photo by Gage Skidmore
Since the end of World War II, several generations of Germans have confronted the knowledge that their ancestors were members or supporters of the Nazi Party, and that in some cases they were direct participants in some of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century.
To their credit, many Germans have dealt with this sorry legacy head-on, with some inevitable shame but also with a commitment to acknowledge and atone for the past, and to make amends where possible. But when another 50 or 100 years have passed, will Germans prefer to airbrush their history rather than acknowledge it?
Judging from our own experience with the aftermath of slavery in America, it could happen.
Because America had slaves, it had to have slave owners. If your ancestors were present in this country before the Civil War (particularly, but not exclusively, in the South), there is a good chance they had some experience with what was once called the “peculiar institution,” on one side or the other. Or possibly with both, as descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings discovered, and as doubtless happened in many cases that left no concrete evidence for genealogists to discover.
It is an awkward truth, but not the fault of anyone who is alive today. Yet while some Americans accept this unpleasant history, others prefer to bury it along with its participants, apparently in the misguided belief that it somehow reflects on their public image. This strategy is not only misguided; it can spectacularly backfire, as Ben Affleck learned earlier this year.
Affleck appeared on the second season of the PBS program “Finding Your Roots,” which explores the ancestries of various celebrities. When he volunteered, he had hoped to find “the roots of his family’s interest in social justice.” But when the program uncovered an ancestor who owned slaves, he found himself embarrassed and asked that the show omit that ancestor. (While the particular nuance of Affleck’s ancestor’s position has been subsequently debated, documents demonstrate that he was certainly intimately involved with the system of slavery.)
While exactly what happened next is still the matter of some dispute, the episode that aired in October did not include the ancestor to whom Affleck objected. However, the Sony hack led to WikiLeaks subsequently publishing an exchange revealing debate as to how to field Affleck’s request. The program’s host, Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., said when the emails first emerged that the ancestor in question was not cut at Affleck’s request, but simply because the actor’s other ancestors offered more interesting stories. Gates later issued a statement saying he regretted not informing PBS about his conversations with Affleck; in his leaked emails to Michael Lynton, the chief executive of Sony Pictures Entertainment, Gates expressed concern that cutting the part of the interview in question would “compromise our integrity.”
For its part, PBS took the matter seriously, conducting a “very thorough investigation” of the incident privately and requiring the program to hire a fact checker and an independent genealogist going forward. While the network recently announced that “Finding Your Roots” will return for a third season, the program’s future remains in doubt. PBS has also withdrawn the episode in which Affleck appears from distribution.
Affleck released a statement on his Facebook page that, while not quite an apology, was at least apologetic in tone. He said that finding a slave-owning ancestor left him “embarrassed” and with “a bad taste in [his] mouth.” It’s understandable that Affleck was left a bit queasy at such a stark reminder of his connection to a dark part of American history. But the irony is that, by attempting to excise this connection, he drew more attention to it.
Affleck would not have been the first participant in “Finding Your Roots” to discover a slaveholding relative. Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker who created “The Civil War,” discovered such an ancestor, as did former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and CNN’s Anderson Cooper. On the same episode in which Affleck appeared, former NAACP chief Ben Jealous discovered his ancestor - a free black man - had himself owned slaves.
Digging into American history will, by its nature, sometimes unearth ugliness. Consider the reaction of actor Bill Paxton, who appeared on “Who Do You Think You Are,” a similar genealogy program that airs on TLC. When Paxton learned that his ancestor Benjamin Sharp was not only a Revolutionary War hero but also a slave owner, he expressed disappointment, but remarked that history includes both the good and the bad. “We have a tendency to want to hide the bad parts of our history, but we have to shine a light on all of it in order to understand who we are,” Paxton said in the program. Embracing an ugly past is painful, but the alternative is dangerous.
The world of the past helped make the world of our present, for good and for ill. Our history lives today in our country’s Constitution and its diversity, as well as in the poverty and deprivation of many Indian reservations and in the ongoing legacy of racism, especially against black Americans. We can’t change the past. We can learn from it, but to do so, we must first acknowledge what it was.