What Happens When Henry Louis Gates Censors the Past?
A report that has now gone viral, based on a recent Wikileaks dump, reveals that Ben Affleck requested that the PBS show “Finding Your Roots” – hosted by Henry Louis Gates – not mention that one of his ancestors was a slaveowner. As far as I am concerned, Affleck has every right to request such a change even if there is no reason for him to feel ashamed or if he believes that such a revelation will damage his public image.
I am more interested in what this might mean for the show and, more specifically, Gates’s reputation. “Finding Your Roots” is more than just a personal journey for the subject of each individual episode. Individual stories uncover not just unpleasant facts about our past, but also point to the many ways in which it shapes subsequent generations and ultimately impacts the present. Collectively, these individual stories suggest that many of the perceived divisions within our society, including class and race, are illusory. We are all interconnected and share a common past.
Part of what is involved (arguably the most important part) in achieving this understanding is learning to come to terms with one’s own past. We all must do it. The enemy is censorship or a more subtle re-writing or re-imagining of the past that allow us to maintain our personal and collective myths. Regardless of whether Gates decided to explore what he now claims was a more interesting narrative about Affleck’s past, enough evidence exists to suggest that a decision to edit the story was made. The integrity of the show has been significantly damaged and that is unfortunate.
It goes without saying that Gates’s reputation has taken a hit as well. I can still remember sitting in a talk at Harvard on black Confederates by John Stauffer back in 2011 and having to listen to Gates suggest that their existence just might be too much for me to accept. A few weeks ago in a discussion following the play, “Father Comes Home From the War,” Gates argued that white-liberal academics have trouble accepting certain truths about slavery.
Forgetting for a moment whether any of his accusations have any basis in fact, we can at least say that Gates is on shaky ground if he believes that he is exempt from embracing the level of integrity demanded of others.
As a historian and as someone who has built a reputation on embracing the hard truths of history in the name of personal and national healing, the right thing to do would have been to simply reject Affleck’s request.