Peter Pringle's America: Nothing to lose but their roots

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The Independent Online
IN Jean Louis David's barber shop on Manhattan's Park Avenue, a young hairdresser was snipping away, talking about how she had come to America from Singapore after marrying an American. I asked what her husband was and she said: 'He's ABC.'

'So he's a journalist,' I said, thinking she meant he worked for the ABC television network. 'No,' she said. 'He's an American-born-Chinese.'

'ABC', as in the older 'FBI' for foreign-born Irish, is a late addition to the long list of acronyms and ethnic identification tags used by Americans. To outsiders, Americans are easily distinguishable by their dress, dialect and general affluence, but inside the country, the divisions created by race and religion remain steadfast. Minorities, unsure how they fit into American society, continue to crave links with their past and trace their roots for reassurance, as they always have.

In 1976, black Americans, whose forebears mostly came on slave ships, discovered a new and unexpected champion in Alex Haley, the black author who traced his family back to Africa and the slave trade in Roots, a 587- page narrative that became an instant best seller. The reason why it mattered was that it gave blacks an identity in a way nothing had before. Haley was sanctified in his own community and honoured by whites when an all- white panel awarded him the Pulitzer prize for literature.

It was a great moment for a nation still suffering from a humiliating defeat in Vietnam. America needed a homespun victory, a new source of pride for all, whatever race or creed. For too long blacks had needed their slave history to be written so everyone could read it. Roots was turned into a television mini-

series that broke viewer records and Kunta Kinte, the Gambian slave Haley claimed as his relative, became a household name.

Then, as so often happens in America, the hero became a villain. In 1978, the author Harold Couriander accused Haley of plagiarising material from his book The African. In an out-of- court settlement, Haley paid dollars 650,000 (dollars 1.2m in current dollars, or pounds 863,309). Although few would say so, it was clear Haley should not be seen as a black American icon in the cast of a Robeson, a Fitzgerald or an Ellington. Even so, the Pulitzer panel could not bring themselves to take away his prize. 'Nobody wanted his ass,' observed Ben Bradlee, the former editor of the Washington Post.

This week, a year after his death, Haley's private papers are to be opened at the University of Tennessee. Although the files, according to his researcher, have been purged to prevent 'misinterpretation by nit-pickers', the material confirms that Haley played fast and loose with the evidence for his saga. It is especially apparent that Kunta Kinte, the Madinka slave boy Haley claimed arrived in America in the 18th century and was the forebear of six generations on his mother's side, was not what the writer made him out to be.

In a sneak preview of the Haley papers, the Village Voice in New York charges that new evidence shows Haley not only plagiarised parts of the book, but also invented some of his own family history. Several experts, re-interviewed by the newspaper, confirm what people feared about Roots: it was a literary hoax.

It is all very disturbing for Haley's readers, especially blacks who find their acclaimed author has become an embarrassment. And it does nothing for racial harmony to learn that Haley's liberal white editors at Doubleday set out considering Roots to be a work of fiction - as, indeed, he himself had done - rather than a work of genealogy, but later transferred it to the non-fiction list. Although they wondered about Haley's motives and his competence, they never put their author through a peer- group review.

In this case the publishers did not bother to check the facts; perhaps it fell into the category of what journalists call a story 'too good to check'.

America has its own special talent for creating legendary figures and then destroying them; this is part of the fabric of a vibrant immigrant society. And the legends live on despite exposures of fraud and fakery. Some, such as Richard Nixon, prosper. For all the tawdriness of the Roots production, most readers and viewers probably still believe in it. George Sims, Haley's childhood friend and researcher, said: 'People nit-pick the Bible. The King James version has a lot of mistakes, but it's a good story. That's what people want . . . nothing you can say will affect the readers of Roots.'

Despite the aftermath, it was a breakthrough for a black American to produce such a wildly popular account of his roots and turn the shame of slavery into a pride in their


Ultimately, however, the melting pot only works if each ethnic group is persuaded to concentrate on how it fits in, and the hope of America must be that its citizens focus not on where they came from, but on where they are.