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‘Roots’ Anniversary Edition Plagiarizing … Again?

Photo: Corbis (Haley); Vanguard Press (Book)

Alex Haley’s best seller, Roots, is stirring up trouble again. Perseus Books, which owns such high-toned imprints as John and Teresa Heinz Kerry’s publisher PublicAffairs, has made no effort to expunge or identify plagiarized passages in its imprint Vanguard Press’s 30th-anniversary edition of the book. From the “Publisher’s Statement”: “Haley was sued for plagiarism when it was discovered that several dozen paragraphs in Roots were taken directly from a novel, The African, by Harold Courlander, who ultimately received a substantial settlement” ($650,000). When asked why the purloined passages were not identified or footnoted, the book’s publicist said that “the issue of plagiarism” was mentioned elsewhere in the edition but declined to say why its instances were not pointed out. According to an expert’s testimony for the plaintiff at the 1978 copyright trial, Haley took the character of his alleged African forebear, Kunta Kinte, as well as key parts of Kunta’s plotline, directly from Courlander’s book. No expert testified for Haley. Penn professor Michael Eric Dyson, who wrote the introduction to the anniversary edition, contends that “no flaw or shortcoming in Haley’s tome could dim the brilliant light he shed on the black soul.” —Philip Nobile