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.