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The Buck Stops With Henry Louis Gates

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. Continue reading “The Buck Stops With Henry Louis Gates”

Winners and Losers of the Sesquicentennial

I am in the process of going through old posts in preparation for an essay on the Civil War sesquicentennial. I’ve identified a number of themes that I will explore as I try to place the past few years within a broader context stretching back to the Civil War centennial.

Here is your chance to offer some thoughts about what we’ve experienced since 2011. Who or what do you think were the big winners and losers of the Civil War sesquicentennial? You can be as specific or as broad as you choose. You can identify individuals (past or present), organizations, events and even historical themes/narratives. Feel free to be as creative as you want in formulating your response.

For example, in my opinion one of the big winners of the 150th was the history and memory of the United States Colored Troops. On the other hand, the clear loser was the veneration for and display of the Confederate flag.

So, what do you think?

More Trouble For Henry Louis Gates

This story just continues to get jucier with each passing day. The website Gawker now has the original script for Ben Affleck’s episode of “Finding Your Roots.” Henry Louis Gates has maintained that the decision to focus on another of Affleck’s ancestors had nothing to do with the actor’s request to steer clear of his slave-owning ancestor. The release of the script and the timing of the changes render that explanation as untenable.

0423toonwassermanGates clearly has more explaining to do. Given when the edits to the episode were made it now becomes more likely that additional staff members with the show were aware of Affleck’s request and understood why the changes were being made.

The integrity of the show and Gates’s reputation as a public intellectual have both been jeopardized.

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. Continue reading “Ben Affleck, Henry Louis Gates and Oprah Winfrey’s Couch”

New to the Civil War Memory Library, 04/21

forthcoming, September 2015
forthcoming, September 2015

Terry Alford, Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Lisa T. Frank, The Civilian War: Confederate Women and Union Soldiers During Sherman’s March (Louisiana State University Press, 2015).

Gary Gallagher and J. Matthew Gallman eds., Lens of War: Exploring Iconic Photographs of the Civil War (University of Georgia Press, 2015).

Earl J. Hess, Civil War Infantry Tactics: Training, Combat, and Small-Unit Effectiveness (Louisiana State University Press, 2015).

Ari Kelman and Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War (Hill and Wang, 2015).

Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (Basic Books, 2015).

Note: Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign, which contains an essay of mine on the Crater now has a cover.