Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Ben Affleck's Request to Hide Slave-Owner Ancestor Sparks PBS Investigation

Actor/director/producer Ben Affleck
No matter who we are in America, each of us is interwoven into the complex tapestry of race that defines this nation; and family secrets are something each of us have whether we know it or not.

Would you discuss yours on national TV?

The news that Ben Affleck asked the producers of 'Finding Your Roots', the acclaimed PBS genealogy series hosted by esteemed Harvard history Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to conceal the fact that he has an ancestor who owned slaves is an indicator of not just the deep complexity of race in America, but also why it's such a difficult topic to talk about in one of the most racially diverse nations in the world.

An article on the 'The Hollywood Reporter' Website posted earlier this evening reports that portions of the huge trove of hacked Sony e-mails that were released by Wiki Leaks last week revealed publicly that Affleck sought to repress the information about his family history after research conducted for his appearance on an episode of 'Finding Your Roots' revealed that an as-yet unnamed ancestor of his owned slaves.

The episode in which Affleck appeared aired back on October 14, 2014 (that made no mention of the ancestor in question) and the release of the Sony e-mail revealing that Affleck sought to censor the information about his ancestor has now triggered an internal investigation into the matter by PBS.

Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Anyone who's watched even a single episode of 'Finding Your Roots' on PBS knows that host Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. treats the knowledge and research that is revealed with a deep respect, quiet candor and lack of judgment that helps both the interview subject (usually a famous celebrity) and the viewing audience gain a deeper insight into not only history, but ourselves as a nation - and indeed, the complexity of the human condition. 

This nation was founded on an agrarian society that was based on the forced enslavement of human beings as a low-cost labor source, so race and the myriad issues related to racial identity lie at the very core of who we are as a people.

With the help of advances in science and technology that accelerates data search, Dr. Gates' conversations on the PBS show often reveal fascinating things about race and genetics; things that help us to better understand our complex racial identity in ways we can all understand.

For example there are black people who discover they have white or Asian ancestors. There are white people who discover they have African-American or middle eastern ancestors - and yes, there are white people who discover that their lineage includes ancestors who were part of the system that enslaved Africans for generations.

I watched a really intriguing episode of 'Finding Your Roots' with actor Kevin Bacon and his wife actress Kyra Sedgewick where it was revealed that Kevin Bacon has English royalty in his blood, but perhaps more interesting, Krya Sedgewick had ancestors who owned slaves in her family.  

It's fair to say she seemed surprised by this revelation. She quietly listened as Professor Gates explained the specifics and though she remained composed, I suspect that inside her mind she was wondering if the knowledge would change how people perceive her.

Personally, I thought it showed courage to share something like that on television, knowing it was an important, albeit uncomfortable, part of our collective history.

Personally I'm a huge fan of Sedgewick's excellent work on 'The Closer' (a well-written show with a diverse cast and a powerful female lead) and there's no way I would consider judging her negatively for the actions of her distant relative.

I can't help but think that Ben Affleck might have done better to take a page from Sedgewick's book.

Affleck achieved notoriety pretty early on in his career with a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for the script for the 1997 film 'Good Will Hunting' which he co-wrote with actor/writer Matt Damon, but the obsessive media attention on his short-lived marriage to singer /actress Jennifer Lopez perhaps unfairly overshadowed his genuine on-screen presence and raw talent as an actor.

Personally, I thought he elevated his acting to whole new level with his role as a successful salesman who finds himself downsized in the excellent 2010 independent film 'The Company Men' alongside Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper and Kevin Costner.

More recently, he won Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for the 2012 film, 'Argo'

So I don't think it's surprising or shocking that Affleck would feel reluctant to publicly talk about an ancestor who owned slaves, particularly given how prevalent national media coverage of the killing of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and other African-Americans at the hands of white police officers  was back in the fall when his appearance on 'Finding Your Roots' aired on PBS.

Affleck, whose real name is Benjamin Geza Affleck-Boldt, was born in the relatively liberal academic enclave of Berkeley, California to a social worker father and a mother who was a school teacher.

He was raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is not exactly an intellectual backwater, so it's probably fair to say that his upbringing was much more progressive than it was conservative; even if Berkeley and Cambridge aren't exactly known as hubs of racial diversity.

Affleck got into a pretty heated exchange with Bill Maher during an October 3, 2014 appearance on the HBO show 'Real Time with Bill Maher' when he accused Maher and guest/author Sam Harris of what he felt were racist observations about Muslims and Islam.

Considering that Affleck's episode of 'Finding Your Roots' where knowledge of his slave-owning ancestor was not revealed, aired just eleven days after the highly publicized confrontation with Maher, looking back I wonder if Affleck's highly visible anger about the anti-Islamic comments were in some way related to his having learned about his slave-owning ancestor.

Had he heard about the results of Professor Gates' research before her went on Bill Maher?

Perhaps on some level he was fighting to distance himself from what he'd discovered about his own past; perhaps his indignation reveals a man who was struggling to come to grips with learning about having a family member who owned slaves; and what people might think of him because of that.

I don't know, that's only speculation on my part.

But I do know that I don't judge Ben Affleck negatively because of something a distant ancestor of his did.

After all there were thousands and thousands of people who owned slaves over the course of American history. From interviews I've seen or read with American descendants of slave owners, or slave traders, some white families see it as an aspect of family history that's never talked about, or only discussed in whispers.

For some white people, even talking about slave-owning ancestors has actually divided families between members who see it as a taboo family secret and those who want to discuss it openly.

Consequently I know there are many African-Americans, particularly older generations, who refuse to discuss it or view it as something too traumatic, painful or embarrassing to discuss; not every black American family rushed out to research their family tree after Alex Haley's novel 'Roots' was published and the subsequent ground-breaking television series aired on ABC. 

After all, slavery represents the most painful and bloody chapter in American history, a scourge of human misery and suffering that stands in total contrast to the lofty ideals of the Constitution.

But it's not a simple history, in fact it's rather tricky.

Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, yet he fathered children with an African-American woman named Sally Hennings. The "father" of our country George Washington owned slaves too.

There are any number of well-known celebrities, politicians and leaders who come from families who owned slaves.

Like Anderson Cooper, his great-great grandfather Cornelius Vanderbilt, the shipping and railroad magnate, owned slave plantations; in fact he owned one in Georgetown, South Carolina where First Lady Michelle Obama's ancestor Jim Robinson worked as a slave in 1850.

British Prime Minister David Cameron's descendants, like many wealthy British families, profited handsomely from slavery too through the 202 slaves they owned who worked the family's Grange Sugar Estate in Jamaica.

The British historian Dr. Nick Draper of University College in London has estimated that up to one-fifth of all wealthy English families in the Victorian Era inherited part or all of their wealth from the slave trade; the Bank of England was a major financier of the West African slave trade as are other companies and financial institutions that exist today.

It wasn't just wealthy British who made fortunes from slavery either; French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Belgian and Portuguese made fortunes as well.

Closer to home, one of America's most prestigious universities was founded (in part) with money made from trading or owning slaves.

John Brown I, born in 1736 was a leading statesman, merchant and major east coast slave trader who was not only instrumental in founding Brown University in Providence, he used his position in politics to advocate for the institution of slavery; even though he was leading figure in the American Revolution.

George W. Bush, Paula Deen and Pastor Rick Warren are just some of the famous Americans with relatives who owned slaves; that's not a judgment so much as a part of American history.

So Ben Affleck isn't alone by any means, but I can sympathize with why he tried to conceal the knowledge.

With the story breaking publicly, Affleck has issued public statements and message on his Facebook page apologizing for requesting that PBS producers not reveal the information about his ancestor.

That's not something that could have been easy for him to process.

Our nation is over 239 years old and the foundation of slavery predates the actual forming of the United States as a country by generations. We fought a Civil War over it that almost destroyed our nation.

To this date, Americans, both black and white still have a hard time talking about slavery as an institution.

It's something that's a part of us, something that defines us, yet we are repulsed by the idea of it even as we struggle to understand it and recognize the need to come to grips with it.

So Ben Affleck isn't alone. Aside from his celebrity, he's actually just like all of us; an American still trying to understand an institution that predates the Constitution.

Just another American trying to figure out how to talk about it.

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