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.

What I want to know and what I believe viewers have a right to know is how Gates and his team arrived at the conclusion that Affleck’s mother was in Mississippi in 1964. What documents did the team utilize and how were they interpreted? Let’s see the research process itself so we can better judge the quality of the investigation that went into the production of this show. Mistakes are a part of any historical research project, but there is a difference between an honest mistake and a flawed process. This is the only way to alleviate concerns about past episodes and the future of “Finding Your Roots.”

Thanks to Shekhar Bhatia of the Daily Mail for following up on this story. The newspaper has uncovered quite a bit about Affleck’s family history. It leaves me to wonder whether Gates was even aware of some of these details. For example, I find it fascinating that one of Affleck’s slave-owning ancestors lived in Connecticut. Given our tendency to ignore the presence of slavery in the North this would have been an incredibly opportunity to educate viewers about this lost history.

In the end, the buck stop with Gates: “Ultimately, I maintain editorial control on all of my projects…” And it’s looking more and more like this is the problem.

28 comments… add one
  • P F May 1, 2015 @ 6:11

    It just gets funnier and funnier. Affleck now has a full dozen slaveholding ancestors totalling 214 slaves in all – not a small sum. ( This took probably an hour or two of searching, something a leading Harvard “historian” apparently couldn’t be bothered with. And Batman’s mother (who seems very honorable) may have had relatives in 1963 involved in repressing the civil rights movement. How incredibly fascinating and enlightening would this have been to reveal and discuss instead of censoring history. But then PBS is not about educating, so much as raising money and placating its ‘sponsors’.

  • Julie Phelps Apr 28, 2015 @ 12:45

    I don’t even know where to start. I love ancestry and genealogical research and history. What I hate is when easily verified facts aren’t checked. I feel like “famous” people– well, anyone, these days– seems to think that they can say something and POOF! It’s either true, or they were misquoted or muscharatereized in some way. No, Hillary Clinton didn’t say “all my grandparents, you know, came over here and….” Well, wait, yeah, she did, but that’s not what l she meant. Two minutes on and that’s verified. Ben Afflect’s ancestor… Did he? Didn’t he? Shame? No shame? Guilt? No guilt? Freedom Rider? Freedom Summer? Whatever, she was alive in the mid 60’s and probably did civil rights work, so, whatever.
    I still stand firm– history matters. I USED to love Finding Your Roots. But now, I feel like it’s nothing more than Keeping Up With The Kardashians, PBS version. As a HISTORY professor at HARVARD, HLG should be all about history. To. The. Letter. I think using the excuse that the show is “entertainment” is a cop out. It’s a lame, “the dog ate my homework” excuse. It makes Harvard’s history department look like a joke. History matters. History matters. The TRUTH MATTERS.

  • Tim Abbott Apr 27, 2015 @ 4:42

    I wish this issue were as simple as holding those with academic credentials to account when they produce substandard work for popular audiences.- paging Dr. Oz – but regardless of its public service mandate PBS is entertainment first and foremost. In that way it is no different from Hollywood or HBO which so often sacrifices good history on the alter of good ratings. It infuriates me at the more mundane level of sloppy material culture as well as unsound scholarship, especially when there is excellent data to support a more accurate production, but it is also the nature of the entertainment industry to behave this way. When high profile academics become entertainers and producers, they are no longer the same historians or physicians writing for peer reviewed journals. They are the misleading glossy picture that gets slapped on the cover of a best seller by the art department.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 27, 2015 @ 4:53

      Hi Tim,

      First, it’s nice to hear from you. I certainly appreciate where you are coming from, but I don’t agree with your conclusions. Yes, there is tension between the scholarly and entertainment sides of these shows, but it is still possible to create an educational show. In other words, good history does not always have to lose out to entertainment. Finding Your Roots has the potential to do good work given the process that it claims to follow. Questions need to be answered and certainly Gates’s credibility is on the line. Whether he can remain with the show remains to be seen, but I am holding out for some amount of transparency.

      • Tim Abbott Apr 27, 2015 @ 5:58

        Perhaps I have become jaded, Kevin, or am just tired of being disappointed, but I see so little good history in popular media and keep hitting walls trying to convince producers to take the time to get it right. It should be possible. It rarely is.

        Gates has a platform where we expect him as an historian and public figure to do a great deal better, so the question must be asked why he doesn’t. Sloppy scholarship and editorial deference are symptomatic of deeper problems. I have proposed one: the demands and constraints of producing popular entertainment. Other possibilities are narrative bias, questionable methodology, hubris.

        Gates has creative (as well as academic) control over this project, giving him the ability to suppress one avenue of legitimate inquiry – the fact that Afleck had slave owning ancestors – and sensationalize another – his mother’s Civil Rights work. The latter seems right in line with my hypothesis that Gates is creating better entertainment at the expense of good history. Neither is it rigorous history, but I don’t think that is what Gates is trying to do with this series. It is about social change, using celebrities to connect the viewing public with certain narratives from the past and recasting them in modern memory. He is going for emotion. He is going for sizzle. There is no reason that good history can’t have both, but it appears to be a secondary consideration.

        • Kevin Levin Apr 27, 2015 @ 6:50

          I pretty much agree with you.

          Neither is it rigorous history, but I don’t think that is what Gates is trying to do with this series. It is about social change, using celebrities to connect the viewing public with certain narratives from the past and recasting them in modern memory. He is going for emotion. He is going for sizzle. There is no reason that good history can’t have both, but it appears to be a secondary consideration.

          I also don’t believe that “rigorous history” is what he is going for nor do I think he needs to move in this direction. As a history educator my interests extend little further than wanting to see entertaining stories presented that engage the imaginations and intellect of viewers. I believe this is possible.

  • Ted Apr 26, 2015 @ 12:58

    I have only followed the Gates/Affleck story on this thread so admittedly I am not up to speed. I am surprised that anyone expects more from a PBS show than a National Enquirer headline. When Ken Burns’ Civil War series aired many years ago the inaccuracies changed my naive impressions for good. History Channel, PBS, etc have steered me to many enjoyable hours of searching for truth or at least the most believable version.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 26, 2015 @ 13:14

      I am surprised that anyone expects more from a PBS show than a National Enquirer headline.

      I think these kinds of characterizations get us nowhere. Sure, it’s not a work of scholarship and we shouldn’t expect it to be, but these shows have the potential to be educational and often are just that.

  • Al Mackey Apr 26, 2015 @ 11:28

    For what it’s worth, I think the error regarding Mrs. Affleck is more troubling than the editorial decision to leave out a story. This, more than the other story, calls into question Professor Gates’ methodology in the show, in my opinion.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 26, 2015 @ 11:30

      I tend to agree with you, but taken together they cast a shadow on the whole operation.

  • Brooks D. Simpson Apr 26, 2015 @ 9:26

    This whole mess isn’t helping Professor Gates display his credentials as a historian. But we’ve seen that issue come up before. What I want to think about is how the Affleck Affair plays into his ranting about white liberals and what they can (and cannot) accept.

    I’m also waiting for John Stauffer and Jim Downs to weigh in.

  • tmheaney Apr 26, 2015 @ 7:48

    As a history teacher who was also surprised to discover a slave-owning ancestor named “Cole” in his family tree (perhaps Mr. Affleck is a very distant cousin), I’m finding this entire story to be quite fascinating.

    But I’m particularly puzzled by Prof. Gates referring to Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner as “Freedom Riders” when they weren’t. Is Prof. Gates inadvertently confusing the Freedom Riders with those who participated in Freedom Summer, or is he using that term because he thinks that might sound more interesting to the public?

  • Pat Young Apr 26, 2015 @ 4:31

    I am not very familiar with British press practices. Is the Daily Mail a reliable paper?

  • A. Jackson Apr 26, 2015 @ 4:04

    Aye, Chihuahua! It just gets worse and worse. I have heard stories of former soldiers claiming to have won the Metal of Honor and honestly believing that they did. No family member apparently ever asked to see the Metal or the documents associated with it. But I expect better of HLG.

    • Kristoffer Apr 26, 2015 @ 9:11

      There’s a name for those people: imposters. Medal of Honor claims are trivially easy to check if anyone actually bothers. Just search for them in the lists of recipients at the CMoHS website or the Hall of Valor.

      • Kevin Levin Apr 26, 2015 @ 9:15

        Right. This is something very different than the issues involving Affleck, Gates, and PBS.

        • A. Jackson Apr 26, 2015 @ 10:30

          I am not sure I totally agree. Claiming that your mother was a freedom rider when she was not could be seen in the same light as being an imposter of sorts. But, I’m fine with agreeing to disagree.

          • Kevin Levin Apr 26, 2015 @ 10:33

            Gates made the claim about his mother’s involvement in the civil rights movement. An impostor is someone who deceives another about his/her identity.

            • M.D. Blough Apr 26, 2015 @ 21:01

              From the newspaper articles I’ve seen, including the Daily Mail interview, Mrs. Affleck has a substantial record of civil rights activism, and she was in Mississippi but in 1965, not Freedom Summer. It still was a dangerous time to be a civil rights worker but wouldn’t have the same tie in to the Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner executions as participation in Freedom Summer would have. When I heard the clips that tied in Freedom Summer to the Freedom Riders, I too said, “Huh?”. I had to check the year but I knew that the Freedom Riders took place early in the Kennedy Administration, while Freedom Summer occurred during the Johnson administration. Gates would certainly know this. It’s as if, even though Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor wasn’t mentioned, that the claims about Mrs. Affleck’s civil rights activism somehow were meant to act as a counterbalance to them. While the usual suspects in the right-wing have leaped on this, the Daily Mail made it very clear that not only did Mrs. Affleck not misrepresent her civil rights record but was very upset and embarrassed that she was being credited with activities that she did not participate in.

              • A. Jackson Apr 27, 2015 @ 2:52

                Affleck’s mother did apparently set the record straight. When a person is still living, it is important to check with them to verify that what one is being told is the truth. Affleck could have done that prior to his interview with Gates, and Gates definitely should have gone behind him to check.

                • M.D. Blough Apr 27, 2015 @ 4:04

                  I don’t think it’s even a matter of going behind Affleck’s back. Affleck’s memories of what he might have been told as a child cannot be presumed to be accurate since human memory is a complex process. It would be easy for a memory of being told that his mother did civil rights work in Mississippi in the 60’s to being involved in two of the milestone events of that time. On Gates’ part, he should know that and verify. These aren’t matters that are difficult to check. Mrs. Affleck is still alive and both the Freedom Rides and Freedom Summer are documented.

                  • A. Jackson Apr 27, 2015 @ 12:02

                    I didn’t mean “go behind his back” in that way, but rather “fact checking.”

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