Should Ben Affleck Have Been Embarrassed by the Discovery of His Ancestor’s Connection with Slavery?

tags: slavery

Pearl Duncan is the author of the book, "Water Dancing" and a contributor to the anthology, "A Rock Against the Wind: African-American Poems and Letters of Love and Passion," edited by Lindsay Patterson. She is completing two nonfiction manuscripts, one about the 18-century World Trade Center ship, her owner and sea adventures, and another about DNA and ancestry spanning four centuries on three continents, highlighting the DNA and ancestry of sixteen generations of her African American ancestors.

Why would anyone, any place or any nation delete part of its story? We have seen and heard topics that present a challenge for storytellers: slavery, genocide, oppression and others. We have seen that Americans who tell stories of slavery have a hard time naming the villains; that is why we know very few specific names of perpetrators -- they do not appear in our myths and our stories. Not even in our genealogy.

Telling stories about villains who are related to us is a conundrum for individuals who do their family’s, group’s or nation’s history, because storytellers have to connect the details and events with heroes and villains in entrenched emotional local, national or international narratives. And we know that many storytellers are in denial about historical events, because emotions run high.

Recently, the news unfolded about leaked emails from actor-director Ben Affleck, Sony, PBS and Harvard’s Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The emails illustrate the challenge of connecting current everyday experiences and identity as well as one’s ancestors and family’s genealogy to major historical events and eras. The Sony-hacked emails revealed that the actor Ben Affleck asked Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, creator and moderator of the television show, “Finding Your Roots,” to delete any mention of his slave-owning ancestor, Benjamin L. Cole, from his episode of the show. The show focused on his other ancestors but not on his slave-owning ancestor. This raised questions of censorship.

Professor Gates created a narrative by pointing out that Ben Affleck’s mother was a Civil Rights Freedom Rider, but as the news broke, Affleck’s mother told the media that this report is an error – she was not a Freedom Rider. She visited the South after the Freedom Riders campaign. Additional news also broke when the Daily Beast hired a genealogist to research the records. She discovered that Ben Affleck’s ancestor, Benjamin L. Cole, was a sheriff didn’t own any slaves; he merely served as an executor of estates for people (like his mother-in-law) who did.

But we are still left with the problem of how to tell this ancestral history as part of the nation’s slavery history. Slavery was intertwined with local, national and international economy and laws.

When the news broke about the revealed emails and was reported by various media, Ben Affleck posted an answer on Facebook, saying he was “embarrassed,” admitting, “I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves.” He said, “The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.” The irony is this controversy arose on a show called, “Finding Your Roots.” All our ancestral roots are twisted.

What we need to focus on now is the question of how to think about our ancestors. Was Affleck’s ancestor a villain for administering the estates of slave owners? Or was the failing and the villainy even larger. Was the failing in the society and its laws and humanity? Owning humans as slaves was legal, and was the law of the land, so the moral failing was shared by the whole nation. The failing was not only in individuals who engaged in the practice but in the society and in the social and economic culture. But when we tell the story of these ancestors, omitting participants in the events, that is wrong. It is not only Ben Affleck and Professor Gates who omitted some ancestors.

I mention the Ben Affleck news because I am completing a manuscript about DNA and ancestry and from time-to-time have been asked by a book publishing editor to delete one section or another. Some book editors made their suggestions because of the social or political sensitivity of the nonfiction historical details. I mention the Affleck conundrum here, because years before Professor Gates started doing the PBS “Finding Your Roots” television show, I had done my own genealogy, and proposed doing a roots and DNA genealogy show, and PBS said sure, find a producer and you have a show.

Of course I proposed a show about average Americans not celebrities, unlike Professor Gates. But at the time I realized the weight and the ethical and artistic choices involved in revealing personal and national history that some prefer to keep hidden. I knew the ramifications because as an African American who had completed extensive genealogical research I often encountered records of people who discovered that their ancestors owned slaves and hid the details.

American history is complex, world history is complex, and some are very selective in the personal parts of history to which they connect. They accept or reject the history depending on their politics or their personal needs. People, places, groups, corporations, institutions, nations will continue to hide controversial or sensitive history, but as more do research more history will be revealed.

When I researched my ancestors, I sat in libraries next to white American researchers and genealogists who found extensive lists of slaves their ancestors owned. I told them there are African Americans who need the names and encouraged them to reveal the list of names.

New York City is in denial of its ancestry. Wall Street’s connection to slavery and the slavery era are well documented but the city and its institutions have tried to hide the connections. New York City will erect a plaque at Wall and Pearl Streets, near Wall and Water Streets, where there was an 18th century slave market on the East River, a stone’s throw from where George Washington landed a few years later to be inaugurated as the nation’s first President.

We like our stories to be heroic. So people hide, corporations hide, institutions hide. When I did extensive genealogy and found an 18th century ancestor who owed 636 humans, I did not waste time fretting about it. I researched his family in more detail until I found his brother who was an abolitionist, who owned no slaves. I still wonder what their family discussions must have been like.

I faced many friends, professionals and readers who told me what I could and could not reveal in my research: My pan-Africanist friends said I could not reveal that I found African ancestors who invaded and abused other African ancestors. My Caribbean friends said I could not reveal that the Maroon rebels did much good but also took extreme measures to protect themselves and their hiding places in the mountains. One of my European ancestral cousins said I should not reveal the twisted family history of switching babies and incestuous marriages. My own family asked me to hide certain secrets about paternity. An Ivy League evolutionary biologist told me his ancestors had morality but mine did not. And a white American ancestral cousin threatened me if I publicized the sexual activities of our mutual ancestor. But the more I was challenged, the more I realized that these were hot-button historical secrets that needed to be acknowledged and revealed.

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