Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Did Ben Affleck try to cover up his slaveholding ancestors?

 (Edit: 4/22/15 -- I actually wrote this post two days ago when the story broke, and Affleck has since apologized, but it doesn't really change my opinion that a big Hollywood celebrity would be more concerned with protecting his image having a serious discussion about slavery. I'm disappointed, though utterly unsurprised that the mainstream news media are giving him a pass on this.)

If you're a white person whose family has been in America for generations, some of your ancestors probably owned slaves. (For the sake of transparency, mine are among them.) That's the ugly reality of American history. Being famous doesn't protect you from that, but it does allow you the resources and authority to sanitize your ancestry for TV.  From Alternet:
... a seemingly infinite source of entertainment industry gossip and secrets—that reveal that actor and Oscar-winning director Ben Affleck tried to erase a slave-owning relative from his family tree. A recent WikiLeaks upload of every single hacked Sony email (all 173,000 of them) discloses that while taking part in the PBS genealogy docu-series “Finding Your Roots,” Affleck was unpleasantly surprised to discover an ancestor had owned slaves. Now-public emails between the show’s host, famed academic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton, indicate Affleck requested the show conveniently leave out the information. In perhaps the second most controversial (and troubling) revelation to emerge from this whole kerfuffle, show producers seem to have yielded to Affleck’s request. [...]
America’s queasiness over its history with race, and its ongoing inability to reckon with its racialized past, is a key part of our contemporary difficulty with effectively tackling issues around race and racism today. Dealing with the long shadow of slavery—a key part of American history that has had a tremendous and undeniable role in shaping our national character—is fundamental to dealing with issues around race and racism that continue to plague us. Slavery, racism and the ills that accompanied them were codified into laws, defined political policies and are inextricable from our national character. Historical revisionism of the Affleck variety—the notion that we can simply erase America’s slave-holding past by pretending it didn’t happen—doesn’t work. Refusing to historicize the contemporary racial mess we now find ourselves in only makes it worse. 
Does anyone else find this incredibly hypocritical? Last year on Real Time with Bill Maher, Affleck took it upon himself to call out the "gross" racism of the host and his guest, Sam Harris after they made statements critical of Islam. I don't agree with Maher (he's always painted with too broad a brush stroke), but Affleck effectively shut down the discussion with an equally broad accusation of racism and positioned himself as the good anti-racist white liberal. Other celebrities -- notably Bill Paxton, mentioned in the Alternet piece, and Anderson Cooper -- didn't have gloss over this ignoble part of their ancestry, so why should Affleck? To me this more than shows that his attack on Maher and Harris amounted to little more than signaling.