Ben Affleck, Henry Louis Gates and Oprah Winfrey’s Couch
Update: Gawker got hold of the original script for Affleck’s segment. It looks like the editorial changes were made in response to the actor’s request to remove references to his slave-owning ancestor.
Late yesterday Ben Affleck released a statement apologizing for requesting that ties to a slave-owning ancestor be edited out of an episode of PBS’s “Finding Your Roots,” hosted by Henry Louis Gates. In the statement Affleck admits to feeling uncomfortable about the connection: “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.”
Part of our disappointment with Affleck concerns our expectations of how a white liberal man ought to respond to such a revelation. Getting right on the history and legacy of slavery now involves personal acceptance of one’s past and even an embrace of reunion with the descendants of former slaves. It’s not enough to come to terms with the past on an intellectual level. It must include a cathartic release as well. There is a small cottage industry of books, beginning with Edward Ball’s Slaves in the Family (1998), of white Americans struggling to right the past. We are doing history on Oprah Winfrey’s couch.
Don’t get me wrong, I fully embrace struggling with the tough questions related to our personal and collective past. Affleck certainly used his star power to try to influence the final narrative and that is inexcusable, but I don’t blame him for not wanting this aspect of his past exposed.
Back in 2009 I interviewed a group of reenactors with the 54th Massachusetts for my book on the Crater. I was interested in the influence of the movie “Glory” on their understanding of the Civil War and their continued interest in reenacting. We also talked extensively about what they learned about the Civil War and slavery in school and in their homes. In regard to the latter I was surprised by how little their families discussed the history of slavery. In fact, a number of individuals in the group stated flat out that not only did their families not talk about slavery, they refused to even raise the subject. They were too ashamed of the history and how it might reflect on their current situation. I heard the same thing from many people that I interviewed in the Petersburg area, even among individuals who had attained some level of influence in the community.
I could not imagine responding by suggesting that this silence was unjustified or that subsequent generations had nothing to feel ashamed about. Each of us brings our own baggage to how we respond to moments when we are confronted by an unexpected fact of our family’s past. We would prefer that Affleck respond as did Anderson Cooper to the fact that he had a slave-owning ancestor who was murdered for his brutality. Our emotional connections to the past, however, are not so simple.
Here is what troubles me about Affleck’s statement. Apparently, he still believes the following about the show:
The assumption is that they will never be dishonest but they will respect your willingness to participate and not look to include things you think would embarrass your family.
If Affleck is being honest here than it perhaps suggests that Gates and the producers of “Finding Your Roots” need to be much more explicit and up front about the purpose of the show and their expectations of guests who agree to appear. Again, I don’t blame Affleck for his response.
It is up to Gates to maintain the integrity of his show.