How “Finding Your Roots” Manipulates the Past

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. Continue reading “How “Finding Your Roots” Manipulates the Past”

Melissa Harris-Perry Meet Henry Louis Gates

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. Continue reading “Melissa Harris-Perry Meet Henry Louis Gates”

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”

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”