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.