The Complexities of Families, Historic Sites, and America’s Past

As many readers are aware, it was revealed through the Sony e-mail hack that Henry Louis Gates censored the family history of Ben Affleck in an episode ofPBS show “Finding Your Roots.” Mr. Affleck requested that this be done. 

I don’t know why (or if) Affleck thought this would somehow damage him. Honestly, I thought more of him as a man who is involved with charity work. He clearly has not followed the path of his ancestor who did own someone.

I join my friend Kevin in wondering more what does this say about Gates and the show? Gates in some ways blows this off saying there were more compelling stories.  He said in part:

“Finding slave-owning ancestors is very common in our series. You can see why when you remember, for example, that 37% of the families in Georgia, where Ben’s ancestor lived, owned slaves in 1860, the year before the Civil War broke out.”

Indeed, slaveholding was common. Gates obviously knows that. While I don’t blog generally about my own family, my great-great-great grandfather was a slaveholder (my third great grandmother a free mulatto woman). Through him, an overwhelming number of the white members of my family tree owned people of African descent from the 1700s through the end of the Civil War.

Why do people have a need to be connected to what they perceive as great American moments, i.e., the American Revolution (Mr. Affleck was very happy about that) but not want to grapple with the complexities of the subjects of race and gender in the past? Furthermore, why do modern people feel the need to deify people of the past?

So often historic sites engage in this behavior too. Fortunately, our historic sites are getting better with this but some people create all sorts of narratives that often say more about our modern political thoughts or personal feelings when we (who interpret and manage these places) should be using the documents/objects/buildings/landscapes to best offer how what happened, even if that is uncomfortable (like slaveholding or historical genocides) and even if it involves people that were respected in their community, in their nation, and/or beyond (think American Presidents).

A parting thought I have is that we (Americans) often have a need to dwell on why we’re exceptional. The nation would do well to remember how woven slavery was in the colonial period and through the Civil War and how its collapse was equally woven into the nation’s history. Slavery was an awful institution but it was not exceptional to only the United States and the nation benefitted from the common-practice.  Historic sites and museums should be places to have the discussions that have for so long been pushed aside in an effort not to ruffle anyone’s feathers.

So certainly, Mr. Affleck (and anyone else) can request that these aspects of their family’s past be skipped in the final version. However, I think Henry L. Gates should have pushed for this story line to be included in order to show how pervasive the institution of slavery was.


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2 responses to “The Complexities of Families, Historic Sites, and America’s Past

  1. Anita L. Henderson

    Dear Em:

    I heard about the omission about Ben Affleck’s slaveholder ancestor and was greatly disappointed of this denial and subsequent censorship of this information on Finding our Roots program. As a long time genealogist and living historian, history is how we find it, not how we want it. Instead of using this information as a jumping off point for familial and personal self discovery, Mr. Affleck seems to want to view his family thru rose colored glasses. Most genealogists LOVE that type of information as everyone looks for the horse thief or the black sheep in the family that ran off to the gold fields. Frequently a finding like that is pure gold from the sheer information it can generate and subsequent new genealogical leads that emanate from that. My third great grandfather William Eggleston fathered my Great great grandfather Robert Eggleston who was born a mulatto slave in VA. All of my Civil War ancestors are white confederates primarily from VA and MS. My search has found several white cousins who were equally obsessed about genealogy and Civil War history, allowing us to connect and share our past. It has been a wonderful endeavor and historic journey that I have relished going on. When one does delve into their own history, you must realize that your ancestors were real men and women with faults and strengths not saints and accept them as they are. The fact that Mr. Affleck is in denial of his past is both sad and hypocritical on his part. It seems he is doing this for political correctness as opposed to a true interest in the family genealogy. I really detest it when modern day sensibilities are more important than the historical truth. I regret that Professor Gates didn’t stand up more forcefully to Affleck’s self editing of the family history. He and the viewers are much poorer for this purposeful omission in his incomplete family history presentation.

    • Anita, I was hoping you would jump in here as I know you have connections with the Egglestons.

      As I said, I’m not sure what Mr. Affleck’s reasoning was but as you said, we have the past as it was, not as we want it to be. I thought Professor Gates would stand by that notion too as he has connected with white family members and connected others on this show to the descendants of slaveholders or the descendants of slaves. It’s troubling that he did not have Affleck do this as he had with other celebrities including from that particular season.

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