I write this open letter after reading about your request to have a part of your ancestry hidden from the show, Finding Your Roots. I have to admit, I am wondering whether your request stems from some deep personal shame about the nature of your family’s history or a wish to protect your career in Hollywood, at a time when race relations are a sticky subject?
Putting career aside for a moment, let’s look at the facts. Some of your ancestors owned slaves. How does that fact define or reflect upon you in any way? What role could you possibly have had in these ancestors’ behavior? What benefit could you have derived from their slave ownership at any point in your life, above and beyond that of any other white American with a long chain of ancestors in this nation? How does hiding from your family’s past help or hinder you in the present in any way?
I’ll disclose here that my interest in your story is a little more than casual. You see, I realized, as I got a bit older, that the two women who lived and worked at my grandfather’s house when I was a little girl were purchased from their parents when they were little girls, and had been in my family’s employ all those years. I say employ for lack of a better term. While they received a stipend, pocket money, really, they were not salaried maids who, at the end of the day, went home to a family. I wrote about them in “The women of my grandfather’s house.” They came into my life when I was a toddler and, except for one joyous reunion with one of the of the two women in adulthood, I didn’t have any further contact with them after my tenth birthday. But I never forgot about them and, as I grew older, in my late teens, twenties and, now, in my fifties, I think about them in terms of reconciling my roots with the person I’ve become. I was very young when I realized something was wrong. I was a bit older when I finally was able to put an idea behind that wrong. I’ve wrestled with this knowledge and the guilt it has made me feel, off and on, over a lifetime. Your connection to slavery is much farther removed than mine is to me. Do my feelings bear any similarity to yours? Are those feelings what compelled you to ask for censorship of the truth?
If not, is it the toxic racial atmosphere of Hollywood that prompted your request? What did you feel would happen if word got out? Were you afraid you might, for some reason, be blackballed? If so, how? Surely, not on the basis of what some far removed ancestor might have done? Is it possible that some people in Hollywood would deem this revelation a stain on an otherwise blemish-free reputation?
It doesn’t make any sense to me. So, I circle back to guilt. Guilt makes more sense. I know, from personal experience, that guilty feelings cause people to make all kinds of irrational decisions. But you, Ben, are a most rational person. Judging by the few debates I saw you engage in with Bill Maher, you are highly intelligent, a deep thinker and skilled debater. The closer family connection, your mom, is the most important one. She marched for civil rights. She raised you. You seem to have taken after her ethic in your outspokenness on many topics of our day in politics. But as I look through page after page of Google search results, I don’t see you speak out on current-day racism in America. Were you to do that, you might find your conscience unburdened and the weight of that now not-so-secret connection lifted from your shoulders.
Everyone on the planet has a skeleton in their closet. Some put that skeleton there on their own. For most of us, however, that skeleton was put there for us.
I’ll make another admission here, Ben. as an aspiring political writer, I am envious of you. I am envious of the fact that, were you to decide to, you could go on any television show, command ample space in the op-ed pages of any major newspaper to make any statement you wished. With the clout you’ve earned, Ben, you could be a powerful force for change in Hollywood and America, or more specifically, in Hollywood. You could be far more influential, in Hollywood, than your mother was in the civil rights movement. Think of how proud she would be of you, and you of yourself!
My words may never be read beyond the few thousand who’ve found me here and in public forums. They may reach only a few thousand more. Yet, I will keep trying to widen my readership in any way I can. I will keep trying, with my passion and love of writing, to do the one thing I truly want to do: change minds.
There remains one thing that we cannot change, however, and that is our pasts. You and I both, however, can change our present and children’s future. Won’t you please join me, Ben?
Ben Affleck demanded PBS program hide his slave-owning ancestor | theGrio
The PBS show “Finding Your Roots” is supposed to be about digging up interesting ancestors, even the less-than-savory ones, but when Ben Affleck discovered one of his ancestors owned slaves, he wanted nothing to do with the story. […]
The show’s host, Henry Louis Gates Jr., wrote to Sony USA Chief Michael Lynton in an email recently released in the Sony email hacks, “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?” […]
Ultimately, the show left out any mention of Affleck’s slave-owning family member, focusing instead on a Revolutionary War ancestor, an occultist, and Affleck’s mother, who marched in the civil rights movement.
Since the emails leaked, Gates released this statement: “The mission of ‘Finding Your Roots’ is to find and share interesting stories from our celebrity guests’ ancestries and use those stories to unlock new ways to learn about our past. We are very grateful to all of our guests for allowing us into their personal lives and have told hundreds of stories in this series including many about slave ancestors — never shying away from chapters of a family’s past that might be unpleasant.”