Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Nobody's family is perfect: all the hullabaloo over Ben Affleck and "Finding Your Roots"

Whether or not you're interested in genealogy, you've probably seen all the news articles about Ben Affleck asking that a slave-owning ancestor of his not be included in his story on the Henry Louis Gates Jr. PBS genealogy show "Finding Your Roots." For some reason, it's even front page news on some websites. As a writer and a family historian, I have two points to make on this story.

The first, in defense of Gates, is that just because the discovery of Affleck's slave-holding ancestor was omitted from what aired doesn't mean it was deliberately excluded at Affleck's request. On any of these genealogy shows - on any show, really - all we're getting is an abbreviated glimpse of the story. We are all the product of thousands of years and millions of people - can't cover 'em all in one third of an hour long episode! Every family tree we see on any of these genealogy programs is edited for time, for entertainment value, for drama or for interest. And no disrespect to any of those people, but not everybody on your tree provides a compelling story to viewers - they might be compelling to you as part of your personal story but they might not even be all that interesting to you, either. It happens. Sometimes people just live ordinary lives. That's probably most people. From a writer's perspective, the omission of Affleck's controversial ancestor might simply be for editorial reasons - maybe he didn't fit with the story they were weaving. "Finding Your Roots" in particular covers a lot about the history of American slavery, from both sides - celebrities with slaves in their family trees and celebrities with slave owners in their trees. On this show, Affleck's slave owner ancestor is not necessarily an interesting and/or unique storyline, and possibly not as compelling as some of his other found ancestors.

My second point is important whether or not the show and Gates acquiesced to Affleck's request, and especially in light of his request - nobody's family is perfect. The course of our family histories is imperfect because our family trees are made up of individual humans, who are imperfect. We have to learn from the mistakes of our ancestors. By showing these imperfect people and events, we can show that we can become better as individual people, as a society, as the human race by not ignoring the unpleasantness of the past, by acknowledging it and moving forward in a positive manner. It does a great disservice to genealogy and to humankind to gloss over periods of terrible atrocities and the individuals who participated in them, such as American slavery. We all have those stories. Shows like "Who Do You Think You Are?" in particular have become somewhat guilty of whitewashing ancestors of questionable character in recent years, with a noted exception of the recent Sean Hayes episode - uncovering the generational cycle of paternal criminal activity and family abandonment helped Sean not only find compassion for the father who left him but also helped him determine to break the cycle. Though it was not his act, Ben Affleck should be embarrassed that he had slave-holding ancestors - it's a national embarrassment. But he's not alone in it. He would have been better off acknowledging it on camera, if the showrunners deemed it important enough to be part of his story, and then acknowledging that he's happy to be a part of the process that continues to fight against discrimination and inequality of minorities and all people, or something to that effect.

What are your thoughts on this incident? I'd love to hear!


  1. I could not agree more, Cousin Mary, could not agree more!! When I learned of my slave holding ancestors I was devastated but not personally embarrassed because I did not personally enslave anyone.

    The last episode of WDYTYA? showed Bill Paxton's encounter with his slave owning ancestor. His reaction was much like my own and I'm glad I got to see that.

    1. I haven't watched the Bill Paxton episode yet but I'm looking forward to seeing that!