Alex Haley

Since I am definitely running short on interesting cases of plagiarism, today I am going to write about plagiarism offenses in literature. One interesting example of this is the book Roots by Alex Haley. This was a unique case because the book had many positive cultural impacts which came into question once the plagiarism was revealed.

The book tells the story of a man from Africa who was captured and sold into slavery in the United States. His story is traced down through generations until it reaches the life of the Author. The fact that it was told as a true account of Haley’s ancestors from Gambia up until the present time made it a compelling historical narrative. The book made a big impact due to the fact that it portrayed African American life. In the year after its publishing many saw the story as a relatable account of many of the experiences of former slaves and their ancestors. In 1977 it won a pulitzer prize and a national book award as well as being turned into a mini TV series. During the year after it was published it made an impressive cultural impact and was widely discussed in the media and academically.

However, nine years earlier a lesser known novel about slavery, called The African, was published, and in 1978 its author sued for similarities between Roots and his own work. The law suit became a big deal with lots of media attention but before the trial began Haley’s lawyer released a statement saying “The suit has been amicably settled out of court. Alex Haley acknowledges and regrets that various materials from ‘The African’ by Harold Courtlander found their way into his book ‘Roots’”. On top of the fact that plagiarism was quite evident, the case brought into question Haley’s claims that his book was a historical account of his own family’s journey from Africa to the United States.

The unfortunate result of this was that a story that gave valuable insights was discredited. However, though the story was proven to be fictional and partially plagiarized, it did play an important role in drawing cultural attention to the lives of descendants of slavery.


Lubasch, Arnold H. “’Roots’ Plagiarism Suit Is Settled.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 Dec. 1978,

Dugdale, John. “Roots of the Problem: the Controversial History of Alex Haley’s Book.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 9 Feb. 2017,

3 thoughts on “Alex Haley

  1. I find it interesting when people in similar situations work against each other rather than with each other. He stole this other African’s work rather than praising him for his impressive story. And claimed it to be a personal narrative on top of that which is even worse! I wonder if his pulitzer prize was revoked.

  2. The quote by Haley’s lawyer intrigues me. By saying that “various materials found their way into ‘Roots,'” I wonder if it was on purpose or just accidentally that the books were similar. In not having read either book, I have no say in this, but the power of rhetoric in the lawyers case does raise some doubt about the case, in my opinion.

  3. It’s bad enough that he stole the story, but to claim it is a personal account just seems worse. It’s a shame that such an influential book was stolen because it did have positive social impact to create social discussion.

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