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.

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