Alex Haley touched the American psyche in 1976 with Roots, the story of Kunta Kinte, an African boy sold into bondage and transported to North America. Inspiration for the character, Haley claimed, came from his Gambian ancestor.
Haley’s novel flew off the press into the warm arms of acclaim. The book soared on the New York Times bestseller list, on which it sat for 46 weeks (with 22 weeks at the top spot). Its words were lifted from the pages and brought to life in a 1977 miniseries by the same name. Nominated for 37 Primetime Emmy Awards, it scored nine plus a Golden Globe and a Peabody. Haley took home a Pulitzer Prize, too.
Haley’s story tore open an emotional scab, fundamentally changing the way Americans talk, think, and portray race relations in this country. The Roots narrative of a singularly evil white race, and cruel slavery as an uniquely white institution, lives with us today.
A year after Haley’s death in 1992, the Village Voice published an explosive exposé: “Alex Haley’s Hoax: How the Celebrated Author Faked the Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘Roots.’”
“Like a master spy, Haley could persuasively lie about anything: where he grew up and went to school, what he wrote while in the Coast Guard, how much money he earned, his family, little lies about store food that he passed off as home-cooked,” Philip Nobile wrote, “and big lies like stripping down to his shorts and staying 10 nights in the darkened hold of the freighter African Star, which sailed from Dakar to Florida in 1973, in order to divine the agony of Kunta Kinte’s crossing.” That never happened, said Frank Ewers, the Star’s former first mate. “I had the keys to the hold and Haley never went down there at night. He would have died from the cocoa fumes.”
Nobile’s revelations went deep. Clarence Page wrote in the Chicago Tribune that Nobile sifted through Haley’s archives at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. After interviewing some of Haley’s sources, Nobile found “that Haley bent facts or stole passages from start to finish to produce the stirring saga that became a record-smashing hit television series and a cultural milestone of modern American race relations.” His findings were so damning, Nobile recommended Haley’s Pulitzer Prize be stripped posthumously. But no one listened—or more accurately, they were too afraid to listen.
“Instead, Nobile charges, his story is being blacked out (or, if you prefer, ‘whited’ out) by major media too frightened and guilt-ridden to pick up his crusade,” Page wrote.
But precision in truth didn’t matter, nor was it the point of Haley’s work. He admitted as much. Responding to a harsh critic of his novel, Haley responded: “I was just trying to give my people a myth to live by.”
“Myth,” the folk memories of a people, are more real, indeed, and more important than history. This is not to say myths are entirely untrue. The most powerful myths are the ones with some truth to them.
Myths codify the symbols, icons, and legends of a people. Thus a people’s myths tell them who they are and where they come from, giving them a sense of identity, purpose, and destiny.
In 1925, for example, Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos articulated the ideology of “La raza cósmica.” He wove an elaborate theory of a “fifth” and universal race sprung from the ethnically and racially sundry soil of Latin America in a deliberate effort to boost the morale of what he saw as a “depressed race.”
But mythmaking is a double-edged sword. The stories we tell can build a people up or deconstruct them. Whites, in America and elsewhere in the West, are privileged only with the latter.
It is OK to portray whites as the singular heirs to the enterprise of international slavery. It is above board to cast black men as the heroes and gods of Greek myth, as the BBC recently did in “Troy: Fall of a City.” It is not acceptable, however, to portray whites as victims, or as strivers and dreamers, as the critical reception of the film adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy shows.
Hillbilly Elegy began as the bestselling autobiography of J. D. Vance. That put the movie on uneasy footing with critics because, as Kate Erbland writes for IndieWire, they had already found “Vance’s story was rife with racist and sexist ideology, a reliance on easily dispelled fallacies, and a resistance to blaming any of it on government and culture.”
“But Vance has also been widely criticized for the conclusions he draws from his experiences, as well as for ignoring racial undertones in the culture about which he writes,” Roger Sollenberger notes in Salon. Vance’s memoir, Alissa Wilkinson reminds us at Vox, “was also sharply criticized by many who saw it as advancing rhetoric and old myths about the poor, and eliding the racist roots of antipathy toward Barack Obama.”
Among the film’s many supposed flaws, Lanora Johnson and W. Carson Byrd worry the production “also runs the risk of stereotyping Appalachia as a mythical all-White ‘Trump Country.’” In a long, hysterical screed, Sarah Jones asks, “Who Is Netflix’s Hillbilly Elegy For?” Powerful, evil white people, that’s who. The Independent’s headline reads: “Hillbilly Elegy: Director Ron Howard defends ‘sickeningly irresponsible’ film.”
One review of the movie, though predictably negative, hits at the truth. “Hillbilly Elegy,” complains Katie Rife, is part of the process of “constructing a mythology of a ‘forgotten’ white working class.”
No amount of moralizing, philosophizing, or psychoanalysis can obfuscate what critics themselves know: Vance’s story is detestable to them because it shows whites as victims, rather than as oppressors. This story is a forbidden entry in the folk history of white people. Forbidden, because it is an encomium rather than opprobrium of America’s most hated class of people, whose heroes, statues, songs, flags, holidays, and very identity are subject only for deconstruction. And if whites see themselves as a people like any other worthy of dignity, they might not take kindly to being perennially portrayed as oppressors, as a group only to be scorned and mocked and taken advantage of.
Clarence Page defended Haley’s work by arguing that it encouraged Americans to ask “relentless questions about a past too many elders had been reluctant to talk about and that too many of us, their children, were reluctant to hear.” The problem the commentariat has with Vance, then, is that he gave truth the force and power of myth.