What Happens When Henry Louis Gates Censors the Past?

A report that has now gone viral, based on a recent Wikileaks dump, reveals that Ben Affleck requested that the PBS show “Finding Your Roots” – hosted by Henry Louis Gates – not mention that one of his ancestors was a slaveowner. As far as I am concerned, Affleck has every right to request such a change even if there is no reason for him to feel ashamed or if he believes that such a revelation will damage his public image.

I am more interested in what this might mean for the show and, more specifically, Gates’s reputation. “Finding Your Roots” is more than just a personal journey for the subject of each individual episode. Individual stories uncover not just unpleasant facts about our past, but also point to the many ways in which it shapes subsequent generations and ultimately impacts the present. Collectively, these individual stories suggest that many of the perceived divisions within our society, including class and race, are illusory. We are all interconnected and share a common past. Continue reading “What Happens When Henry Louis Gates Censors the Past?”

Henry Louis Gates, Black Confederates and White Liberal Academics

Last Saturday Megan Kate Nelson, my wife and I went to see Suzan Lori Parks’s three-act play, “Father Comes Home From the Wars.” I don’t want to give too much away about the plot beyond the fact that the central character is a slave, who at the beginning of the first act struggles with whether he is going to go off to war with his master/Confederate colonel. Oh, and the slave, whose name is Hero, is also donning a Confederate uniform.

Following the show we enjoyed a talkback with members of the cast. Unfortunately, we missed another post-production discussion the following day with Parks, along with Henry Louis Gates and Eric Foner. The discussion kicked off with some thoughts about the current debate about black Confederates.

On one level the focus of the discussion was unfortunate. At no time is Hero’s struggle about whether he can support or serve the Confederacy and the decision has nothing to do with him serving as a soldier. Rather, it serves as the foundation for his relationship with his master, which evolves significantly during the show. It’s confusing, in part, because Hero wears a uniform, but we know of a number of slaves, including, most famously, Silas Chandler, who were outfitted in military dress. The opening act offers an opportunity to explore the complexity of the master-slave relationship and not that of the relationship between slaves and the Confederacy. Continue reading “Henry Louis Gates, Black Confederates and White Liberal Academics”

Henry Louis Gates on Free Blacks and the Confederacy

I am going to feature this video with just a little commentary. Some of what Gates says here is just bizarre. Free blacks were “unmolested” by the Confederacy. Tell that to historian Clarence Mohr. In addition, according to Gates, the “dirtiest little secret in African-American history is that a surprisingly high percentage of the free Negros in the South owned slaves themselves.” Perhaps one of you can tell me what “high percentage” means in this context. Continue reading “Henry Louis Gates on Free Blacks and the Confederacy”

Henry Louis Gates and Black Confederates (Redux)

Yesterday Henry Louis Gates published an extensive piece on the process that led to the recruitment of African-American soldiers during the Civil War at The Root. It’s well worth reading. As I was perusing the piece I wondered whether Gates would use the occasion to discuss the controversy surrounding black Confederate soldiers. Continue reading “Henry Louis Gates and Black Confederates (Redux)”