This month not only marks the first anniversary of the release of “Black Panther,” a.k.a. The Film That Won’t Go Away. What will be little noted is that this February is also the 40th anniversary of another well-remembered African/African-American moment.
On the small screen in February 1979, James Earl Jones, fresh from his then-uncredited voice-over role as Darth Vader in the first “Star Wars,” was seen in a safari shirt and glasses on every ABC-tuned television in America, stabbing his pen into a pad, shouting the following into the then five-channel television universe: “You old African! I found you! I found you! Kunta Kinte, I found you!”
“Roots: The Next Generations,” the mammoth 1979 sequel to the groundbreaking 1977 original, ends with Haley’s (Jones’s) journey to the Gambia to search for the young ancestor who was captured when, as the Haley family legend goes, he went into the woods to make himself a drum.
The search for Haley’s fantasy-ish Juffure resonated with African-Americans (in fact, it’s partly how we eventually accepted that term for ourselves in the late 1980s), and with millions more who wanted to find out about themselves. It’s the core story, the central idea that, in 2019, spurs those Ancestry.com commercials and has given Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard Africana Studies professor, a new career in public television.
Haley’s historical novel and the vision of comicbook legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby hold more similarities that one thinks. Aren’t both the imaginary product of 1960s magazine content producers? Isn’t Killmonger just a version of Kunta Kinte who finally makes it back home and reclaims his birthname and birthright? Isn’t the Juffure showed in “Roots: The Next Generations” a low-tech Wakanda of sorts—a (relatively) unspoiled, seemingly un-interrupted Africa?
Although “Roots” was created for television as an American family tale, it nevertheless brought home the central tenets of Black Power and Afrocentrism—that we are an African people. ABC broke through with a depiction of Africa that defied the “Tarzan” movies from the 1930s through the 1950s that were a staple of Saturday afternoon viewing on local television channels. For a people that had recently abandoned “Afro-American” for Black, the contrast was jarring. I was 9-years-old when the first “Roots” miniseries aired, and it shook me to the core. But not completely: I still loved those Tarzan films, watching them for years afterward, but I began to wonder why I couldn’t understand the Africans, and why they kept dying consistently.
What happened between “Roots” and “Black Panther?” More knowledge. Africana Studies—now in its 50th year, struggling to survive, but back then growing and expanding as a discipline. Sci-Fi-era technology that allows us to see Africa and converse with Africans every day. World travel not being a big deal anymore. A growing Afro-futurism movement that is including all people of African descent, regardless of geography, gender or gender orientation. So “Panther” cameright on time, as a production of visual African/Black nationalism, a visual sense of Black/African victory, to counter the white nationalism of Trump and Brexit.
For better or worse, Black History Month now has an imaginary element. We have merged with Kunta Kinte, and have turbo-charged his drum with Vibranium. Using American mid-20th century fantasy, we have gone in our minds from victims of colonization to superheroes forging our own destiny. In 2019, we have checked our DNA, and know more fact than fiction about ourselves. Of course we are of African descent, we now say, confused how anyone could think otherwise.
Whether “Black Panther” wins any Oscars later this month is much less important than this truth that might double as fact: Ryan Coogler, T’Challa, Okoye and Shuri have killed Tarzan, for real this time.
The story, and stories, of Alexander Murray Palmer Haley (1921-1992) challenge belief in more ways than one. He was the great djeli (griot) who wrote Malcolm’s story down before connecting Africa and America in America’s popular culture and the charlatan story-weaver who made up a phony African past and attached it to his family. He lived as a near-worshipped figure but, after his death, he had been re-labeled a semi-disgrace—a hustler who lied, plagiarized and died in financial ruin, his materials and memories, authentic and otherwise, auctioned off into a faded national memory.
Robert J. Norrell, a white University of Tennessee professor, thinks Haley got the bummest of historical raps. So he makes clear in this biography, billed as the first full one of the 20th century writing legend, that he will take his time to go through the public, long-standing criticisms about Haley, and square it with facts. Norrell believes that the most successful Black author in the 20th century was a victim of celebrity, a man who committed misdemeanors but was mandatorily sentenced in the American sphere.
The main question marks surrounding Haley’s tarnished halo are tackled directly. Did he plagiarize from Margaret Walker’s “Jubilee” and Harold Courlander’s “The African?” Not necessarily—almost, but not quite. Not using the strictest note-taking methods, he settled out of court because he wanted the issue to go away. Did he make up the story of Kunta Kinte and Gambia? He had a story and found people in Gambia who decided to adopt it for tourism’s sake. Doubleday decided to market the tale as nonfiction, and Haley didn’t protest. Was he really the opportunist and quasi-FBI stooge that Manning Marable portrays him in “A Life of Reinvention,” Marable’s controversial Malcolm X biography? Haley, a struggling freelancer, was on the hunt for big journalistic and nonfiction game, yes, but he genuinely admired Malcolm and wanted his people to see themselves as descendants of Africans. Is he a liar and a faker? He is a man who told a story too good to be true too many times, and wound up believing it. He had his hustle tight—until it unraveled fully after his death, when the facts were publicly checked.
To his biographer, Alex Haley was a proud Black man writing in the big leagues during the 1960s and 1970s, a time when white novelists were becoming luminaries by melding fiction and nonfiction in their magazine articles and books. Novelists back then were trying to re-create journalism and nonfiction as art. (As Norrell points out that the Malcolm X autobiography was “the creation of its subject’s life, not a factual recounting of it. That can be said of all autobiographies.”) Inspired by what was happening in America’s literary scene, he took what he knew and created a kind of Black Power and African consciousness that was palatable to white audiences. He was responsible for the creation of timeless Black heroes that countered the worst of the Blaxploitation film era, endless reruns of Tarzan films, and stereotypical Black network television sitcoms: “Kunta was the second great hero Haley had created on the page,” writes Norrell. “Kunta and Malcolm X both were examples of fierce, independent, and manly characters, and together they formed a new and cherished archetype for Black Americans—and indeed for many whites.” He was a man who stood in the center ring of America’s white centennial and pushed for new Black/African images, unbound by the stigma of slavery.
So yes, Haley was a pioneer on how to fake-it-until-you-make it philosophy, but his fakery is showered in good intentions as well as opportunistic ones. Norrell doesn’t remove Haley’s devil’s horns, but instead places him and his by-all-accounts impactful work in a positive purgatory. The biographer documents a Black man he believes should be celebrated for writing about Black men who forever changed Black people from Black Americans to African-Americans. With Malcolm’s autobiography, Haley pencils in a winding map of Malcolm’s life and thoughts. And with “Roots,” he gives Black America a shining myth of their very own. There are worse ways to be remembered, and Norrell encourages the (re-)formation of this affirmative recollection.