Last night I caught part of Season 3 of Finding Your Roots, which included an episode about Keenen Ivory Wayans. The recent controversy involving Henry Louis Gates and Ben Affleck left me wondering if any substantial changes would be made to the show. It didn’t take long to answer.
FYR is pretty good at “finding” people, but at times they do an absolutely horrendous job of interpreting what they find. A case in point is Gates’s interaction with Wayans in locating and interpreting the life of Ben, an ancestor, who was the slave of South Carolina Governor John L. Manning.
Gates shares the story of a trip that Ben took with Manning to Canada in the 1840s. Apparently, while in Canada Ben was separated from Manning by “some zealous abolitionists.” Ben eventually finds his way back to Manning. You can watch the interaction below in this brief clip.
What I find troubling is that no effort is made to interpret the source of this story. It was clearly published after the Civil War and for that reason must be understood as part of the Lost Cause memory of antebellum slavery. That doesn’t mean that such an account must be dismissed, but it does mean that it needs to be handled with some caution. Certainly, Gates has an obligation to point this out and note that white Southerners had a vested interest in portraying slavery and their former slaves in a positive light.
The clip ends just before Wayans is introduced to the passage showing that Ben eventually made his way back to South Carolina.
When they told Ben that he was free and need never work again for any but his own interests, Ben, being thickheaded and warm-hearted, was greatly distressed. He kept his own counsel, but resolved to work his way back to his master, no matter how long it took. He got back after months of hardship, and great was the rejoicing in the ” Millford” household on the day he appeared, safe and sound. There was frolic and feasting in the big brick kitchen-quarters, and numerous were the “paroles” applied for by Ben’s friends on neighboring plantations,’anxious to get over to the Manning place and see for themselves that he was back, looking and acting just as before.
Instead of asking Wayans, “Can you believe that?” Gates could have noted that at no point in the account do we learn why Ben chose to return to South Carolina. Did he have his own “roots” or family back in South Carolina that he did not want to abandon?
Perhaps I am overly sensitive having read hundreds of postwar accounts of loyal slaves serving their Confederate masters. The problem is that FYR is more interested in capturing the emotional response of its guest than it is in providing the kind of historical context that leads to real understanding. I consider this to be nothing less than a form of manipulation. It manipulates the guest and the show’s viewers and it does a disservice to serious historical inquiry.