PLEASE NOTE: Since no human can “own” another, I use the term, “slave-holder.”
There is considerable buzz among various facebook genealogy groups about Actor Ben Affleck’s request to omit evidence of slaveholders in his ancestry from a past episode of the PBS series, Finding Your Roots . What I have to say on this subject is longer than I’ve learned a facebook post should be; so I’ve decided to blog about it.
“Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand.” (Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)
Affleck’s reluctance to share this aspect of his ancestry is understandable on a very elementary level. But from a genealogical standpoint, it is neither necessary nor acceptable. My observations after reading the article are:
- Though it was probably expressed to him, he didn’t take to heart that our ancestors’ actions and/or beliefs have no direct bearing on our own. Therefore, I hope he’s not ashamed of what someone who came before him did. If anything, the fact that his mother marched for Civil Rights could be a testament to how far his lineage has come from the slaveholder mindset. Actually, that discovery would have provided an excellent segue into this fact.
My thinking, from a personal standpoint, centers on Christianity. Here’s how. After reading about ancient African culture, I became aware that the further back I go in my genealogy the more likely I am to find an ancestor who did not know Christ. A worst-case scenario would likely involve an idolator (which includes ancestor worship). The preferred scenario would involve a person who simply had no knowledge of Him.
My immediate reaction was to ask God’s forgiveness for any of my ancestors who had unknowingly offended Him and His commandment to, “. . . have no other gods before Me.” And, yes, I’m aware that once a person dies, his eternal destiny is irreversible. And while I have no Biblical reference that leads me to pray for someone who has already died, my heart led me to do so. I then asked God for His divine protection over past, present, and future generations from inheriting the punishment for this sin of the fathers. And it certainly didn’t prevent me from disclosing it to my Christian friends for the purpose of prayer.
If anything, this is an aspect of my heritage that I want to know more about (not sweep under a rug). It would help me understand more in order to express my concerns to my family or those who share a similar background.
- In that same vein, it’s unfortunate, but not surprising, that producers would consider “a 3rd great-grandfather who was an occult enthusiast” to be a “more interesting aspect” than a slaveholder. The former aspect appeals to the general public while the latter, to the genealogical community. However, I am not surprised because of the current selections of occult-based and/or vampire-themed “entertainment” that flood our airwaves, cyberspace, and book store.
“In the case of Mr. Affleck — we focused on what we felt were the most interesting aspects of his ancestry — including a Revolutionary War ancestor, a 3rd great-grandfather who was an occult enthusiast, and his mother who marched for Civil Rights during the Freedom Summer of 1964.”
While I do understand Affleck’s response to this unexpected discovery, I’m discouraged that (1) Mr. Gates’ contract did not give him license to make the call — prompting him to seek guidance on how to handle the situation; and (2) the show’s producers did not take genealogy seriously enough to understand that it makes no allowances for the censoring of data for the mere sake of appearances. Rather, they should have been encouraged to pursue avenues of questioning along the following lines regarding the first slaveholder. (Please note these questions are from a slave descendant’s perspective.)
- who was the first slaveholder and how did he acquire his slave(s)?
- what was the relationship between slave and slaveholder before and after the Civil War?
- what was the origin of the first slave?
- are there any references to deed books, bills of sale, inventory lists?
I’ve considered two possible reasons for Affleck’s desire to disassociate from his ancestor’s slaveholder past. The first is that maybe he was uncomfortable discussing it with a person of color. To this I would say, due to his professional association with genealogy and the requirement (though probably unspoken) that he detach himself from slave-related findings, Mr. Gates is the person with whom he should feel most comfortable discussing slaveholding ancestors. The second possibility is that he may be considering a future in politics. And to that I say, without pointing fingers, that many SUCCESSFUL candidates have had to wrestle more scraggly skeletons than slavery back into the closets of their ancestors.
In closing, “the peculiar institution” is a part of this country’s history. Unless he harbors the same beliefs, no individual should feel discomfort from having ancestral ties to either side of it. And the show’s producers should not jeopardize the future of Finding Your Roots by disregarding the expert advice of such an experienced genealogist as Henry Louis Gates.