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.

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.

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24 comments… add one
  • Janey Feb 23, 2016 @ 17:42

    Don’t like Gates as the host. Comes across as too smug and all-knowing….all by himself. Would much prefer a concept like the Canadian “Ancestors in the Attic” that follows the trail of research done by the actual researchers. Much more believable. Somehow, Gates’ show seems too contrived.

  • insidethesilhouette Jan 27, 2016 @ 13:55

    The problem with adding in context and offering interpretation is it opens up the possibility of introducing bias. This article itself shows bias in mentioning certain interpretations, but not others (which likely are not in line with the writer’s political and social views). Keeping the focus purely on reaction and allowing the recipient of the research to hear the historical record and interpret it for himself/herself is likely a way to avoid introducing bias or cluttering the broadcast with too multiplicative possibilities.

  • danbullerelt Jan 22, 2016 @ 6:57

    My impression from the episode was that the second source of Ben’s story was from a certain viewpoint (that was likely biased) and that that was a reason for taking the words from the source with a grain of salt. HLG introduces the second source by saying, “purported to be Ben’s own words” around 44′-45′ into the show. I’m only a layperson and not a historian, but I came away with the impression that the second source was to be understood with a certain nuance. It obviously still puts a lot on the viewer and leaves a wide open lane for misinterpreting the thrust of the story (and how it was understood and used by contemporaries), but I came away with the impression that there was at least a small attempt to introduce the element of the unknown.

  • Frank Jan 21, 2016 @ 16:22

    Amen brother!

  • Lynn Jan 21, 2016 @ 11:17

    I can understand the non-elaboration….there were many other items also cut short. Three people, advertisers, promotions….and screen times gets short. My concern is more on the ‘assuming of owners names and slave lists with no names.’ Surely every slave didn’t assume owners name and how can you know an unnamed person is your ancestor. I could really fill up a tree by making assumptions!

  • Kristen Jan 21, 2016 @ 7:46

    I think this is a very interesting and good observation, Kevin. I am sure Ben had other reasons to go back to the plantation, like family and friends, not to go back because of his loyalty to his master. I cannot put my finger on why Gates never interpreted the source material and questioned the meaning behind Ben’s escape South. Maybe it was to make sure they did not cause controversy and just stick with the story. Who knows…

  • Lori Cole Jan 21, 2016 @ 5:14

    While I think you’re right about putting that anecdote into the context of the “Lost Cause Narrative,” I thought the show made it pretty clear that the it was the idea of permanent separation from his family that drew Ben back to South Carolina.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 21, 2016 @ 5:19

      Hi Lori,

      I think you are right. Separation is mentioned. My concerns have more to do with the way Gates interprets primary sources or, in this case, fails to interpret them. The characterization of abolitionists is allowed to let stand. Overall, the source is offered without question, which is surprising given that the narrative contained is part of the larger story of racism at work in Wayans’s family history.

  • MCH Jan 21, 2016 @ 4:10

    Unfortunately, this is what HLG has been doing for years. I mean, the man made a “documentary” in which he essentially has someone film him walking around a slave port; he shoves a camera in random peoples’ faces, tells them their ancestors were probably black [read: complicit] slave traders while offering zero context, and asks them to react. He’s probably just lucky no one has ever Geraldo’d him?

  • mischling2nd Jan 20, 2016 @ 19:09

    Gates is no historian. The people who actually do the research on FYR are invisible.

    • Andy Hall Jan 21, 2016 @ 12:15

      “The people who actually do the research on FYR are invisible.”

      That’s one thing about “Who Do You Think You Are?” that I like — the celebrity subjects schlep around to different places and meet with local historians and archivists, who discuss what they’ve found and what the sources mean. The show still crafts things for drama — the shocking revelation and all that — but it doesn’t have a host that is set up as the all-knowing expert, and actually gives a sense of how historical/genealogical research gets done.

  • Angela Walton-Raji Jan 20, 2016 @ 16:13

    What was the name of the book that told about Ben’s return to bondage? Who was the author? In the genealogy community there is also much discussion over the use of records that bear no name, being presented to the guest as their ancestor during years of bondage. This is being challenged in several discussion groups and there is much concern.

  • Karen L. Cox Jan 20, 2016 @ 5:32

    I know you didn’t ask that the show do “everything.” That wasn’t my point. I was simply noting that in such a short segment, “everything” meant that there are many ways the program can approach ancestry, including your suggestion.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 20, 2016 @ 5:34

      Thanks, Karen. Should have read your comment more carefully.

      I admit that this post is informed by numerous other statements made by Gates about various topics, including black Confederates. He is not the most rigorous of scholars, which is troubling given his public profile and affiliation with Harvard.

  • Karen L. Cox Jan 20, 2016 @ 5:21

    “I don’t see entertainment and education as mutually exclusive.” That’s why there is the neologism “edutainment.” This could have been a simple issue of editing, in which that context you are seeking is left out. I do seem to recall that Wayans said something along the lines of his ancestor probably having family back in SC. A show like this cannot do everything, especially when it is edited down to these short segments. Like Mr. Heiser, I’m not as disappointed, because the premise of the show is about locating ancestors and providing *some* context in the short amount of time available. Who knows what conversations may have taken place off screen?

    • Kevin Levin Jan 20, 2016 @ 5:27

      Hi Karen,

      I am not asking that the show do “everything.” All I am asking for is that Gates preface his introduction of the document with a few words about the nature of the source. Certainly, a few seconds can be salvaged from the final edit.

      It is possible that Wayans was given additional context, but I am also concerned with where that leaves the audience. The other day Scholastic pulled a children’s book that depicted Washington’s slave cook and child as smiling. I understand why it was pulled given our nation’s problematic understanding of the history of slavery and race. I think some of the same points can be raised here.

    • rogsbear Jan 20, 2016 @ 15:50

      Excellent point, Karen L. Cox

    • Amie Bowser Tennant Jan 21, 2016 @ 8:19

      These were my feelings as well Karen. I felt the possible lack of further information or explanation was due to the editing requirements for a 1 hour tv show. I enjoyed this episode very much!

  • John Heiser Jan 20, 2016 @ 4:52

    I saw the episode as well, though I was not as disappointed as you, Kevin. The basic premise of the program is reaction from the guest who knows little or nothing about his past. The entertainment value of the discovery of long lost ancestors is what this program is all about rather than a deeper understanding of the motivations of one’s ancestors and the cultural aspects of their lives. Maybe that can be accomplished through a follow up program, but I doubt whether any producer would attempt to tackle what has the potential to be such a controversial topic; PBS would certainly be the media channel for further exploration of the subject.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 20, 2016 @ 4:56

      I don’t see entertainment and education as mutually exclusive. There is too much at stake when it comes to the history and memory of slavery.

      • Bryan Cheeseboro Jan 20, 2016 @ 7:30

        I didn’t see the show but this is a perfect out-of-context videobite for someone’s neo-Confederate website. There could be a million reasons why the man chose to return to slavery… I agree it’s most likely family reasons. But not only does Gates not discuss that (at least in the program) but it paints abolitionists as the “real villains,” i.e., kidnappers. Nothing but a bunch of meddling, agitating, godless liberal Yankees that don’t know enough to mind their own business.

        • Kevin Levin Jan 20, 2016 @ 8:08

          Couldn’t have said it any better, Bryan. Gates effectively validates the source.

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