Can History be edited?

I’m sure you’ve all heard or read about the Ben Affleck “Finding your Roots” debacle that has dominated showbiz news before Bruce Jenner took over a couple of days ago. In case you haven’t here’s the long and short of it, Ben Affleck, bona fide Hollywood Royalty was invited to take part in Finding your Roots, a US TV programme much like Who Do You Think You Are?, which I could watch on repeat 24/7 even when The Walking Dead is on. Social and Family history is as real as it gets for me, a tangible connection to the past as well as everyone and everything that makes us who we are. That’s the whole point of it after all, discovering who we descend from.

As part of Affleck’s episode it was revealed that one of his distant relatives, a certain Benjamin Cole was a slave owner, and if several other websites are to be believed so were many more. As this revelation left “a bad taste” in his mouth according to his own statement, Mr. Affleck chose to have show’s producers edit the episode and pretend the slave owning Mr. Cole never existed. According to various news articles online, the ancestor in question was said to have owned a total of 25 slaves, a significant number for any one person in the 19th century, implying that the family was very well off. Hold onto that thought we’re going to need it later.

Despite the fact that as Mr. Affleck made sure to point out, Mr. Cole lived six generations ago, a move designed to impart distance between himself and his mega-grandad, our ancestors play a big part of how our family history is shaped in one way or another. Case in point, the small detail of the name “Benjamin” which has been important enough through the generations to be passed down to him.

Denying our family history is as nonsensical as implying we could have done something to prevent the negative aspects of it, but his attempts to hide it were probably made in an effort to avoid even a hint of racist accusations being made against him. Perhaps there are people out there who would’ve thought that since Ben Affleck had a slave owner in his family, some sort of racist feeling might have been passed down through the generations. This would not have been a problem however, AND it would have made for a much more impressive episode if the slave owning past was put in contrast to his mother’s ardent support of the civil rights movement in her youth. It would have been a much more powerful statement if they’d highlighted the point that five generations after owning slaves, the same line in the family came full circle and fought to abolish inequality.

Family have an effect on what and who we grow to be. The good things influence as positively just as the bad things can do either. The effects might be subtle or even imperceptible but they are there. We might not have the same beliefs and opinions as our distant relatives, heck I don’t share half my dad’s opinions and he singlehandedly raised me, so I would certainly not share them with an ancestor who was around c. 150 years ago, but I accept that somewhere in me is some minuscule part of the past, because we are products of the past, we are products of everything that came before us and it has helped shape both our negative and positive aspects. We can’t just embrace and celebrate the good aspects of our past, ignoring or pretending the bad ones never happened. We can’t edit history. It’s the first thing any secondary school History teacher will tell you. We learn History so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. Whether we do repeat them is a topic for a whole other blog post however.

In a country where white police men shoot and kill black unarmed men on a daily basis, a condition clearly stemming from the black-white divide created by the slave trade and its aftermath, it is hypocritical and demeaning to wish to hide an instance of history where this occurred simply because it was your great-great-great-great granddad and your Hollywood persona does not fit with that profile. And, if you have the privilege of having that “leave a bad taste” in your mouth, many others do not.

One of the earlier episodes in the first series of the show featured Condoleezza Rice, Samuel L. Jackson and Ruth Simmons all of which had ancestors who were slaves, being as they are all African American. You can’t be African American and not have slavery feature in your family history. Did they have the option of neglecting to mention their slave ancestors? And that’s in the cases where their names are known of course; what about those of their European ancestors who had children with their slaves, most often by rape, in order to increase their “livestock?” The knowledge that your great great grandmother was somebody’s slave I’m sure leaves a “bad taste” in their mouths too, but they don’t even have the option of pretending that never happened or censoring it in order to feature more “interesting” ancestors.
In an episode featuring Harry Connick Junior we are told that one of his forefathers was a soldier in the Confederacy for 3 years, a fact which is clearly not pleasant for him but one which he takes well as can be expected and accepts as a fact of the times AND as part of his family history.

The place I am trying to get to in a very roundabout way is in fact this: When I first read the story about Ben Affleck the first thing that came to mind was this article about wealth and privilege in the UK. Though it is clearly not the same country, parallels can still be raised. The unspoken truth about all this remains that a person of wealthy descent (remember that point I told you to remember in the beginning?) maintains the privileges of his ancestry. Grandaddy Cole-Affleck was a wealthy man. The wealth was made on the back of a certain number of slaves. That wealth, privilege and education was passed down through the generations be it via a better standard of living, better opportunities, connections and all the ways that class and wealth proliferates through the ages. Like it or not the advantages of Mr. Affleck’s ancestors did benefit the generations that came after. Though I have no direct knowledge of the family’s history, even after the abolition of slavery no reparations were made. Slaves were sent on their way and the former owners went on exploiting the workforce in other more “legal” ways. He’s every right to be embarrassed, it’s only natural. What he doesn’t have a right to do is edit History. History is what it is, and it happened as it did. Shame on us if we at least don’t respect it enough to honour those that were injured by it and shame on us if we don’t learn from it.

2 thoughts on “Can History be edited?

  1. I didn’t know anything about this story and let me tell you it’s insane. History is history. As you said, Affleck’s family histoy probably advantaged him in a way or another, but so what? Is it his personal fault? Is it his personal merit? Some things simply are, and we have no control on it… though we sure have control on how we act about it.

    I think denying history is disrespectuf and won’t ever lead to anything good.

    1. It’s also quite arrogant of him. Practically 70% of the show’s other guests are African American and when they are not, slavery features in practically every episode of guests with deep rooted American Ancestry. What would the show be if all the other guests decided to pick and choose what to feature?

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