clock menu more-arrow no yes

Ben Affleck on wanting to keep slave-owning ancestor a secret: "I was embarrassed"

A still from the episode of PBS' "Finding Your Roots" that focused on Affleck's family
A still from the episode of PBS' "Finding Your Roots" that focused on Affleck's family
PBS

It turns out that trying to hide slave-owning ancestors is more embarrassing than having slave-owning ancestors in the first place.

And it should be.

The recent backlash in response to the revelation that Ben Affleck pushed creators of the PBS series Finding Your Roots — a show in which Harvard University's Henry Louis Gates Jr. takes celebrities and public figures on a journey through their genetic ancestry — to censor the discovery that one of his relatives owned slaves is a reminder of a larger lesson: we all live with the consequences of America's racist history, in ways that are largely out of our control. When we were born, what color we are, and what our families did before we got here aren't sources of shame. But to insist upon denying how these things affect us is.

Affleck wanted to hide the fact that his ancestor owned slaves

In a newly uncovered hacked Sony email from July 22, 2014, published by WikiLeaks, Gates (a former boss of mine) wrote to Sony USA chief Michael Lynton explaining Affleck's request: "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?"

The family secret ultimately didn't make it into the 2014 episode of the ancestry-tracing series.

In a statement defending the decision to cut the information from the episode, PBS and Gates said Gates and his producers "made an independent editorial judgment to choose the most compelling narrative."

But less interesting than the PBS team's final decision is the idea that Affleck wanted to sweep his family's history under the rug in the first place.

He addressed this in a Facebook post Tuesday, explaining on his personal page that he was embarrassed by the finding and saying he regretted the decision to "lobby" Gates (referred to in the post by his nickname, Skip) to exclude it from the episode:

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.

A bizarre push to try to hide something that's pretty common

As Gates pointed out in his email, Affleck wasn't the first white celebrity guest on the show to have an ancestor who owned slaves.  Far from it.

Here's Anderson Cooper (one of the four or five other guests with similar stories whom Gates mentioned) learning that one of his ancestors not only owned 12 slaves, but was killed by one of them with a farm hoe.

Cooper's dramatic reaction got the clip a lot of attention, but the details of his family tree weren't held against him. After all, he had nothing to do with the fact that his relative owned other humans. And there was a broad understanding that putting a name or face on this part of his history didn't make Cooper different from many other Americans — in fact, it put him in the same boat with black and white fellow citizens alike.

It's not just that there were a few terrible people who owned slaves — it was a huge American institution. Plenty of white people (not to mention plenty of people who identify as black today) could probably find similar stories in their families' histories.

This isn't news. That's why a recent Oxford University study on what researchers call the "genetic fingerprints of the slave trade and colonisation" didn't even go into the fact that the  great-grandchildren of slave owners are walking the earth today — that's a given. Instead, it examined the more specific nuances of slavery-related American genetic profiles (for example, that one of the African-American groups studied in the United States had French ancestry, which lines up with the fact that French people immigrated to the Colonial Southern United States).

Meanwhile, New York City will publicly acknowledge the site of a slave market that existed on Wall Street from 1711 to 1762. WNYC reports that the public sign — the first of its kind in the city — will make clear that 1700s New York had an official location for buying, selling, and renting human beings. It's been approved by the City Council and will be unveiled June 19.

It goes without saying that the people who bought and sold at that market went on to have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Few are proud of their families' history of slavery, but it's a fact, not a scandal or a secret, that this history exists.

This is one very explicit example of what happens with racism all the time

The Finding Your Roots scandal is unique. You don't often hear about people wanting to keep news that their ancestors owned slaves away from a national television audience.

But a related, less obvious effort to erase our racist past and present is all too common.

This is why Affleck's initial desire to hide his family history was unsettling: because no matter his actual reason for wanting to cut the story, it recalls the way so many go to great lengths — perhaps even unconsciously — to deny the way the racism our country was founded on continues to shape life in America. Normally, these people aren't celebrities like Affleck, who is a vocal progressive liberal — they're opponents of affirmative action, or deniers of racially biased policing, and those who argue that if there's a black history month there should also be a white one. They're the type of people who say, "We have a black president! Get over it!" or refuse to see that when black girls are suspended from school six times more than their white peers, it's part of a pattern.

Sometimes they're people who hate the role their ancestors played in our country. Sometimes they're the ones who sincerely want to see racial equality, but believe the best way to achieve it is to stop talking about the problems that exist, focus on the future, and hope for the best.

While Affleck simply approached Gates with his request, these people have to take a broader approach, using political platforms and social media and cable news networks to plead with all of us to turn a blind eye to the things that we know happened and continue to happen. This has a real cost: it means we fight over whether racism exists rather than how to fix the damage it does.

Affleck's statement makes clear that the finding that his ancestor owned slave left a "bad taste in [his] mouth," and that he worried it would embarrass his family.  That's not hard to understand. But while, in the case of Finding Your Roots, the effort to rewrite history was pretty harmless, in the real world, it's not.

Many of us would like to place a request to delete the imprint of racism from our lives — but as this actor learned, it's not that easy, and trying to hide what's undeniable  doesn't do any of us any favors.

Watch: 'Inside the big business of searching for ancestors'