[stag_intro]Philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.”[/stag_intro] Likewise those who choose to feign ignorance or turn a blind eye to the atrocities of our country’s past, will not expunge these injustices from the record book.
This past weekend, it was revealed that an episode of PBS’ Finding Your Roots starring Ben Affleck was edited because the actor did not want to reveal that one of his ancestors owned slaves. Instead, the episode, which aired October 14, 2014, focused on Affleck’s 3rd Great Grandfather who was an occult enthusiast as well as his mother’s advocacy during the Civil Rights movement.
According to messages leaked from the massive Sony email hack, Affleck asked Harvard Professor and Finding Your Roots host Henry Louis Gates to edit his family’s slave opening past out of the episode. The email reveals that Henry Louis Gates Jr., wrote to Sony USA chief Michael Lynton asking for advice:
“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?’
Lynton responded by saying, “I would take it out if no one knows.” Obviously Gates still feared the information getting out because he retorts with, “It would embarrass him and compromise our integrity” and finally “Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand.”
Ultimately it seems that Professor Gates gave into Affleck’s wishes.
The slave owning ancestor was never mentioned in the episode or by PBS. After this information was revealed, he released a statement saying, “Ben Affleck’s ancestor’s story just wasn’t as interesting as the others that made the cut.” Gates also added “…so we decided to go with a story about his ancestor following the Civil War instead. It made for a much stronger story arc.”
I found this troubling to say the least. Admittedly, it is a very personal choice to allow the public in to your family history but that’s what Finding Your Roots is all about.
Am I surprised by Ben Affleck’s request? No.
I am however, disappointed that Professor Henry Louis Gates aided in the burial of Affleck’s history.
As a scholar, advocate and Director of African American Research at Harvard University, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has failed us by aiding Affleck’s erase. As a leader in our community we look to him to validate our experiences in spaces of power and influence. Professor Gates maintains editorial control over Finding Our Roots and his choice to omit Affleck’s controversial past means he has helped silence the stories of our ancestors. Now we don’t know what happened behind close doors, but I think it would have been a much wiser decision to cancel Affleck’s episode altogether.
The only way to move towards a better future is to continue to have an open dialogue despite how uncomfortable it makes us feel personally. As a Black community, we have a responsibility to acknowledge that the past is not necessarily the present. We cannot sit back while others attempt to erase the things that have happened to us by leaving them out of the archives. It is our country’s history, both its triumphs and atrocities have formed our identity as a people today. As a historian and teacher Professor Gates should know this better than anyone.