On Ben Affleck and Slavery

April 21, 2015 § 173 Comments

A few years back, I was contacted by the producers of Who Do You Think You Are?, a popular TV genealogy show, to help them with an episode.  The show was predicated on tracing the ancestry of celebrities, attempting to capitalize on the boon in genealogy amongst the masses, and was based on a popular British version.  For an upcoming episode, they were working with Rosie O’Donnell, whose Irish ancestors had passed through Montreal, living for a time in a long-defunct neighbourhood in the city’s east end.

So I met with people from the show when they came to Montreal, spent the good chunk of a day with them, showing them what mid-nineteenth century architecture in the city looked like, using Pointe-Saint-Charles in the stead of this defunct neighbourhood, which was destroyed by the expansion of rue Notre-Dame in the 70s.  Not surprisingly, the majority of the Montreal part was excised from the show, but I did get a wonderful brunch at Quoi de N’Oueuf.

In preparation for their visit, they had sent me the very first episode of the show, from 2010, which looked at Sarah Jessica Parker, then riding high on Sex and the City.  It turns out her ancestors had been in Salem in 1692.  As the show went to commercial, Parker was waiting on tenterhooks in the archives.  Was her ancestor the accused or the accuser?  Turns out her ancestor was the victim.  I have always wondered how this episode would’ve played out had Parker’s ancestor been one of the accusers?

Would Parker have responded to learning her ancestors were involved in dodgy dealings like Ben Affleck?  Affleck was on PBS’ Finding Your Roots last year.  The show, hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is a lot like Who Do You Think You Are?, though perhaps more erudite, given the host and the network.  Anyway.  Emails released out of that hacking of Sony’s servers a few months back reveal that Affleck is the descendant of slave owners, but he wished that part of the story kept under wraps.  No doubt he was embarrassed by this fact.

According to The Boston Globe, Gates emailed the Sony USA’s boss, Michael Lynton as to what to do with Affleck’s request that his ancestor’s slave-owning past be excised from the show.  As Gates noted,

One of our guests has asked us to edit out something about one of his ancestors — the fact that he owned slaves. Now, four or five of our guests this season descend from slave owners, including Ken Burns. We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?

This led to a discussion about what to do, as Lynton said the information should be kept out of the show; Gates noted the moral problem with this kind of self-censorship.  Nonetheless, the episode aired last October, minus the information about Affleck’s slave-owning ancestors.

Now, I get why Affleck might be embarrassed by this information.  However.  Here we had a wonderful opportunity to have a discussion about the legacy of slavery and imperialism in this country.  If Affleck had stood up and said “Yes, some of my ancestors were slave-owners, I’m not proud of that, but it is what it is,” we could’ve discussed the fact that a good number of Americans, including some African Americans, are descendants of slave owners.  We could have faced up to this ugly part of history.

History is full of all sorts of uncomfortable things, which should be patently obvious to anyone.  Dealing with these uncomfortable truths is part and parcel of coming to terms with history as both individuals and societies.  Take, for example, the case of the Armenian Genocide of 1915.  Here we are, at the centenary of the genocide, and Turkey, the nation descended from the Ottoman Empire, which committed the acts, refuses to acknowledge its actions.  At this point, given the régime change at the end of the First World War, I am not entirely sure why Turkey is so steadfast in its denial.  On the other hand, Germany has faced its ugly past in terms of the Holocaust.

Facing ugly histories is the only way we can face understanding and healing.  It is the only way to come to terms with the past.  And Affleck, who fancies himself a humanist and an activist (and he has done some good work), has missed a wonderful chance here in the name of saving himself some temporary embarrassment.

A Storm of Witchcraft: Salem in 1692 & Ballyvadlea in 1895

December 15, 2014 § 8 Comments

IMG_0629I read my colleague Emerson Baker’s fantastic A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience this weekend.  Salem bills itself as “Witch City, USA”, the image of a witch on a broom adorns the police cars here.  My wife is on the board of the Salem Award Foundation, which seeks to draw

upon the lessons of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, [to promote] awareness, understanding and empathy in support of human rights, tolerance and social justice. We advance social change through educational programming, stewardship of the Salem Witch Trials Memorial as a place of reflection, and by awarding and celebrating contemporary champions who embody our mission.

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial

The Salem Witch Trials Memorial

As a public historian, the Hallowe’en silliness has fascinated me, as ‘ghost walks’ are held all around town, showing some of the locations sort of connected to the Witch Trials.  I say ‘sort of’ because most of the action did not take place in Salem.  Most of the accused came from Salem Village (then apart of Salem, now Danvers) and Andover.  Some of the trials took place here, though.  Nonetheless, every year, hundreds of thousands of people come to Salem, in the wake of the murder of twenty innocent people in 1692-3, most of them on Gallows Hill, to engage in revelry and have fun.

But, this is the first time I’ve engaged seriously in the actual history of the events.  I knew the stories, I knew the outlines of what happened here and how those twenty people came to be killed in an explosion of mass hysteria.  But, in reading Barker’s book I’ve been impressed at just how deeply held was the beliefs in witches in 17th century New England.  Baker makes this argument forcefully, noting how a belief in witches, and in the wickedness of Satan drove Puritan beliefs.  In this way, as he argues, witches became a convenient scapegoat in tumultuous times in Massachusetts.  There was war with the aboriginals on the frontiers, from what is now Maine to towns located 15-20 miles inland from Salem, like Billerica.  The economy was suffering.  Puritans felt themselves under attack as religious toleration was extended.

Salem is itself named after the Hebrew word shalom, meaning peace, and is a shortened version of Jerusalem, or City of Peace.  Massachusetts was established as a city on the hill, and Salem is amongst the oldest towns in Massachusetts, settled in 1626 by Roger Conant and a group of Puritans, and is two years older than Boston.  In 17th century Massachusetts, Salem and Boston were the two major commercial and administrative centres in Massachusetts.  All of this was under attack in the late 17th century.

The story Baker tells is not unlike that told by Angela Bourke in one of my favourite books, The Burning of Bridget Cleary, the story of the burning to death of Bridget Cleary, a 25-year old woman, by her husband, Michael, in 1895 in Ballyvadlea, in rural Co. Tipperary, Ireland.  What seems a straight-forward case of domestic violence is more than that.  Michael Cleary claimed his wife had been taken away by the faeries, and he killed the changeling posing as his wife, as the real Bridget would return from the nearby ringfort, where she had been held captive by the faeries.  Bourke then ties the case of Bridget Cleary into larger stories of Irish nationalism and the fight for Home Rule; faeries, then, were a traditional folkway for the people of rural Ireland in a rapidly changing time.

Bridget is often called the ‘last witch’ to be burned in Ireland.  She was never accused of witchcraft, so that’s unfair (yes, I am aware of my title).  But what is interesting in the similarity of these two stories.

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