Why didn’t Henry Louis Gates and the producers of PBS’s “Finding Your Roots” just ask Ben Affleck’s mother whether she took part in the Freedom Summer of 1964? Over the weekend we went from editing out a section of Affleck’s episode to learning that a basic fact that tied his family’s narrative together is false. The drama of violence and the proximity of Affleck’s mother to the murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner during that summer is nothing less than misleading and points to the possibility of there being more fundamental problems with how research is carried out on the show.
I understand that this show is about entertainment, but this doesn’t preclude the ability to apply sound practices of historical research. For many people Gates provides a window into that process. That is not an unreasonable assumption. Gates’s position as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard comes with a great deal of clout. This most recent revelation jeopardizes his reputation, that of his center and fellow faculty and Harvard University.
What I want to know and what I believe viewers have a right to know is how Gates and his team arrived at the conclusion that Affleck’s mother was in Mississippi in 1964. What documents did the team utilize and how were they interpreted? Let’s see the research process itself so we can better judge the quality of the investigation that went into the production of this show. Mistakes are a part of any historical research project, but there is a difference between an honest mistake and a flawed process. This is the only way to alleviate concerns about past episodes and the future of “Finding Your Roots.”
Thanks to Shekhar Bhatia of the Daily Mail for following up on this story. The newspaper has uncovered quite a bit about Affleck’s family history. It leaves me to wonder whether Gates was even aware of some of these details. For example, I find it fascinating that one of Affleck’s slave-owning ancestors lived in Connecticut. Given our tendency to ignore the presence of slavery in the North this would have been an incredibly opportunity to educate viewers about this lost history.
In the end, the buck stop with Gates: “Ultimately, I maintain editorial control on all of my projects…” And it’s looking more and more like this is the problem.