While taking part in a recent PBS genealogy show, actor Ben Affleck was shocked to learn that an ancestor six generations back had been a slave-owner here in Georgia. The discovery so horrified Affleck, a Bostonian with no prior knowledge of Southern roots, that he lobbied producers of the show not to include the information, and it was quietly excised.
But secret things don't stay secret these days. Information about the episode came to light in a batch of emails stolen in the computer hacking of Sony Corp., and both Affleck and PBS are still dealing with the backlash. In a Facebook posting after the revelation, Affleck acknowledged his discomfort, saying that "I didn't want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth."
"I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story. We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors, and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing. I am glad that my story, however indirectly, will contribute to that discussion. While I don't like that the guy is an ancestor, I am happy that aspect of our country's history is being talked about."
First, let's deal with the journalistic issues. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the host of "Finding Your Roots", has claimed that he made the decision not to include the material about slavery solely on the basis that it wouldn't be all that interesting to viewers, not in response to the Affleck's pleas. In short, it was editorial discretion, not censorship.
But Gates is compounding a ethical mistake with a lie. Affleck's clear discomfort at learning of a slave-owning ancestor would have made great and honest television. Moreover, the contrast between that slave-owning ancestor on his mother's side and Affleck's mother own history (she participated as a Freedom Rider to Mississippi back in the '60s) would have been too delicious to overlook. That's an American story that no competent producer would ignore. The leaked emails and a leaked script confirm that Gates intended to use the material but backed off under pressure from his celebrity guest, in violation of PBS policy.
Now onto the larger questions:
In the Facebook comments quoted above, Affleck argued that "We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors," and logically, he's right. But consider the contrast when Affleck was told in that same show that another of his ancestors had fought bravely against the British in the Revolutionary War.
"That is really, really something. I love it. I’m developing this movie about, um, the Revolutionary War. Now, I see why I was drawn to it. ... I have to say. It makes me feel a little more connected to the history of the country you know? It makes it feel less academic and more personal. ...
So this is a big surprise and I’m really proud of it. And one of the things that’s interesting about it is we tend to separate ourselves from these things by going like, you know, 'Oh well it's just dry history and it’s all over now,' and this shows us that there’s still a living aspect of history, like a personal connection."
Affleck has taken some heat for his decision to try to hide the slaveowner in his family tree, and frankly his sensitivity struck me as a bit odd as well.** But what I find interesting about his internal conflict is not what it tells us about Affleck the celebrity movie star, but what it tells us about Americans in general and how we relate to the past.
When presented with evidence of a brave and patriotic ancestor, Affleck is quick to identify with him and claim a personal, even spiritual connection. Yet a more recent familial link to a slaveowner is rejected as both embarrassing yet meaningless and has nothing to do with who he is today.
But if it was really meaningless, it could not be embarrassing.
We do that as a nation as well. We are the proud descendants of the Sons of Liberty, the Pilgrims, the Founding Fathers, the Greatest Generation, still defending and living out the noble ideals that they have passed down to us as part of our metaphysical DNA. They are part of our collective treasure as Americans.
But the two hundred years of slavery and one hundred years of subsequent repression through Jim Crow, the almost complete genocide of the Native American -- that and more is ancient history that has nothing to do with who we are today as a nation. That is heavy baggage that we do not want to carry, although we carry it whether we acknowledge it or not. It too colors our attitudes and perceptions.
Earlier this week, for example, the state of Georgia officially marked Confederate Memorial Day. State offices were closed to honor the memory of those fought and died in the Civil War, which ended 150 years ago this month. But when we honor their bravery and sacrifice, we seldom want to acknowledge the truly ugly cause for which those sacrifices were made.
Like Affleck, we claim the good side as "heritage" and reject the rest as having being both meaningless and embarrassing.
** As I've noted before, and should note again given the context, I'm aware of at least one ancestor who was a slaveholder in Virginia. In fact, I'm writing a book based on his life story. And it didn't end well for any of those involved.
In 1842, a family slave named Daniel Wright killed that ancestor's oldest son with a scythe. (Apparently the slave and the son had both been indulging in the product of the family still, and alcohol does what it often does.) Wright ran off but was tracked down, arrested, tried and convicted, and was hanged with more than 1,000 people in attendance, which would have been an immense crowd at the time in the hills of rural western Virginia.
Afterward, the Commonwealth of Virginia paid the family $320 as compensation for destroying its property, minus the $15 that it cost to provide Wright with a lawyer.