Walker came from a well-to-do Southern, African American family. A professor of literature at Jackson State University in Mississippi, Walker was a black female in a profession dominated by white men. She had authored the best-selling Civil War novel, Jubilee, loosely based on her grandmother’s life. It was quite similar to portions of Roots, but Jubilee had preceded Roots by a decade. Held in high regard in academic circles, Walker was largely unknown to the general public. Jubilee, she believed, would have attained more success had she been white like Margaret Mitchell who wrote Gone with the Wind or male like Alex Haley. Walker was livid about Roots. She was convinced that it contained parts lifted from Jubilee. She contacted her attorney (and son), F.J. Alexander, and pinpointed thirty-five examples that could be construed as plagiarism. Haley was soon back in court.

As the plaintiff, the burden was on Walker to prove her case; her publisher offered no support. Although Haley admitted “numerous similarities of theme, structure, and language” between the two books, his legal team made clear that it wouldn’t be enough to convict him on copyright infringement. These similarities, Haley’s lawyers argued, were common in books that covered similar periods or topics. Roots editor Lisa Drew thought the charges were “ridiculous.” No matter how absurd, the Doubleday lawyer was not surprised that Haley was targeted. Every best-selling author was vulnerable, especially those “who write blockbuster books.” Others came to Haley’s defense. The Washington Post maintained that Walker’s case was a stretch. A colleague of Walker’s thought her suit “smacked of bitterness.”

But the federal court magistrate found enough evidence to take the case to trial. Copyright infringement was not determined solely on “verbatim copying”; borrowing liberally could also be construed as infringement. Haley’s defense rested on the premise that he had not read Jubilee, which to Walker seemed unlikely given the similar topic and amount of research he had done. Walker was confident she had a solid case. And she wasn’t the only one.


Alex Haley's Roots Copyright © 2014 by Adam Henig. All Rights Reserved.


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