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.”

As I stated in a previous post about this controversy, my concern is not so much with Affleck’s request as with the way Gates handled it.

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.

26 comments… add one
  • Well, I think you are letting Affleck off too easily, and it seems to me that he is trying to shift most of the blame onto Gates instead of accepting his share of the responsibility. In the future, though, I hope that Gates makes it clear to the celebrities that everything is on the table, even potentially embarrassing things. If they don’t agree, then the right thing to do would be to withdraw.

    I have stopped watching “Who do you Think You Are” because the ignorance of basic facts about American history by the celebrities is often cringe worthy. A couple of years ago one actor had no idea of the significance of Fort McHenry. For right now I am going to take Gates at his word that nothing like the Affleck incident had happened before in the history of FYR, and will not happen again. It is Gate’s show and it is his responsibility….on that we do agree.

    • Not sure I understand how I am letting him off the hook. For his reaction? The purpose of this post is to say that I am not in a position to judge his reaction just as was the case when I interviewed the descendants of slaves. I am also not really disappointed in his decision to contact Gates. Now, if he through some of his weight around as a celebrity than that might be problematic, but there is no reason to believe that this was the case. Gates was perfect willing to fly out to Affleck to talk his friend through his decision.

      We agree that this is Gates’s show and his responsibility.

      • Kevin, I’m still trying to figure out how “Argo” beat “Lincoln” for the Oscar. Perhaps I am not being as generous to Affleck as I could be, but he makes me squirm with his comments. As someone who has been doing family history for decades, I know that I can be too blunt for the tastes of some. But in the long run I think that acknowledgement of the negatives in the tree is vital to understanding of ourselves as individuals, and our nation’s history.

        • I don’t mind you being blunt, just couldn’t identify the disagreement. I certainly agree that acknowledging the richness of our pasts is a healthy act on a number of levels, but I still believe we should resist condemning people because they don’t respond in a way that meets our expectations.

          • That latter was what I was referring when I said I could be too blunt sometimes, or be seen as lacking in empathy with the discomfort of others. My impression was that he was more concerned with his public image than anything else and that made me dismiss him.

  • I recently discovered my slave-owning ancestor, and I can empathize somewhat with Mr. Affleck on this subject. It is not a good feeling to know someone in your family participated in chattel slavery. It is akin to finding an ax-murderer in the family tree. The slave owner may not have actually killed anyone, but he did rob someone of his or her freedom, dignity, and family name.

    I have never tried to hide my slave-owning ancestor, but I am not a famous actor either. To the contrary, I documented him in the family history book so future generations of my family will know how far we have come. A dear friend of mine, who is African-American, smiled at me when I told her of my discovery and said, “It doesn’t matter.”

    • I’ve never understood why people get upset or embarrassed about what some of their ancestors did in the past. Given that slavery has existed in just about every major civilization from the beginning of human history, undoubtedly in pre-historic times as well, odds are that every single one of us is related and/or descended from somebody in the past who owned a slave OR who was a slave. Well, if we had a perfect set of records documenting this of course it would be clear to everyone, but alas… The host of this excellent show himself is descended from both slave-owners and slaves. I think people forget just how many ancestors they have on their family tree, even ones that CAN be traced through documentation. Take a look at grandparents. Each generation of them going backwards DOUBLES. So you start with 4, then 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, etc. So one or a couple of this growing number owned slaves or were slaves themselves. Ok. What about the rest of them? Affleck has nothing to be ashamed of or feel responsible for because of what one or more of his ancestors did. Let’s say the ancestor of his that owned slaves was his 2x GG. Interesting to know, but what about the other 15 or so? Seriously, because of the number of ancestors we all have in our tree, we all have something unsavory (not just slavery) which may or may not be documented. Instead, one should focus on taking responsibility for what THEY during THEIR own lives as well as not glorifying a past which never existed (yeah, I’m looking at you “Lost Cause”).

  • Remind me again why any individual should feel shame or reponsiiblity (or take any credit or pride) for something one of their 16 gg grandparents or 32 ggg grandparents did or didn’t do. There is something strangely anachronistic and primal about our eagerness to visit the “iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and the children’s children, unto third and unto the fourth generations.”

    • I don’t have an answer for you, but we do feel these things and we should be careful when assessing the motivations behind our responses when confronted by certain information.

    • Oops! Beat me to it. Good job and thanks!

  • I totally agree and believe this honest acknowledgement of the negatives must also go to the larger historical narrative as well.

    Sweeping difficult or painful events under the rug of history for the sake of a more preferred story cheats future generations of the truth and may even cause more social harm in the long run.

  • I blame Gates. Obviously, these shows are not broadcast live and I think that the people running the show need to prepare the celebrity on facing unpleasant surprises (or even ones that the subject suspects are there) in their family tree. There is certainly time before broadcast to deal with it. The slave-owning ancestor didn’t have to be the focus of the show but his existence would have better acknowledge. I think TLC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” (Lisa Kudrow, who is co-executive producer, did an episode focusing on her search about her family’s experiences during the Holocaust) does a better job of showing a celebrity subject not only enjoying cool ancestors but facing the reality of ancestors who the subject finds embarrassing or even morally repugnant. The one that was really moving was Chelsea Handler. This is how describes the episode, “Chelsea Handler, the self-described “proud Jewish American” daughter of a Jewish father and a German mother, has known all her life that her grandfather, Karl Stöcker, fought for the Germans in World War II. Now she’s in Germany to find out: what kind of German soldier was he? In life he had seemed sheepish to her about his involvement, she remembered… was he hiding something?”. While it turned out not to be as awful as she feared, she still had a lot of painful discoveries with which to deal.

  • Kevin, you have referred to a good case study in all this in the form of Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw’s speech at Fredericksburg last December. I worked with her very closely in putting this speech together, and I was astonished not just at her acceptance of her family’s connections to some very hard topics, but also her determination to encourage others to confront their family’s history directly, without flinching. The whole speech is here:

    Here’s the link to your post:

  • I doubt that any of my GGGs owned slaves because I have seen little evidence of economic wherewithall to put them in that position. By the same token I feel sure that most of my ancestors being from England, Ireland and Scotland would without a doubt put many of them in the ‘slave’ category. We must accept what was with both pride and shame but no responsibilty.

  • “Remind me again why any individual should feel shame or reponsiblity (or take any credit or pride) for something one of their 16 gg grandparents or 32 ggg grandparents did or didn’t do. There is something strangely anachronistic and primal about our eagerness to visit the “iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and the children’s children, unto third and unto the fourth generations.”

    Mr. Weinfeld,
    If you’re lucky enough to get an interview with Ben Affleck, perhaps you’ll get an answer to your question, or at least his reasoning for why he felt ashamed of what his ancestor did. Personally, my opinion of Affleck has not been affected by this news; I’m not really concerned about him one way or another. But I think we should be careful in our opinions of Affleck. Despite what we say, we might very well do the same thing.

    For many White people with a slaveholding ancestor, isn’t it very possible that another one of their ancestors could have been a slave? As we say, America has come a long way on the road to equality but I would not be surprised to know there are some White people who have learned they are descended from someone who came to this land on board a slave ship and they would prefer no one find out about this for fear of how others might see them.

    The other thought I had is this: if you found out you were the descendant or distant relative of a child molester, a rapist or a serial killer, would you still be okay with people finding out about that? If not, why not?

    I’m sure you’ve heard of John Brown, the abolitionist. He had 20 children so he most definitely has descendants. Personally, I don’t believe Brown was evil or crazy or maybe a fanatic. He did violent things in a very violent time and place. Anyway, I’ve heard that at least some of Brown’s descendants do not want their connections to him revealed because of the way John Brown is remembered. Too bad that all these years later, they feel they have to hide.

    I know what Kevin is talking about regarding 20th Century Black families that didn’t want to talk about slavery. My family wasn’t really out to talk about it, either. And though I sought out history and learned very early on in school about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, being related to slaves- people who had been degraded and couldn’t fight back- didn’t really feel good.

    Honestly, I’ve wondered if, as we move into the future, and as more Black families grow doctors, lawyers, businessmen and other successful professionals, will they also want to distance themselves from slave ancestors?

    • That is an interesting question. For the past couple of years I have been trying to get family information for a friend of mine but we keep hitting that 1870 census brick wall. But there is another brick wall, too, and that is her parents and grandparents didn’t talk about the past, so she isn’t even sure how accurate are the names of her great grandparents and 2nd GG grandparents. I don’t detect a burning interest on her part either so I let it drop. And she is part of a family of successful professionals.

  • I am sympathetic to Affleck’s situation. A lot of folks are making this about him. But this was not just about him, it was about his family.

    My own family faced a tragic incident many many years ago, over 50 years ago. To this day, many family members do not, and will not, speak of it. It is too painful for them. Other family members have said that they “need” to confront their feelings about the incident, and not hide it from other family. But I feel that their wishes should be respected. It’s controversial.

    One problem with being a celebrity is that it brings attention on one’s family that the family did not intend. Telling the story of Affleck’s family is not just about what people will say about him, but also his family members. If (emphasize, IF) this was something that his family might not have been comfortable about – or if Affleck thought that might be the case – then I say, good for him, for not being selfish and airing the family’s dirty linen without consulting them. It would have been better if he didn’t go on the show in the first place, but I take it he didn’t know all this “bad” stuff.

    I respect the producers (not just Gates) for respecting Affleck’s decision. This should not be a kind of historical “gotcha” show.

    If people feel that they should not or will not watch the show because it is a “feel good”, see no/hear no/speak no evil kind of show, so be it. I understand people feeling that way. But I found the show engaging for what it was. It is interesting to me that the discussion has not about the other content on the show, but rather, Affleck’s request not to discuss parts of his family history that he or his family was uncomfortable with.

    I know this is a minority position. I appreciate what I learned from the show, but the medium and the show concept (focusing on celebrities and “known” figures) introduces limits that we should understand and expect. Perhaps I’m just too cynical. But if I really want to know the scoop on history, I will look elsewhere. But as I say, I did enjoy the show for what it was.

    Having said all of that, there is another issue here, which is, should we ourselves feel proud or ashamed because of the acts of our ancestors? Many people feel that way, and it’s unfortunate, IMO. How we address that, I don’t know.

    – Alan

  • Kevin, I know you’ve seen the article in the New Republic about this issue. As you know, the article quoted Carol Anderson of Emory University in telling us, “we should not mistake Finding Your Roots for scholarship.” From the article: “Part of what happens is that we conflate what a PBS special is with academic work,” Anderson said. “We have to understand that so much of what we see there is packaged for a non-academic audience that wants the picture of really deep, intellectual discussion, but is not quite ready for what that means. I think this [incident] with Ben Affleck really highlights that. Being a celebrity has a lot to do with how you package and market yourself. You may not want to come to grips with being the descendant of a slave owner. It’s not the conflict with rigorous academia that is surfacing; it’s what happens when academia meets entertainment.”

    I think she’s spot on with this observation. I am reading the complaints about the show as putting what happened in the same category as a historian claiming secession in 1860 and 61 was about tariffs instead of slavery and ignoring the Declarations of Causes published by states. The show’s purpose is entertainment, and the producers made a decision based on what they felt was best for the show. I think what they showed was pretty compelling. Megan’s suggestion that showing the arc from slave owner to civil rights activist in the same family would be even more compelling has merit, but ultimately I think the vast majority of criticisms are outside which story would make the most entertaining episode.

    • Hi Al,

      I have indeed read the article.

      Anderson said. “We have to understand that so much of what we see there is packaged for a non-academic audience that wants the picture of really deep, intellectual discussion, but is not quite ready for what that means.

      I can’t imagine anything more condescending from an academic than the above statement.

      The show’s purpose is not just entertainment. Why do we have to draw such a firm line between education and entertainment? The show was compelling, but as far as I am concerned it has little to do with how Gates handled this issue from the beginning.

  • Don’t slam me for trying to bring a little levity to this, but when is Affleck going to apologise for “Gigli”? Just saying….

  • “Loyalty to our ancestors does not include loyalty to their mistakes.” George Santayana.

  • I imagine Mr Affleck would feel differently if his slave-holding ancestor had been George Washington.

  • What is the significance of Affleck’s abhorrence of slave-owning ancestry for civil-war memory? He seems to view slaveowning ancestry as a skeleton in the closet to be concealed. How common is this attitude? What does it mean to grow up in communities where Affleck’s attitude is common–what does it mean in relation to civil-war memory, I mean. How common is Affleck’s attitude? How did he learn it? ( Let me just quality a little: I don’t think it wrong of him to seek the omission, and I don’t think it was wrong of Gates to grant it.) I’m asking the question because I grew up in Georgia long ago (B.A., 1960), and had little exposure to such attitudes.

  • As it happens, someone has just taken the trouble to go through the records of compensation paid to British slaveowners when slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833. No-one seems specially embarrassed about their ancestors SFAIK:
    “Academics from UCL, including Dr Draper, spent three years drawing together 46,000 records of compensation given to British slave-owners into an internet database to be launched for public use on Wednesday. But he emphasised that the claims set to be unveiled were not just from rich families but included many “very ordinary men and women” and covered the entire spectrum of society.

    Dr Draper added that the database’s findings may have implications for the “reparations debate”. Barbados is currently leading the way in calling for reparations from former colonial powers for the injustices suffered by slaves and their families.

    Among those revealed to have benefited from slavery are ancestors of the Prime Minister, David Cameron, former minister Douglas Hogg, authors Graham Greene and George Orwell, poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the new chairman of the Arts Council, Peter Bazalgette. Other prominent names which feature in the records include scions of one of the nation’s oldest banking families, the Barings, and the second Earl of Harewood, Henry Lascelles, an ancestor of the Queen’s cousin. Some families used the money to invest in the railways and other aspects of the industrial revolution; others bought or maintained their country houses, and some used the money for philanthropy. George Orwell’s great-grandfather, Charles Blair, received £4,442, equal to £3m today, for the 218 slaves he owned.”

    • Slaves and owners, serfs and royalty, ho’s and pimps; euphemize them as you wish, it has been around throughout recorded history. In America as in the rest of the world they are both our ancestors. The big difference here in America is that there was a war for federal supremacy that is now being labeled as ‘ending slavery’. Because some slaves and their descendants could be partially identified by the color of their skin and the unCivil War being heralded as their emancipator, racial strife continues to haunt America. The Brits seemed to have mostly gotten past this issue and I have not heard of any descendants of Irish slaves asking for reparations. Have historians mislead us by touting Lincoln as the ‘Emancipator’ while his goal was to salve his political ego?

      • Have historians mislead us by touting Lincoln as the ‘Emancipator’ while his goal was to salve his political ego?

        Only if you believe that such an overly simplistic account has any merit. Perhaps you can provide us with an example of a historian who is guilty of such a characterization.


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