Ben Affleck Speaks

April 22, 2015 § 10 Comments

Well, Ben Affleck has spoken.  And he has said what I would have hoped he’d have said the first go around.  He posted on his Facebook page last evening:

After an exhaustive search of my ancestry for “Finding Your Roots,” it was discovered that one of my distant relatives was an owner of slaves.

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.

Skip decided what went into the show. I lobbied him the same way I lobby directors about what takes of mine I think they should use. This is the collaborative creative process. Skip agreed with me on the slave owner but made other choices I disagreed with. In the end, it’s his show and I knew that going in. I’m proud to be his friend and proud to have participated.

It’s important to remember that this isn’t a news program. Finding Your Roots is a show where you voluntarily provide a great deal of information about your family, making you quite vulnerable. The assumption is that they will never be dishonest but they will respect your willingness to participate and not look to include things you think would embarrass your family.

I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story. We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing. I am glad that my story, however indirectly, will contribute to that discussion. While I don’t like that the guy is an ancestor, I am happy that aspect of our country’s history is being talked about.

Ben Affleck

Obviously, I wish he had said this last October, but kudos to Affleck to taking this head on.  I don’t think anyone can have issue with anything he (or, more likely his PR people) say here.  I would like, though, to see him do  more than just make this statement, I would like to see a Hollywood mega star actually start a discussion on the legacies of slavery.  But.  I suppose I’m asking for too much.


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§ 10 Responses to Ben Affleck Speaks

  • Good for Affleck. Does his FB get as many views as PBS?

    re: PBS as arbiter of history, I have been watching Wolf Hall. yeah, I know it’s BBC, but Gee!, Tom Cromwell seems like a pretty good guy…(also read the books) I discovered an interesting connection:
    found this really intriguing, can you add anything?

    There is a common misconception in this country that blacks were the only ones subjected to slavery. Not to diminish the evils inherent in that, but the Norman English weren’t above enslaving anybody. The Irish and Native Americans, for instance. cf. Poor Law of 1547, which allowed that “able, landless men & women without employment were to be branded and enslaved.” The Tudors weren’t as pretty as their clothes.

    • Yeah, I loved those books, Hillary Mantel did a wonderful job with them. I am impatiently awaiting the final book, but she says she’s having a hard time killing Cromwell off. I don’t know enough about the man to know how accurate she is about him, but Tudor historians I know love the books and show, so I guess that says something. I’ve only seen the first episode of the show. Can’t wait to see more.

      I wish I could add to what you’ve discovered about Chapman and Sadler, that’s a cool bit of history you’ve got there, but it’s well beyond my ken.

      As for slavery, no, definitely not. It’s as old as time itself. I’m a little skeptical of the claim about the Irish, personally, knowing my tribe likes to claim we’re the M.O.P.E. (Most Oppressed People Ever). So I take stories like that with a grain of salt. But, indentured servitude is kind of akin to slavery and that was certainly inflicted upon the Irish.

      • I have a great deal of respect for Simon Schama’s scholarship, “It grates a bit to accept that millions now think of Thomas Cromwell as a much-maligned, misunderstood pragmatist from the school of hard knocks who got precious little thanks for doing Henry VIII’s dirty work.”
        Schama goes on to say “When I was doing research for A History of Britain, the documents shouted to high heaven that Thomas Cromwell was, in fact, a detestably self-serving, bullying monster who perfected state terror in England, cooked the evidence, and extracted confessions by torture. He also unleashed small-minded bureaucratic ‘visitors’ to humiliate, evict and dispossess thousands of monks and nuns.” Henry himself doesn’t appear to have had too much difficulty killing Cromwell, or anyone else who stood in his way. Seems that most of what we the general public know about medieval historical persons is from theater, who knows what biases have been working there?

      • Yes. From what my colleagues who do Tudor England tell me, it’s hard to actually get at it, because the records are so doctored, and come from biased sources, plus Shakespeare. I have no doubts that Cromwell was a vicious man. Had to be, given how high he rose. More was no different, and Henry, of course he was a vicious man.

        I have always wanted to see a study on how perceptions of the Tudors have changed due to the work of Shakespeare. I know some have attempted to get at this, but not fully.

  • I just finished reading this update you posted that you told me about pertaining to his commentary about the mistake he made in not having the research into his ancestry finding out that he had a slave owner in his family tree to Mr. Cromwell on his PBS show. I just hope it was his words and not his publicist’s that wrote the apology on Facebook. Of, at least, he looked it over and read it to make sure he was in agreement before his comment was posted to his Facebook account. It is refreshing, too, to see that the blogger of this blog not only takes the time to read the comments posted to his articles but also gives commentary back. Bravo for that!

  • Correction: Mr. Gates and not Mr. Cromwell. Oops!

  • daseger says:

    I have a LOT to say about the Cromwell comments above–too much, really, but I’m not quite sure what the fictional Wolf Hall has to do with PBS as a “purveyor of history”. Much more problematical for me is the very telling line in Affleck’s statement: “this is the collaborative creative process”. Mantel is very clear that her books are NOVELS, while Gates claims to be telling the truth.

    • Well, I see Wolf Hall the TV show and Mantel’s novels as a form of public history, and this is I suppose the larger problem with Tudor history. Most of what we think we know about them comes to us through pop history, movies, and TV shows. The catch phrase of that horrible show The Tudors was something along the lines of You think you know the history, but you don’t (more eloquently stated). Somewhere on my blog there is a discussion about what we know about the Tudors as filtered through Shakespeare.

      And Gates is clearly not interested in the truth, capital T, as this bit about Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor wasn’t in there.

      But, obviously, history can’t be the capital T truth, as we choose our narratives, we formulate narratives, both as historians, and as individuals in society. That’s not to say that Mantel is selling us pure history and an academic historian is selling us bunk, as Henry T. Ford so eloquently called it. But, there is a conscious, and self-selective process in the formation of these historical narratives.

      • daseger says:

        Still not getting really getting the connection between a tv show based on two historical novels and a genealogical show–but the nuances of public history often escape me. You would think the genealogists would be all over this one: they are very serious, strident people–I run the other way when I see one of them coming! And I’m wondering why you make Shakespeare the culprit in “distorting” Tudor history when he wrote about them so seldom–RIchard III is really about Richard III and Henry VIII has had very little resonance over the ages. I had a great grad. summer institute last summer on “The Tudors: history, media & mythology” (or something like that) and we decided that the Victorians were to blame for everything!

      • I’m interested in narrative formation, and these are all historical narratives we’re sold and we consume. Clearly Gates’ TV show is no more reliable than Mantel’s novels as an historical source. He purposefully left out an aspect of his subject’s family history. And Mantel writes novels. I am curious as to how narratives are formed.

        We use novels to teach history, and any historical novelist worth her weight makes sure her historical background is as authentic as possible. And Mantel, as far as I can tell, is pretty good on that front. The story? I have no idea, nor do I care. They’re fantastic novels.

        As for Shakespeare, yes, to a degree. I’m not so sure about Henry VIII, as it still gets performed, still gets read. But, sure, I’ll blame the Victorians.

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