Reed Irvine - Editor
|April B , 1977||V - 8|
DOUBTS ABOUT ROOTS
Roots by Alex Haley stood number one on The New York Times list of nonfiction best sellers on April 17, but evidence is mounting that it is improperly classified. As a result of an investigation made by Mark Ottaway it appears that Roots belongs in the category of fiction.
Ottaway published the findings of his investigation of the African side of Haley's story in the London Sunday Times of April 10. He has east grave doubt on the accuracy of Haley's claim that he succeeded in identifying an ancestor who had been captured near the village of Juffure in Gambia and taken as a slave to America in 1767.
Haley has said that he invented incidents and dialogue in writing the story of his family, but he has claimed, "every lineage statement within Roots is from either my African or American families' carefully preserved oral history, much of which I have been able conventionally to corroborate with documents." He described the book as "a novelized amalgam of what I know took place together with what my researching led me to plausibly feel took place."
What made Roots the sensational success it has been as a book and television drama is the claim that the basic story is factual even though it has been fleshed out with imaginary dialogue and incidents. Without the claim that Haley had accomplished the feat of actually tracing his ancestry back to the African village of Juffure. The book would have been just another work of fiction, a modernized Life Among the Lowly (better known as Uncle Tom's Cabin).
Haley's "carefully preserved oral history" of his American family is the assertion that his grandmother said that the family was descended from an African called "Kintay," who talked of a river called the "Kamby Bolongo" and referred to a guitar a "ko." This ancestor said that he had been captured by slavers while he was out chopping wood to make a drum and that he had been shipped to a port he called "Naplis."
Haley's research led to the conclusion that this ancestor was a member of the Mandinka tribe of Gambia, where Kinte (pronounced Kintay) was a common family name. The Mandinka name for the Gambia River was "Kamby Bolong," and they had a stringed instrument made from a gourd, which they called a "ko."
This information led Haley to journey to Gambia. There he met with local tribal experts to see if the sparse clues he had could possibly lead him to his African family. The experts explained that there was no written African history in the country. The best he could hope for was to find a "griot." They explained that griots are a hereditary caste whose function is to transmit the family trees and history of the families they serve. The information was passed from father to son. Haley was told that the griots were dying out, but they would try to locate one who knew the history of the Kinte fannly.
The Kintes lived mainly in the former kingdom of Baddibu, which begins 20 miles up the river from the village of Juffure. No griot was found in that area who could be of any help to Haley. But when the search was widened to include Juffure, someone was found who provided a "fit" to the story told by Haley's grandmother. This was an old man named Kebba Fofana.
In his book, Haley tells of going to see this "griot" who recounted the history of the Kinte family for two hours and then casually mentioned that "about the time the King's soldiers came" one Kunta Kinte went out to chop wood and was never seen again.
Haley wrote: "I sat as if carved of stone. My blood seemed to have congealed. This man whose lifetime had been in this back-country African village had no way in the world to know that he had just echoed what I had heard all through my boyhood years on my grandma's front porch in Henning Tennessee."
Mark Ottaway spoils this dramatic discovery by pointing out (a) that Kebba Fofana was not a genuine griot; (b) that Fofana knew that Haley was coming to Juffure and probably knew what he was looking for; and (c) that Fofana later repeated his story for the Gamblan Archives using names for members of Kunta Kinte's family that were different from those he had given Haley.
Ottaway asks if Kebba Fofana, the fake griot, did not take Alex Haley for a ride, telling him just what he knew Haley wanted to hear. Haley chose to believe Fofana, but the evidence advanced by Ottaway suggests that his confidence was misplaced. Kunta Kinte, it appears, does not stand up to rigorous tests for historical truth.
Kebba Fofana died about nine months ago. He was 76 years old when he gave his deposition for the archives. He was one of the older inhabitants of Juffure, but he had not been trained as a griot. His father had been an Imam, a Muslim priest, but Fofana had not succeeded to that occupation. He was said to have lacked interest in scholarship and to have been more interested in sowing wild oats than in studying. This was hardly the kind of training that would prepare a man to memorize obscure events that had occurred two centuries earlier.
True, Fofana had associated with the village elders and had learned stories from them, but the leading authority on Gambian history, Bakary Sidibe, told Ottaway "to get a long, detailed and sustained narrative from an elder is rare."
Today no villagers can remember the name of any ancestor captured by slavers, except that of Kunta Kinte, Ottaway says.
Ottaway casts strong doubt on the reliability of Fofana's memory. He notes that in Roots Kunta Kinte's father is named Omoro and it is mid that Kunta's grandfather was the first Kinte to arrive in Juffure. Ottaway says that in the deposition subsequently given to the Gambian archive, Fofana said Kunta's father was named Lamin and that he was the first Kinte to come to Juffure. According to Ottaway, he also gave different names to Kunta's three brothers from those he had given Haley.
Fofana's statement about the date of Kunta Kinte's disappearance was vague-"about the time the king's soldiers came." Haley decided that the date was 1767, but actually the first detachment of English soldiers arrived in Juffure on March 7, 1661, according to Ottaway. Both the French and Portuguese had preceded them and had settlements within about a mile of Juffure. The French and English soldiers were battling for control of the river, and the fort on James Island, two miles from Juffure changed hands four times in the furst 20 years of the 18th century. The fort was destroyed in 1721, and the British garrison had lived in Juffure for five months while their barracks were being rebuilt.
With such a long history of the presence of "king's soldiers" in the area, why did Haley decide that 1767 was the date of Kunta Kinte's abduction? He told Ottaway that his research in America showed that his ancestor must have been skipped to Annapolis before 1768, and the only ship that had journeyed from Gambia to Annapolis in the 1760s had made the trip in 1767. And how did that fit with the arrival of the king's soldiers in Juffure? Haley said this had to refer to a body of British troops under a Col. O'Hare (actually O'Hara), which arrived in Gambia in April 1766. "In other words," Ottaway says, "Haley simply found an African event to fit his American research."
But this clashes with what Fofana says about the time of Kunta Kinte's shipment to America. In his deposition, Fofana said that Kunta Kinte had been held on James Island for seven years after his capture. Haley has him being shipped immediately after his capture.
Fofana had portrayed conditions in Juffure at the time of Kunta Kinte's alleged abduction as lawless. In his deposition he said: "In those days people raided each other. They kidnapped children. They carried them off. They sold them everywhere in the country. They took them to America... There were no laws."
Ottaway, however, claims that it is extremely unlikely that slavers could have captured any inhabitant of Juffure in 1767. He notes that the British occupied James Island off Juffure under the sufferance of the King of Barra. They depended on Juffre both for water and for trade. He says that the King permitted them to trade under the condition that none of his subjects should be taken as slaves. The only exception was when the King sold as slaves subjects who had incurred his displeasure. Otherwise, the slaves had to be captured from other kingdoms farther up the river.
Ottaway says that the governor of James Island was under strict orders to punish any trader trying to carry, off any free subject of the King of Barra. The governor therefore made it his practice to allow no slave ship to sail from James Island until he was convinced that all the slaves had been acquired legally. Ottaway notes that more trivial incidents than the abduction of a free subject of the King of Barra caused the king to cut off the water supply or attack the fort. He says that since no such incidents were recorded in 1767, if a Kunta Kinte, a resident of Juffure, was shipped in 1767 he must have been a slave or a felon, sold by the King of Barra himself.
Ottaway also points out that Haley's picture of the village of Juffure in 1767 was far from reality. Haley shows the village as uncorrupted by contact with Europeans. The people had heard of slavers and feared them, but nobody had met a white man, and only a few had seen them. Actually, the village was a British trading post. Haley is quoted as telling Ottaway: "I know Juffure was a British trading post and my portrait of the village bears no resemblance to the way it was. But the portrait I gave was true of nearly all the other villages in Gambia. I, we, need a place called Eden. My people need a Pilgrim's Rock. I wanted to portray our original culture in its pristine state, and I know it is a fair portrayal. But you are absolutely right and fair to say, however, that it is not the way Juffure then was."
Ottaway concludes that Haley has failed to prove that he had an ancestor named Kunta Kinte who was captured by slavers in Juffure in 1767.
Harvard historian, David H. Donald, found Roots fiddled with errors on the American side of the story. Writing in Commentary last December, Professor Donald said that he couldn't judge the accuracy of the African narrative, but once Haley had Kunta Kinte in America, the historical plausibility of his story deteriorated.
He noted factual errors and distortions on page after page. He cites four.
1. Haley has Kunta Kinte sold in 1768 for $850, a price nearly three times what Virginia planters were paying for prime, seasoned field hands.
2. Kunta is promptly set to work in a cotton field, although virtually no cotton was grown in Virginia at that time.
3. Kunta hears of big plantations along the river bottoms in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama at a time when the Spanish owned Louisiana and Alabama and Mississippi were populated only by Indians.
4. The most serious blunder, says Prof. Donald, is Haley's tale of Kunta's grandson, "Chicken George," becoming the property of an Englishman in the 1850s, traveling with him to England, and returning to America in 1860, still a slave. Prof. Donald points out that under British law, "Chicken George" would have become a free man once he set foot on British soil. Haley has George landing in New York, where the personal liberty laws would have guaranteed his freedom, and returning docilely to the South to entreat his master for liberty.
Professor Donald concluded: "Whatever Mr. Haley may know about Africa, he simply has not done enough reading about the South, about slavery, about American agriculture -to say nothing about general American history-to give his novel a convincing background."
Donald is not alone in his criticism of the historical errors in Haley's work. Writing in The New York Review of Books of November 11, 1976, Professor Willie Lee Rose of Johns Hopkins University, noted errors similar to those cited above, saying that they were "too numerous." Professor Rose also pointed out that the village of Juffure was nothing like Haley portrayed it, and that it was inconceivable, given the power of the local African king, that two white men should have dared come ashore and kidnap Kunta Kinte in the vicinity of Juffure."
Others have criticized the book, and even more the ABC dramatization of it, on the grounds that whites were portrayed only negatively, their cruelty and lust exaggerated. For example, Kevin Phillips writing in TV Guide said: "I think that ABC has an obligation to air a major documentary defusing the distortions of January. 23-30 by also discussing the circumstances described by Professors Kiernan (The Lords of Human Kind) Fogel, Engennan (Time on the Cross), et. al., plus the general brutal context of 18th-and 19th-century life."
A few years ago a major publishing house came close to publishing Clifford Irving's fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. The hoax almost worked because of inadequate checking.
Recently a popular magazine and a book publisher popularized the notion that a diet based on sardines would prevent wrinkles, disregarding all the evidence to the contrary, the naiveté of the theoretical argument, and the lack of scientific or medical qualifications of the author.
Over a year ago an expert on Social Security, Professor Robert J. Myers, sent Macmillan Publishing Co. a ten-page memo detailing factual errors in a book, Social Security, The Fraud in Your Future. Prof. Myers wrote: "Quite frankly, I am surprised that a publishing firm of your great reputation should publish such a book which contains numerous errors that proper fact-checking and editing would have caught." Professor Myers has been unable to get the publisher or the author to reply to his specific criticisms of inaccuracies.
Mark Ottaway tells us that as early as 1973 Alex Haley was advised by the Gambian national archivist, Bakary Sidibe, of the unreliability of his key informant, Kebba Fofana. Haley has admitted that he has misrepresented the facts about the village of Juffure. Responsible historians pointed out the improbability of the Haley account of the capture by slavers of his alleged ancestor and exposed the numerous factual errors in his story in November and December, 1976. Nevertheless, ABC proceeded to dramatize the story, making the exaggerations and errors even worse.
Walter Goodman, writing in The New York Times of April 15, 1977, asks: "Does it matter if, as seems to be the case, Roots is filled with inaccuracies? For the tens of millions who were moved by the book and by the unprecedented popular television version, probably none of the recent criticisms of Alex Haley's work count for much ... Can one criticize any work that raises the spirits of black citizens and helps whites grasp something of black longings?"
Mr. Goodman cites the comment of Prof. Oscar Handlin of Harvard who noted that historians were reluctant to call attention to factual error "when the general theme is in the right direction." Prof. David Davis of Yale is evidently one such historian. Goodman quotes him as pardoning the errors in Roots, saying, "We all need myths about the past."
After considerable soul searching, Mr. Goodman comes down gently on the side of accuracy, saying: "Valuable and significant as Roots is, the distinction between a disciplined work of history and psuedo-history or "faction" (Alex Haley's word) is still of eousequenee-to the historian who has the standards of his craft to uphold and to the general reader for whom a 'true story' evokes a. speech emotional response. 'Symbolic truth' is not a good synonym for want of truth." But The Times still lists Roots in the nonfiction category.
It appears that the standards of accuracy demanded by some of our book publisher's leave a great deal to be desired. Doubleday appears to have made no more effort to check Haley's factual claims than Dial made to check the claims of the sardine diet. ABC apparently depended on Double- day. Some beef rag up of editorial staff devoted to checking accuracy is clearly needed in the publishing business.
The AIM Report is published twice a month by Accuracy in Media, Inc. (AIM), 777 14th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005. Reed Irvine, Chairman; J. R. Van Evers, Executive Secretary. AIM is a nonprofit, educational organization, which seeks to promote accurate and fair reporting. Subscribing membership-$15, sustaining membership-$25. Membership dues arc tax-deductible except for $3 for member's subscription to AIM Report. Non-member subscription is $15 a year.
In an editorial on April 14 (not April 1), The Washington Post, one of the nation's great leak merchants, took a dim view of leaks about the contents of Orlando Letelier's briefcase. This was the first readers of The Post had heard about this mater since they published their effort to cover the briefcase papers with whitewash in a news story on February 17. Here is The Post's comment:
"Consider, for instance, the continuing leaks of materials supposedly contained in Mr. Letelier's briefcase, which was found at the scene of the explosion. The contents were duly examined by the authorities and returned to Mr. Letelier's associates. Then the leaks began. They portray Mr. LetelJer as an exile doing political battle against the Pinochet dictatorship-precisely what he claimed to be. But they also reflect intent to discredit him as a leftist, a manipulator of gullible Americans and a Cuban agent. The disturbing thing is that the leaks appear to be coming from some of the very quarters charged with investigating the crime. If this is so, one cannot avoid asking whether these officials are more interested in rationalizing a cover-up or doing their proper job. To the investigators, Mr. Letelier's politics should be irrelevant. Would it be asking too much of the FBI and the Metropolitan Police to say so?
This is an extraordinary statement from a paper whose reputation is solidly founded on its merchandising of leaks from government sources.
In its February 17 story, The Post told its readers that the contents of the Letelier briefcase had been opened to the press and made public by Letelier's associates. A reporter for the Washington Post had examined them. What could possibly be wrong with publicizing material that has been opened to the press? And why the reference to material "supposedly contained" in the briefcase. The Post knows what the briefcase contained. It just doesn't want other people to know about it.
The same editorial referred to a leak that the Post had reported a few days earlier to the effect that the U.S. attorney's office was going to question a former CIA agent in connection with the Letelier murder. This leak had been spread across the top of page one of The Post on April 12 under the headline: "Ex-CIA Aide, 3 Cuban Exiles Focus of Letelier Inquiry."
The following clay The New York Times reported that five FBI and Justice Department sources said this headlined charge was incorrect. They said it would be wrong to suggest that the ex-CIA agent "was a focus, target or suspect of the inquiry at this time."
The Washington Post ignored this denial. On April 14, it did report that the man's attorney had objected to the word "focus" in the headline.
The editorial-writing staff of The Post refused to reveal who wrote the editorial, which took such, a dim view of The Post's stock in trade, leaks. However, when asked whether there was not some contradiction between deploring leaks about the contents of Letelier's briefcase and sensationalizing a misleading leak that reflected adversely on the reputation of a living, loyal American, not a deceased Cuban agent, one of the Post editorial writers commented that the paper was full of contradictions. How true.
"There was some fine print in our contract to televise the Moscow Olympics!"
I want to thank all of you who have written letters in response to our report in the March Part II AIM Report, "The Geographic's Flawed Picture." I am impressed by the number of letters that have gone to The National Geographic and to Gulf Oil protesting the article on Cuba and the program of propaganda for the Soviet Union.
The Geographic was apparently impressed also. They put in an urgent request for copies of that issue of the AIM Report, which we happily supplied. However, Mr. Grosvenor, the editor of The National Geographic, has not yet replied to my six-page letter of March 17 detailing our criticisms of the Cuba article. A reply has been promised, but it is taking a little time to put it together, evidently.
Mrs. Gloria Whelan of Mancelona, Mich. has received a reply from the National Geographic about "The Volga." Mrs. Whelan had written an excellent letter based on her own observation of the program, bringing out several points that we did not cover in our criticism of this program. For example, E.G. Marshall had reminded the viewers that while much of the USSR was off-limits to the camera crew of the National Geographic, we should remember that much of the U.S. is off-limits to the Russians. Mrs. Whelan said: "No one bothered to explain that the area which is off limits in this country is in retaliation for travel strictures set by the Russians. We are not equally guilty, as suggested by your program."
Dennis B. Kane, Director of Television and Educational Films for the Geographic replied to Mrs. Whelan saying he could find no evidence of "political slant" in the film. He added: "No matter what we at the Society think of the inequities of Communism, our job is to report, not to express subjective feelings of approval or disapproval. We strive for objectivity in all we do."
John Crown of the Atlanta Journal disagrees with Mr. Kane. He too saw the program, and in his column in The Journal of April 9, he tells what he thought of it. "Blatant Soviet propaganda" is his description. We reproduce his column on the other side. Note that he quotes at length from the AIM Report.
If you get replies to your letters to The Geographic or Gulf Oil, please send us copies. We are interested in learning what they have to say.
AIM HAS HAD EXCELLENT PUBLICITY THIS MONTH. Many of you have seen the column William F. Buckley wrote on the Letelier case, in which he discusses our efforts to get the facts about LetelJer into the record. Mr. Buckley spoke of AIM as "a remarkable little organization." Thanks, Big Bill. William Rusher also devoted a column to this subject, giving AIM favorable mention. On April 18, The Washing- ton Star devoted lead editorial was inspired by my letter on the Panama Canal which had been published by The New York Times. I hope to find space to reproduce some of these articles to share them with you. This recognition should be a source of pride to all who have helped put AIM on the map.
A SUBSCRIPTION TO THE AIM REPORT MAKES A GREAT GIFT.
John Crown The Atlanta Journal Saturday, April 9, 1977
AIM Questions 'The Volga'--With Good Reason
There is much to be said for public television in that viewers get from time to time quality programs that do not--for whatever reason--appear on commercial television. Also, viewers are spared the "commercials" which all too often assault the sensibilities and offend the taste. But public television also of- fends at times by serving up nothing more than rank propaganda. One such program appeared several weeks ago in Atlanta--and I don't mean by that it has been several weeks since propaganda was been retired forth by our local public television stations. The program was "The Volga." It was sponsored by the prestigious National Geographic Society --to which I pay dues. And it was made possible, as they like to say on public television, by a grant from Gulf Oil Corporation. Russia as a land fascinates me. Its history and its peoples are intriguing and impressive. But to me there is a basic difference between Russia and the Soviet Union. Russia embodies the land and the rivers and the peoples. The Soviet Union embodies an oppressive system devoid of liberty and freedom, one that seeks to enslave other nations and other peoples. Alexander Solzhenitsyn is a Russian. Leonid Brezhnev is a Soviet. And because of my interest in Russia I watched "The Volga" when it appeared on public television here. At the time I was appalled by the blatant Soviet propaganda mouthed by syrupy-voiced E.G. Marshall, the narrator. I was disappointed in the National Geographic Society sponsoring such distortions. And I was dismayed that Gulf Oil Corporation would pay to disseminate such loaded material--although as a watcher of public service television I'm becoming hardened to U.S. corporations. Providing grants for programs which are diametric. Tally opposed to the system that permits such corporations to exist the revival of my concern in this pro-Soviet (as opposed to pro- Russian) program is a communication from the respected organization, Accuracy in Media Inc. (AIM). AIM is a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, which rides herd on newspapers, radio and television in the interest of fairness and accuracy and objectivity. In its March 1977 Part II edition it takes on the television program, "The Volga." It minces no words in pointing out the adulation, which E. G. Marshall displayed in talking of Lenin and the horrible crushing system, which he fathered. Listening to and seeing all the pretty color television film shots of selected spots in the Soviet Union, it was easy to get the impression that here was the light of the world and all others would do well to emulate. But such is the vapid narration of E. G. Marshall. AIM summed it up in this fashion: "There was no mention of the absence of the freedoms enjoyed by citizens of other societies, but religious freedom was mentioned. Mr. Marshall intoned: 'after 1,000 years of Christianity, Russia today is officially atheist. Its constitution proclaims both freedom of religion and anti-religious propaganda.' Nothing was said about the degree to which the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion is honored in practice. "After all of Solzbenitsyn's revelations about the immensity and the horror of Gulag Archipelago, after President Carter has sent a letter of encouragement to the leader of the Soviet human rights movement, Nobel Prize-winner Andrei Sakharov, after the honor the White House recently paid to Vladimir Bukhovsky for his struggle for human dignity and freedom in the Soviet Union, what can explain a program like "The Volga?" If it had been produced by NBC, we could understand it as part of the payoff for the rights to televise the Moscow Olympics,
"But why the National Geographic Society? Why the Public Broadcasting Service? And why Gulf Oil Corporation, which provided a grant to pay for the program?" I believe that we need to better understand other lands and other peoples and other systems. I do not advocate television propaganda attacking the Soviet Union any more than I advocate television propaganda praising that dictatorship. But understanding is not accomplished by the honeyed hogwash that g. G. Marshall droned into our homes with "The Volga."