When a movie star lies about his past to protect his image, it’s usually a non-story. In fact, in Hollywood, it’s probably considered PR 101. But Ben Affleck went way over the line when he persuaded the PBS genealogy program “Finding Your Roots” not to mention an ancestor who owned slaves. As a result, PBS has suspended the next season of the show.
Affleck says he was looking for “the roots of his family’s interest in social justice.” As anyone who’s ever spent five minutes on Ancestry.com could have told him, digging into your past can bring both pleasant and unpleasant surprises, especially on this issue.
I learned a lot about my own roots from my wonderful aunt Rowena Swan, who spent years researching and writing a family history book. (She did it the old-fashioned, pre-Internet way too, walking around cemeteries and poring over files in courthouses.) As far as I know, none of the Swans in my line were slaveholders. Those who were alive during the Civil War were Union, including my great-great uncle, who died in Grant’s army.
However, another branch of the family, my great-grandmother’s forebears in Worcester, Massachusetts, had slaves in the late 1700s and early 1800s, including an elderly woman named Silvia. Yet another limb of the tree produced Julia Gardiner Tyler, who married President John Tyler in 1844 and joined him in fervently supporting the South after he left office. According to Wikipedia, she got accustomed to owning slaves and enraged Union war veterans by flying a Confederate flag at her home on Staten Island.
I can’t run from, disown, or deny any of this. These are hard facts, just as it’s a fact that Washington and Jefferson had slaves. That doesn’t change their standing as founders of our country — but neither do their achievements make their slaveholding any less reprehensible.
Even in Silvia’s time, there were people who were affluent and powerful like her owners, but made different moral choices. My mother’s father, Thomas Walter Simpson, made that kind of choice when he hid his black workers from the mobs in the terrible Springfield, Illinois race riot in 1908. Ben Affleck had some noble ancestors too. But how many white families that came here before the Emancipation are completely pure?
We’re not our ancestors. But trying to hide their actions and our common history will only make things worse.