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.

40 thoughts on “What Happens When Henry Louis Gates Censors the Past?

  1. A. Jackson

    I have been researching my family history since I was in high school back in the 1960s and I am dismayed by both Afleck and Gates. Too many so-called family historians are only interested in having noble ancestors, in all senses of that word. They are miserable if they find out that they are not descendants of royalty, if their family didn’t participate in some “meaningful” historical event, if they have the proverbial horse thief, or many seven month babies, or a bankrupt in the tree. I have slave holders in my family on my mother’s side if I go back to my fourth great grandfathers and further. The conflict over slavery and the union caused permanent breeches in these two families, with my ancestors leaving their slave holding roots behind. But even if they had not, it would be no reflection on me in 2015. Too bad Afleck doesn’t understand that ……it is what it is, Ben. You are not your ancestor.

    But Gates, whom I have always admired, is going to be more harrmed because he knows better than the actor. He knows that caving to Ben’s demand was not ethical and violated one the principles of genealogy…it’s good, it’s bad, and sometimes it’s ugly, but it is your story. Is it any different from those hucksters who produce bogus family trees and coats of arms that play to the vanity of the ignorant?

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  2. Julie Phelps

    I agree with you. I love FYR, but I do think Gates takes the issue of race and makes too many assumptions about Caucasians in family history. I’ve done a lot of family history research, and as some of my family came from the south, I assume there are slave owners back there somewhere. However, this neither makes me uncomfortable or apologetic. I have done nothing wrong. If we don’t confront it honestly, and if people today can not understand that they are not responsible for things that were done generations ago, we can’t move forward. I blogged about this earlier today: Truth and Consequences | It’s a Beautiful Tree
    http://itsabeautifultree.com/2015/04/19/truth-and-consequences/

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  3. James F. Epperson

    I recall, back in the late 1970s—the microfilm era— learning that I had a Confederate ancestor (this was not unexpected) and then learning that the family held slaves. Was I devastated? Ashamed? Embarrassed? No. Facts are facts. Joseph C.F. Epperson married in to a prominent Virginia family (the Gilliams) in 1847 and both families owned slaves. I am still who I am, regardless of this historical fact. It casts no ugly reflection on me or my two wonderful children.

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    1. Will Hickox

      If only today’s Confederate sympathizers and other practitioners of the ancient cult of ancestor worship would heed your words. Genealogical research is entertaining and, if done properly, can shed light on larger historical forces; it’s provided several investigative leads for my own dissertation. But, as you say, the actions of our ancestors cast no reflection on us, they were who they were, and we are who we are.

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  4. George Geder

    Racism is at the root of Ben Afflect’s decision. The Megastar used his POWER to flip the script on history, reality, and the truth. And he wasn’t alone. SONY, PBS, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. acquiesce to his POWER.

    Ben Affleck was using his position as a ‘megastar’ from the vantage point of POWER to deny the use of that particular information.

    Henry Louis Gates, Jr. recognized this POWER play, and feeling that he couldn’t make the call to refuse Affleck’s request, consulted with SONY – who also didn’t want to make the call.

    PBS has a policy and guidelines in place regarding such matters. It should have been a no-brainer. If Affleck wanted to delete, modify, alter, or censor the research findings, then he or his segment should have been disqualified. PBS is also complicit in this as they had knowledge of this before broadcasting the program.

    The emails between Gates and SONY clearly suggest that everyone involved was acquiescing to the POWER that Affleck yields. In this case, POWER = RACISM. The emails also clearly show that it was a call for everyone to CYA should this ever get to the public.

    Nobody had the gonads to tell Mr. Affleck, “No”. That story about slavery is compelling to ALL of Americans in this sesquicentennial year. Here was a chance for SONY, PBS, Affleck, and Gates to express that ‘Black Lives Matter’, whether in current events or in history. They all failed.

    I stand by my assertion; Racism was at the root of this decision.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi George,

      Nice to hear from you.

      Racism is at the root of Ben Afflect’s decision.

      I don’t know if we have enough information to draw such a conclusion. It may have been bad advice from an adviser. The power you speak of may simply have been a reflection of concern about his public image.

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      1. George Geder

        Hi Kevin,

        Thank you for having such an intelligent and thought-provoking blog.

        I’ve read all of the comments and then chose to jump back up here to join in with the rest of the conversation.

        I still think that the Elephant in the room is Power and Racism. Ironically, I’m not calling Mr. Affleck a racist (or any of the players in this drama).

        As megankatenelson said, “… what a great arc that could have been, from the slaveowner to the mother marching for civil rights in 1964!” That’s the story America needs to hear.

        Everyone up and down the chain thought that a story including American Slavery would harm Mr. Affleck in some way, and everybody didn’t want that to happen. That story is at the center of American history. Racism cannot be removed from that story. Mr. Affleck could have come out of this as a megastar champion for realigning American history and healing of this nation. Why PBS and Dr. Gates didn’t see and FIGHT for this is beyond me. I think they yielded too much POWER to Affleck and SONY.

        Someone in another forum pointed out that since someone helped Mr. Affleck with his ancestry, he could, in turn, help someone out with theirs; namely the descendants of the slaves owned by his ancestors. I feel the sentiment, but we can’t realistically hold him to that.

        This country is never going to heal if we continue to allow or make excuses for the Elephant in the room; and not deal with it. Dr. Gates needs to recognize this.

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    2. Andy Hall

      “Racism is at the root of Ben Afflect’s decision.”

      I’m not sure I see that. Occam suggests that is more likely a case of an image-conscious, A-List celebrity, joined at the hip with his manager and publicist, having a freakout over what he sees as negative information about his lineage. That’s wrong-headed, and it was wrong of Gates to pander to his wishes, but it’s not hard to understand Affleck’s reaction.

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    3. Jerry McKenzie

      I agree somewhat. He’s embarrassed, but he is also not admitting to the truth — and that truth is he probably has cousins who are the descendants of his family and their slaves. He would have a lot more credibility to take ownership of that and when he fights for injustice and inequality in the USA that will add historical weight to his position. There have been some great stories about slavery and master/slave relations (I’m thinking of Anderson Cooper’s and Derek Jeter’s episodes especially) in FYR and Sony, PBS, Affleck and Gates sold their viewers short by sweeping this under the rug — embarrassment, power dynamics, possibility of loosing future guests, racism, oppositional politics, all played parts in this omission (there must be other factors I am not aware of also).

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  5. Megan Kate Nelson

    What is most interesting about the email exchanges between Gates and the Sony exec is how strenuously Gates argues for openness and against censorship — but not in the name of historical accuracy or in order to confront our nation’s crimes related to slavery, but because (as Gates writes), “Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand.”

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      And don’t you just love it that Gates was willing to fly out to confront Affleck personally. Again, I don’t understand why he didn’t just deny Affleck’s request. That would have been the right thing to do. It’s not like the show is short of celebrities willing to come on the show.

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      1. Megan Kate Nelson

        Exactly. Even though I don’t agree with the comment above that Affleck’s own decision was racist at its core, I do agree that Affleck’s “megastar” status — which is very culturally powerful — drove Gates’ decision. Having Affleck on the show was clearly such a boon for the “brand” that it overrode the ethics of historical inquiry and PBS’ own policies.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Having Affleck on the show was clearly such a boon for the “brand” that it overrode the ethics of historical inquiry and PBS’ own policies.

          Perhaps, but now I am wondering if by “brand” Gates was referring to the integrity and ethics of historical inquiry. I wrote this on the assumption that the email exchanges reflect a desire on the part of Gates to reference Affleck’s slaveowning ancestor regardless of whether it would be the main focus of the episode.

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          1. megankatenelson

            This is what makes the email exchange so fascinating. Clearly, Gates does believe that integrity and ethics are important to the “brand” of the show — but in the end, apparently not important enough to outweigh the power of Affleck’s celebrity as building that “brand.” And to me, this is the problematic/potentially dangerous element of “popular history”: that the authors or creators of it can come to think of it as a product that creates an audience of loyal followers rather than intellectual work that creates and disseminates knowledge.

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            1. Kevin Levin Post author

              And to me, this is the problematic/potentially dangerous element of “popular history”: that the authors or creators of it can come to think of it as a product that creates an audience of loyal followers rather than intellectual work that creates and disseminates knowledge.

              Well said, Megan.

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            2. Ken Noe

              Gates’ persona as “noted Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” is so tied up in marketing the program that I think you have to consider his reputation as the real brand. And with all his talk of his agents, PR, and “Meryl,” It’s very much a Hollywood brand now.

              I think I’m most surprised that no one has focused on his final comment that Affleck’s slave holding ancestor “wasn’t even a bad guy.” Maybe there were so many loyal black Confederates because of all those good guy owners?

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              1. Kevin Levin Post author

                I think I’m most surprised that no one has focused on his final comment that Affleck’s slave holding ancestor “wasn’t even a bad guy.”

                Good point. I simply read that in connection to the Anderson Cooper segment, but you are absolutely right to raise it as a curious comment.

      2. Ken Noe

        “I think he is getting very bad advice. I’ve offered to fly to Detroit, where he is filming, to talk it through.” That’s not confrontation, that’s wheedling.

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        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Hi Ken,

          This is the point where he loses me. His response should have been to notify Affleck that there is no editorial oversight by the guests.

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  6. Jane Arnold

    Isn’t it possible for FYR to simply have the celebrities sign a contract stating that the truth will be discussed on the show, whatever that may be. Celebrities would have to agree to this. If Affleck were afraid of what might be discovered, he could have declined to be a guest. That would protect both a potential guest and FYR and Gates. It seems that SONY has very little sense in designing procedures for the program that would avoid instances about this.

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  7. mischling2nd

    For many years now, Gates has been allowed to spread lies promoting the idea that every predominately white person with some African ancestry is really a “black” phony “passing” as a member of the “superior” white race. He was protected from all challenges. NOW, you suddenly note that the man lacks integrity.

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  8. mischling2nd

    Examples: Anatole Broyard. He tried to get Bliss Broyard to change her birth certificate to falsely claim that her father was “black.”

    http://web.princeton.edu/sites/english/neh/gates1.htm

    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/aalives/profiles/broyard.html

    The labeling of Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins as one of the first “African American” woman novelists based on a picture that Gates thought looks a little to dark to be pure white.

    https://www.questia.com/library/journal/1G1-173101694/emma-dunham-kelley-hawkins-1863-1938

    http://blog.lib.umn.edu/robe0419/coffee/017051.html

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  9. Robert Bailey

    I remember family members telling me that we didn’t have slaves in our family when I asked about the two blacks that came to Texas in 1851 from Tennessee with our ancestors. So these two black people just decided to come along for the journey. History is our story, we can’t waste our time trying to change or alter it to fit into our present day comfort zone.

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    1. MSB

      My ancestors, from what I’ve read of their letters, would have brought slaves to Texas if they had had enough money to buy any. But they didn’t. As my grandmama always said, nobody moves to Texas ’cause they’re doing so well somewhere else.

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  10. Andy Hall

    Recall also that Gates (or his producers) altered the appearance of an historical document, apparently for dramatic effect, in the Anderson Cooper piece. This is show business, not history.

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  11. Al Mackey

    If I may dissent, Kevin, I think this is a non-story. Ben Affleck made a request. Dr. Gates for whatever reason decided to grant the request, and in his explanation said, “Ultimately, I maintain editorial control on all of my projects and, with my producers, decide what will make for the most compelling program. In the case of Mr. Affleck — we focused on what we felt were the most interesting aspects of his ancestry — including a Revolutionary War ancestor, a 3rd great–grandfather who was an occult enthusiast, and his mother who marched for Civil Rights during the Freedom Summer of 1964.” This makes me believe first that Dr. Gates is claiming the slave owner story just wasn’t interesting enough to make the cut, and second, editorial choices have been made all along in every episode to present what the producers and Dr. Gates believe is the best entertainment for the audience. Even if Dr. Gates would have liked to include the slave owner story and was somehow intimidated into not including it, I have to ask, Is our understanding of history altered in any way by the way the program aired? Would our understanding of history be enhanced if the slave owner aspect had been aired? Is the program’s primary purpose education or entertainment? Had the slave owner portion been aired, what would have been left out? If it’s important to air the slave owner aspect, why is it more important than what would have had to have been cut to fit it in? Editorial decisions are made all the time on programs, including documentaries whose primary purpose is to educate us about historical events, and this is no exception.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Al,

      Thanks for the thoughtful dissent.

      Even if Dr. Gates would have liked to include the slave owner story and was somehow intimidated into not including it, I have to ask, Is our understanding of history altered in any way by the way the program aired?

      Strictly speaking, probably not, but this gets to my larger point about Gates’s reputation built around introducing individuals and the nation to a history that we have all too willingly tried to brush aside or deny.

      Editorial decisions are made all the time on programs, including documentaries whose primary purpose is to educate us about historical events, and this is no exception.

      Of course, but the question at hand is whether the reasons for those editorial decisions raises questions about how the narratives of individual segments are constructed.

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  12. megankatenelson

    Al, you’re right that our understanding of history is not altered by these editorial choices. But I’m actually really surprised that neither Affleck (who is a screenwriter and director as well as an actor) nor Gates saw the narrative possibilities of the slaveowner segment — I mean, what a great arc that could have been, from the slaveowner to the mother marching for civil rights in 1964!

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  13. Brad

    I agree partially with Mr. Geder: I would have said no to the request and if the reply was then I’m not doing the Show, I would have said “don’t let the door hit you on the way out!”

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  14. Hugh Lawson

    Nobody has a moral obligation to reveal that somebody else has slaveowning ancestors. Besides that, nobody has a right to know that somebody else has slaveowning ancestors. The effective-PR thing is to let the information out and display unconcern about it, and that is how I’d decide the matter in my own case, but my policy has no special moral standing; it’s just effective spin.

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  15. Dudley Bokoski

    The show is interesting but not very exciting. If you take away the possibility someone might be surprised by what they find out it undercuts one of the basic hooks it is built around. And once celebrities know Affleck used his star power to shade what was shown why wouldn’t other guests? Then you’re left with a show you could call, “Really Nice Relatives of Famous People”. Who would want to watch that?

    Ironically Affleck hurt his own image worse trying to censor the show than if it had just come out with all the research. He could have shown, by his reaction, how offensive he found his relative’s conduct and nobody would have thought any the worse of him. Now he looks like one more actor demanding special considerations.

    Maybe they could change the premise of the show. Do away with the live celebrities and have actors come on portraying their long dead relatives critiquing their living ancestor. I’d watch to see some 19th Century Affleck relative coming on to lament the family name having been besmirched by Ben Affleck in “Mall Rats” or “Jersey Girl”. You could film them in period costume looking on in horror and shame as Affleck appears on the screen in “Smokin’ Aces”.

    I’d wach that.

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      1. Dudley Bokoski

        Ken: How did I forget Gigli? Hysterical amnesia? How would you top that? Maybe he and Matt Damon could remake “Santa Fe Trail” in the Custer and Stuart roles.

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    1. George Geder

      Hello Dudley,

      That is way too funny for words. I’m still laughing.

      The serious moment, for me, was your statement; ‘And once celebrities know Affleck used his star power to shade what was shown, why wouldn’t other guests?’

      The tenor of ‘Finding Your Roots’ has changed. Sadly, the program is leaning more towards ‘Reality TV’.
      Perhaps that is what it was all along.

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      1. Dudley Bokoski

        George, I hadn’t thought about it, but you’re right on the money. It would be reality TV and that comes across really forced. Going back to your earlier comments, I think you’re right thinking someone (maybe his advisers) thought the story would harm his image. But I don’t see how it would if he participated in the discussion. His reaction became the story, which any good PR person could have predicted.

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