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Alex Haley's Ultimate Crime

Updated on November 14, 2015
RGraf profile image

Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

It was 1976 when a remarkable book hit the shelves. It rocked the literary world. Roots was on the tongue of all readers. This book was reaching the highest in literary fame, but it had a dark secret that Alex Haley tried to hide. Based on truth, it was discovered to be a lie.

The Fame

This book took America by storm. It was on the lips of every avid reader. It got the attention of Hollywood. The movie was a sensational hit that is still talked today. Haley was even granted the Nobel Prize. The fame was huge! The public embraced it. Haley rode this fame and still does if the truth be told.

What made it even more popular was the fact it was true, or so the author claimed. He swore the story was based on his own ancestor. Haley had done extensive research, including going to Africa and hearing the tales of his ancestor from distant relatives. He did extensive genealogy searches and created a family tree. Though the story was fictitious, it was based on historical fact.

Then the secret came out.

The Dirty Secret

It was not based on historical fact. Haley’s ancestor never existed. The genealogy was falsified. He based his entire story on lies and fiction. Everything he proudly said was true was actually false.

Adamantly, he claimed all his information was in fact truthful. Yet all the research shows that nothing was true. His fiction novel was completely fiction. Sounds contradicting, but one of the biggest marketing angles was the fact that the story was based on fact, his family history. That was what really sold the book.

The Crime

What was wrong with what Haley had done? After all, it was a fiction story. That wasn’t the issue. It was the fact that he was persistent that it was all based on fact. The facts helped to sell the story. People bought the book and talked about it more because it was ‘true.’ There is just something about a fiction story being based on facts. It draws people like flies to a bright light.

Haley himself has admitted that “a large section of his book - including the plot, main character and scores of whole passages - was lifted from "The African," a 1967 novel by white author Hal Courlander.” (

Haley had lied to America and the world. He had connected himself to the book in a way that had brought him fame yet had lied about it all. Why couldn't he just say he had researched a really cool story that had to be told?

The Result

There is almost nothing resulting from Haley’s heinous crime. There has been some backlash in the media: “a 1997 BBC documentary expose of Haley's work has been banned by U.S. television networks - especially PBS.” ( But even that is minor as when I have mentioned Haley’s plagiarism, most people are shocked. They were completely unaware of it.

But it gets worse. One journalist decided to scrutinize Haley’s private documents he wrote during the actual writing of Roots. What he found made the writing of the book even more tainted. The papers showed that the original writings of the book had different names and did not reference an ancestral tie. Further investigation showed that his ancestral ties including those who lived on the plantations were all false.

Despite all this, Mr. Haley still holds his Pulitzer prize title. Despite the fact that the very basis the book is set on is false, the Pulitzer board is determined to keep the prize awarded to Mr. Haley. ( This is unbelievable since it was taken to court by the man whose work Haley stole from: “Alex Haley and his publisher were sued by Harold Courlander for having taken so much material from his novel, The African. Courlander charged that Haley had not only copied over 80 passages from his book…He said that it was doubtful that Haley could have written Roots without relying on The African.” ( Despite the many reviews and confirmations of the similarities, Haley continued to deny every using someone else’s work to create his own and even denied ever reading Courlander’s book. There must have been some foundation for the claims as Haley’s publishers settled the Courlander lawsuit. (ibid.) And after further review by many scholars, the number of plagiarized pieces was shocking. There were over eighty sections that were direct or nearly direct quotes from The African. (

Keep in mind that he wrote the book and sold it as the story of his ancestor. Everyone who read it saw more than just a story. It was seen and accepted “not just a novel, but a work of history.” ( He misled the reading public from many angles.

The question then becomes: Does Haley still deserve his Pulitzer and why is his book still praised without taking into account that another book was used to create it?

Literary Fame

Now, I'm not disputing the fact that the book is great or that the subject matter is a must read as it addresses the very controversial and touchy topic of American slavery. It brought the subject matter to the forefront of society, but does that make it okay to have lied?

For me that is the crux of it all. Why is his name still praised for this work when it was a lie and mostly copied from another book? Why aren't we exploring The African and reading the true source of the story?

Does his lie encourage other writers to steal words and stories and to lie to get their books sold? Should we still be praising Haley or be ashamed of him?

Do you see Alex Haley as a thief?

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    • RGraf profile image

      Rebecca Graf 2 years ago from Wisconsin

      Good point. Slavery wasn't new. It has been around since the beginning of time.

      Thanks for stopping by.

    • RGraf profile image

      Rebecca Graf 2 years ago from Wisconsin

      I think it would be as many white authors have been caught with stealing words and ideas. They have faced the same problems and gotten away with it themselves.

    • RGraf profile image

      Rebecca Graf 2 years ago from Wisconsin

      He admitted it. The notes he had on the writing showed that it was all a fabrication. Thank you for stopping by.

    • ahorseback profile image

      ahorseback 2 years ago

      The literary world will determine authenticity or copyrights , As to the book , the message is interpreted by each of us to its own meaning only , Is it one mans roots or is it the roots of American slavery ?Just how the book is individually reviewed in all our minds is distinctly separate from how the intent or actual historical promise was implied by the author perhaps ? Perhaps all Haley did at the time was awaken us to an actual visual of this history .

      My only real problem with it would be this , How it added to the implications by the P.C. crowd of today ,that somehow America actually invented slavery , and was even the biggest perpetrator !

    • profile image

      Bronwyn Joy Ellio 2 years ago

      Roots is still a brilliant piece of literature. If Haley were white, would this even be an issue?

    • Happy Moment profile image

      James 2 years ago from The Eastern Bypass

      How did they know that his story was not real but based on fantasy?. The good thing is that he made good money from his massive imagination.