Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Ben Affleck Story: PBS Ignores His Slaveholding Ancestry — Valuable Commentary

Two people with insightful commentary on a recent news story: as Mary Elizabeth Williams notes at Salon and Kali Holloway at Alternet, emails leaked due to the Sony hacking scandal reveal that, when the PBS series "Finding Your Roots" worked on actor Ben Affleck's family tree and discovered that he had a slaveholding ancestor, Affleck insisted that the program not reveal this fact. And PBS apparently complied, or, at least, it did not mention this information in the program it did about Affleck's ancestry.

Williams's wise advice to Affleck:

Our family members were not all brilliant and noble. They fought on losing sides. They drank too much. They suffered mental illness. They died in childbirth. And yet we are here. We endure.

History is what actually happened, not what we wish had happened. Facing the ugly history of racial discrimination and slavery in the U.S., and recognizing that it involves all of us in some way or another, is a precondition for engaging the wounds of that history and building a better society.

As Holloway insightfully observes,

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. 

Both of these commentators seem to me right on the money. 

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