I don’t know too much about Melissa Harris-Perry or her show on MSNBC. The network is almost as worthless as FOX News, so what I have seen of her program has been little more than individual segments through various websites. All in all the show strikes me as an honest attempt to bring some thoughtfulness back to a major news network. I’ve especially enjoyed her segments on race and gender, which occupy a good deal of her attention.

Given this I wasn’t surprised that Harris-Perry took on the ongoing controversy surrounding Ben Affleck, Henry Louis Gates and the show, “Finding Your Roots.” Harris-Perry brought together a talented group of commentators including Tom Sugrue to discuss what Affleck’s request – that a reference to a slave-owning ancestor be left out of the show – tells us about the continued difficulty of coming to terms with this important history.

Affleck’s request as well as his recent public statement apologizing for it is an opportunity to have such a discussion. However, there is something very troubling about the way Harris-Perry frames the discussion in her introduction. She makes absolutely no mention of the name of the show or the show’s host, Henry Louis Gates. In fact, at no point during the entire segment is either mentioned by Harris-Perry or by the guests. No context whatsoever is provided.

In her commentary at the end of the show Harris-Perry offers a muddled explanation of what Affleck’s request and statement tell us about shame and our collective memory of slavery. In it she does mention the show, “Finding Your Roots” but once fails to mention Henry Louis Gates. Between the two segments it is difficult not to conclude that this omission was intentional.

Regardless of whether the omission was intentional the absence of Gates from the roundtable discussion and her own commentary leaves us with only part of the story and arguably without its most important component. If Affleck’s behavior tells us something important about the legacy of slavery and the importance of confronting it head on than Gates’s willingness to agree to it offers lessons as well.

Gates enjoys a great deal of popularity owing to his position at Harvard and the popularity of his PBS shows and other documentaries. It is not a stretch to suggest that he is the face of African American history and has staked his reputation on digging into the past to remind the nation of places where the history has been distorted and even ignored. Surely his role in this story and subsequent revelations that the Affleck segment suffers from other problems is worthy of Harris-Perry’s attention.

Melissa Harris-Perry can’t lecture her viewers on responsibility when there are indications that she is distancing herself from a crucial part of this controversy.

About Kevin Levin

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13 comments add yours

  1. What I find concerning, and frankly somewhat irritating, is that Sugrue and Tillet stated that somehow Affleck benefited from his slaveholding ancestor (a great-great-great grandfather). How do they know this? Is there any evidence of this? Was some wealth or societal status passed down that Affleck inherited? If not, I would suggest that they are playing a card they shouldn’t be playing. Frankly, Reyes offers a much more productive perspective.

    I’m not nearly as disturbed by Harris-Perry, or even Gates, as I am by supposed experts like the ones who were on this panel pitching this kind of guilt as association.

    Sadly, this entire situation is so indicative of how muddled and misunderstood the legacy of American slavery truly is. It is also shows how such history can be warped to claim that someone 150 years later could be a beneficiary of slavery.

  2. I think we need to look at it more as white society as a whole, both north and south, benefited from slavery rather than looking at an individual family. A family has its economic ups and downs, but American society as a whole has for many generations favored white males. Much of the wealth of America can be traced to slavery, but they made it too simplistic.

  3. I just did a quick series of census checks on Mr. Benjamin L. Cole. He is indeed listed as a farmer and slave owner in 1850. The 1850 Census lists him as the owner of 25 slaves and his net worth was $20,000 (as best as I can read it). However, by 1860 something had changed, and dramatically. He was then listed as a sheriff and his real estate and personal estate values (combined $4,000) are NOT indicative of a large slave owner. In fact, the 1860 Slave Census doesn’t show Cole owning any slaves, although he is listed as the executor of two slave-based estates. One was the estate of Mrs. A. L. Norton and the other was the estate of Speisegger (?) and children. By 1870, Cole was a bailiff with a personal estate valued at $600.

    Now I can’t say for certain what happened to his money, but this doesn’t seem like someone that Mr. Ben Affleck reaped any sort of big windfall from, or somehow benefited from Mr. Cole’s fiscal situation. In fact, one of Cole’s sons, Benjamin Jr.,, was working a railroad mechanic in the late 1880s. Sounds like glamorous work.

    Anyway, I know some of this has been released in the press, and from what I see some facts have simply been repeated over and over. However, important elements of the story have been left out. And the MSNBC panel took what was out there and then made their interpretation or connection to Affleck and the present day.

    Sorry, but as a serious researcher I find aspect this as upsetting as you find Gates’ actions.

  4. Finally, some genuine research to point us toward a better understanding of the truth.

  5. So, is the critical follow-on question – “Did Affleck’s ancestors fight for the cause of slavery in the Civil War?”

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