Al Martinez

The following article by Al Martinez appeared in California’s San Fernando Valley Daily News on Monday April 23, 2012. Used by permission

The legacy of Alex Haley took another hit the other day on Facebook.

I guess I started it all when I noticed an ad for “Roots” and wrote about how much the book had meant not only to black people but to people around the world who through Haley’s work discovered heritage and history.

The book, a family saga rooted in slavery, caused us to start wondering about our own ancestors and who it was that set us on the road to being who we were. Family became important as our antecedents emerged from shadows of the past.

“Roots,” in its way, created a brotherhood of races by first creating a history for America’s African-Americans and setting the rest of us on our way to discovering our history too.

I wrote on Facebook that Haley, a gentle, soft-spoken man, had been a friend for 45 years, and that we had freelanced together and shared our lives during long nights of red wine and deep talk. We were open and honest with each other, as men are when night deepens and truths emerge.

The Facebook posting brought the response from a longtime critic that Haley was a fraud who had stolen most of  the content of his work from a book called “The African.” He quoted a federal judge as saying that Haley “had perpetrated a hoax on the public.”

Haley settled a plagiarism suit out of court for $650,000 to, in his words, “put it all behind me.” But to a small, howling mob, that was enough to trash both the book and Haley. It’s the American way to destroy heroes and celebrate fools, and they were going  for total destruction.

I asked him if he had plagiarized from “The African.” We were at a quiet bar in San Francisco. It was in the hours of truth after midnight. He thought about my question then, shaking his head no, replied in a tone laced with weariness, “Would I work 12 years on a book and then steal a paragraph?”

It really didn’t matter. “Roots” was beyond anything he might have lifted from another book. By creating an account of one family’s life, whether it was true or fictional, Haley had opened a new era of thinking that embraced both a black legacy and the kind of white cognizance that allowed us to look at each other in kinder and gentler ways.

Haley died of a heart attack in 1992, simultaneously saddened by verbal assaults, humbled by the adoration of millions and confused about his place in history.

Eighteen years later I attended the unveiling of  his statue in Knoxville,Tenn.It stood 13-feet high against a blinding, rain-washed sky, the unassuming nature of the man glowing through the bronze that defined him. I heard blacks and whites extol his role as racial icon. I saw many cry with emotion. And I realized as I looked up at his image that Alex had at last achieved an existence that no critic could ever tear down.

Al Martinez can be reached at: [email protected].