Last September PBS aired an episode of Finding Your Roots, a program about genealogy featuring celebrities who get a tour of their family tree and their genetic makeup in the hopes of a tearful revelation. Movie star Ben Affleck was featured alongside Benjamin Jealous, CEO of the NAACP, and actress Khandi Alexander (Treme, CSI: Miami) on a show themed around the two wars that shaped America’s first century – the Civil War and the Revolutionary War.
It wasn’t a surprise that both Jealous and Alexander, who are African-American, learned about ancestors who were slaves, but they were both shocked to learn that they also had ancestors who owned slaves. For some reason, though, the slavery thread apparently didn’t pass through Affleck’s family tree, and instead we learned about a great-great-great-grandfather who set himself up as a medium after the Civil War, channelling the spirits of soldiers for their bereaved families.
But thanks to Wikileaks’ trove of emails hacked from Sony Pictures, news broke months later that Affleck had learned during filming that he did have a slave-owning ancestor, and that the star of Daredevil and Gigli had pressured the show’s producer to edit this out.
Movie biz types talk about the “Streisand Effect,” where egomaniacal stars try to control bad PR but ultimately end up amplifying it by giving ever-ravenous media something more to talk about. Affleck’s clumsy attempt to prune his family tree only ended up making his slave-owning ancestors a bigger story, and further research published by the Daily Mail last week revealed that he had not one but three slave-owners tangled in his roots.
Collateral damage also spread to the show’s host and producer, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. – he of Obama’s “Beer Summit” fame – who caved in to Affleck’s demands despite his misgivings, then tried to justify it when the Streisand Effect went gale force by saying that Affleck’s inconvenient grandparent’s story had been removed because it was “redundant.”
“God. It gives me kind of a sagging feeling to see, uh, a biological relationship to that,” Affleck reportedly said, in a segment edited out of the episode. “But, you know, there it is, part of our history.”
Indeed, there it is, part of Affleck’s – and America’s – history. And you can’t say it’s a history we’ve been encouraged to forget. As Gates said in leaked e-mails to Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Entertainment, “four or five of our guests this season descend from slave owners,” including PBS documentary miniseries maker Ken Burns, creator of that keystone televisual text of ongoing American postbellum guilt, The Civil War.
Watching Affleck’s episode of Finding Your Roots, the legacy of slavery was an overwhelming theme, as Jealous and Alexander learned about the slave-owners they’d call grandpa, one of whom made his way into their genealogy by owning and impregnating a grandmother, the other a freed slave who found it legally expedient to own his wife and children in the antebellum South, rather than free them to be captured and re-sold.
When Affleck’s table-rapping grandfather was offered up, he seemed quaint and anecdotal and a bit of a let-down; in the service of the story Gates was trying to tell, Affleck’s reaction to his slave-owning ancestor would have resonated. Digging up THREE would have been bingo-bango-boffo television.
It’s no surprise that Affleck tried to cover them up. His political ambitions are well known, and the episode that ultimately aired did a lot to bolster them, spending a great deal of time on his mother, a student civil rights activist during Freedom Summer. And Affleck knows that by the rules set out on both ends of the political spectrum, a juicy tidbit like a massa ancestor holding the whip hand would make for a metric ton of mudslinging ammunition in any political race.
Six years of President Obama haven’t created a post-racial paradise, and anyone who imagined that it would was either gullible or cynical. “We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors,” Affleck said in a Facebook statement released last week, “and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery.”
“While I don't like that the guy is an ancestor,” he concluded, rather morosely, “I am happy that aspect of our country's history is being talked about.”
Affleck seems to think that America collectively mumbles into its sleeve at the mention of slavery, and that even in his industry a veil of silence is somehow in place around 12 Years A Slave, Django Unchained, Roots, Glory, Amistad, Lincoln, Mandingo, Gone With The Wind, Birth of a Nation and countless other obscure, unseen films and TV shows. The fact is that Americans talk about slavery all the time, but it’s a long time since any of them found a new way to have that discussion.
As generally told on PBS and invoked on shows like The Civil War, slavery is the original sin of the American project, but in political terms it’s a sin for which no penance can atone, and which no generation can escape. For social progressives, invoking the sin of slavery can even make empty gestures like hashtag activism feel as brave as the actually life-threatening work of people like Affleck’s mother.
And as Affleck himself has learned, impugning distant descendants with the sins of the great-great-great grandfathers is political martial arts with potentially mortal effect. I don’t doubt the sincerity of Ben Affleck’s beliefs, but I’d like to hope that while the cone of shame is being forced on his head, he might have some regret that his country hasn’t been allowed to live like a century and a half has passed.
On the same episode of Finding Your Roots that excised Affleck’s unfortunate grandfathers, Benjamin Jealous hears the results of a DNA test and learns that he’s less than 20 per cent sub-Saharan African and over 80 per cent European. He admits that he gets mistaken for Jewish, Latino and Italian all the time.
“You are the whitest black man that we have tested,” Henry Louis Gates tells the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People with a laugh.
Asked how he would describe himself, Jealous insists that he’s black, citing the colour bar law in Virginia when he was born. Even more than Affleck’s browbeating suppression of his ancestors, this is actually the saddest part of the show, as a man refuses to embrace the whole of his history in favour of letting himself be defined – for political reasons – by a racist law, letting himself be dragged into a past he calls hateful.
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