Bryant Gumbel woke up today believing that his great-grandfather briefly volunteered as a soldier in the Confederate army. Since the airing of Finding Your Roots on Tuesday evening tens of thousands of Americans now believe that the Confederate government recruited black soldiers into the army as early as the first two years of the war.
No one denies that mistakes will be made when doing historical research, but this is a different kind of mistake altogether. Americans are once again divided over the legacy of the Civil War and how it is remembered in public spaces throughout much of the former Confederacy. The staff should have been aware of this and taken extra steps to ensure that their research is sound.
Henry Louis Gates, PBS, and the entire research staff at Finding Your Roots had a opportunity to challenge one of the most pernicious myths about the Civil War and the Confederacy specifically. Other than passage of legislation in the final weeks of the war the Confederate government and military never actively recruited black men into the army. In fact, it specifically denied them service on multiple occasions through public statements and dismissing those individuals whose racial identity was discovered once in the ranks.
Think about the extent to which African American history has been distorted and manipulated. The black Confederate myth is nothing more than an attempt to re-cast the Confederacy as an experiment in progressive race relations. It is intended to deny that the Confederacy was fighting to establish a slave holding republic built on white supremacy. Its goal is to absolve the Confederacy of everything we now know and publicly recognize about its identity.
The entire team at Finding Your Roots now sits next to the distortion machine of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Sons of Confederate Veterans and any other group that has intentionally manipulated this history for their own purposes. But this is actually much worse because this show gains its legitimacy, in large part, from Gates’s association with Harvard University. He is a professor of African and African American Studies and the director of the university’s Hutchins Center.
PBS’s audience places its faith in Gates that the history he is presenting is accurate and not simply driven by a desire to shock his guests and viewing public with new insights that will pull the rug out from under your feet. What some people view as a small mistake is actually a serious betrayal of trust with the general public and a violation of an ethical contract that every public historian/intellectual signs when stepping into the wider world from the confines of their college or university.
But the most galling ethical violation is the one with their guests, who have volunteered to place themselves into a potentially vulnerable position in front of the entire world. It was painful to watch Gates ask Bryant Gumbel more than once how he felt about having a Confederate ancestor in his family tree. Indeed, how did he feel and how does he (along with the rest of his family) feel today about what must be the most personal historical narrative that one can possess?
Regardless of whether Finding Your Roots reaches out to the Gumbel family the damage has been done. We can only hope that the show’s staff takes a long hard look not simply at how they conduct basic historical research, but about the relationship that they occupy with their guests and their viewing public.