Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Slaveowner Ancestors, Part 1


Do you like watching those TV shows tracing the ancestry of various celebrities? I do, because both history and genealogy are interests of mine. Recently there was a news story about how Ben Affleck had persuaded the makers of PBS's Finding Your Roots not to mention his slaveowning American ancestors which the show had uncovered. He felt ashamed about his family's connection to the odious institution of slavery and did not want it to reflect negatively on him and his image today.

But facts are facts. In my opinion, it does an injustice to history (both national and personal) to hide or deny the truth. I suspect there are very few white Americans from old families who would not find slaveowners among their forebears. Descendants have to come to terms with the terrible way in which slavery benefitted their family's material well-being and advancement.


By way of contrast, I just finished watching the current season of TLC's Who Do You Think You Are? which also featured a couple of celebrities who discovered slaveowner ancestors -- Tom Paxton and Melissa Etheridge. They handled it very differently than Ben Affleck. Both were subdued and saddened to learn of slave ownership in their families but recognized that such hard historical truths were common in the times under investigation. They did not attempt to suppress that information being made public. Neither one celebrated this shortcoming of their ancestors but (quite rightly) also did not take the blame or shame of it upon themselves.

This issue is of personal interest to me because I have at least one slaveowner ancestor of whom I'm aware. I'll tell you his story in my next post.

36 comments:

Plowing Through Life (Martha) said...

My brother introduced me to this show. I can't say I watch it regularly but I have seen clips online. I also don't like when the truth is hidden or denied. We can learn from the past.

mxtodis123 said...

You are so right. As a genealogist, I believe one gains nothing by hiding facts. I've found a serial killer in my line. Didn't try to hide it. Have never watched that show, but after Ben Affleck I have been wanting to give it a shot.
Mary

Jacquelineand.... said...

Since I don't generally watch television, I haven't seen this show, but genealogy does interest me. A bit. I'd an uncle who was absolutely rabid about it; he trumpeted each new 'find' until he discovered a family in Alabama, with whom we share ancestry, and made the long drive down, pulled into their drive, blowing his horn repeatedly....

My cousin, who road along, was laughing his butt off when he reported that his father pulled out of their drive even more quickly than he'd pulled in - the family was black. Even worse, in his opinion, was that the man with whom he'd been corresponding had the same unusual first name.

I later got in touch with them myself, and correspond with a couple of my cousins regularly. We keep trying to meet in person, but something always seems to come up; either on my side or theirs. One of these days!

Jacquelineand.... said...

Erm, that should be 'rode' not road.

DEZMOND said...

Affleck has always been a pompous and arrogant idiot. The same goes for his best friend Damon.

jaz@octoberfarm said...

i must say i was pretty disappointed in ben.

laurie said...

well I was just about to say the same thing as October Farm,,
and I might add
he would have been much better off being honest if was worried about his image,,

it is a great show, I just hope its all above board and not manufactured for TV, you know,, not embellished.
Oh I sound so jaded, lol,

Jeanne said...

Interesting. I love genealogy. As a someone once told me, We need to remember where we came from so we don't get lost in our future.
So far as I know, there were just a bunch of redneck, bootleggers from Tennessee/Kentucky in my past. But haven't delved much further...
When I gave the talk about the ancient Ogham writing, I had touched on Phoenicians coming to the U.S. A woman came up to me afterwards & told me how she'd had her DNA done and was so surprised to discover that she had Mediterranean lineage - she was quite Nordic in appearance. Just goes to show, one never knows from whence one comes.....

Linda Wildenstein said...

I don't live in Ben's shoes so I won't judge but it does have the outward appearance that it was a public mistake on his part to deny what is the truth. But then lots of folks have and probably will continue to do the same.

Rosemary said...

Love the programme Who Do you Think You Are (the UK version) but have seen a few of those from across the Atlantic.
I do not see any point at all in Ben denying his heritage, it is part of who he is regardless of his denial.

Anne O'Leary said...

I've not seen the American version of this show, but do love the British version.

The Hubby has his family bible and that is where they keep their genealogy. There were slave owners in their past. And one of his ancestors later married a slave who'd been freed. They've beautiful love letters from him to her when he was off fighting in the Civil War.

Lauren Farrow said...

I did not know much about this show until you posted this. I looked it up and I love the concept of giving a "book of life" to each guest. Very cool.
It is interesting to find out about our past. I read on the wiki that married couple Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon discover they share distant ancestry.
LOL! ;-)

Jim said...

I am all for putting it all out there and by doing so it helps to enlighten and educate society about its past.
A lot of Maritimers are not willing to recognize that they may have aboriginal ancestry in their family. When I discovered I did I was intrigued by this discovery and am proud of such a heritage. Acceptance in both cases is much healthier than not.

Ron Troke said...

We watched PBS's Genealogy Roadshow last year and were fascinated with historical details that these families where willing to discover.

Magic Love Crow said...

I have heard of these shows and never watched them. Very interesting. I am kind of disappointed in Ben.

Adam said...

I have at least one ancestor in the Civil War on the Confederate side. I can only hope it was because of the draft.

I live in South Carolina in a very conservative county, many of the neo-confederate people claim the flag and the illegal nation-state wasn't racist but history has another story. And I hear what some of these people say in private, if you don't believe these people are racist, then you're a fool.

I have no problems admitting that one of my ancestors fought for the wrong side of the civil war, but I have no pride in it. The only thing that connects me to him is genes, nothing more. I could join the Sons of Confederate Veterans but the only thing I ask of them is to stop existing.

JACKIESUE said...

I watch that show every time I get a chance..Ben? shame on you...it's not like you have a slave in your house? oh wait, is that nanny documented?...

lady M said...

I got hillbillies in my ancestry - lots of them. Live with it I say.

Tricky Nag said...

Such a great show! I'd like to be famous just to have someone look into my family for me!

Fundy Blue said...

You make an important point in this post, Debra: "It does an injustice to history (national and personal) to hide or deny the truth. What your ancestors did may make you embarrassed or feel guilty, but you did not do those things. You had no control over their choices, nor do you know why and how they did what they did. I believe in sharing those stories and lessons, so we all learn from them.
It reminds me of that Edmund Burke quote: “Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” I'll never forget how betrayed I felt by my parents over Canadian history they neglected to tell me. I grew up in the post WWII period when lots of war criminals were being hunted down and prosecuted, and, of course I read Anne Frank's diary. I was outraged by all that had happened. But, oops, my parents neglected to tell me about the Japanese internment camps in Canada and the US.
I was stunned to learn it from my history teacher father in a grade 11 history class. Guaranteed I didn't hide or deny the truth when I taught my third graders.

I look forward to your tale! Happy Tuesday!

Mary said...

That is a wonderful show for sure! I am a PBS addict. So much of what is on there is so superior to the dumb reality shows on the network stations.

I too have a couple of landowner slave holder ancestors in my family history, in Virginia. When I first learned of it, I was sickened. I thought, really?? MY family? But it's nothing I can fix. I'm not ashamed as I was at first. Denial and rewriting of history accomplish nothing. It taught me something, actually. I can't distance myself from that awful part of our history...

turquoisemoon said...

The truth isn't always pretty, but how one faces unpleasant information tells a lot about their character...ben....

Dr. Theda said...

related to "Black Bart" (on my Mother's, Mother's side....

Miss Val's Creations said...

I have seen a few episodes and find it fascinating. Affleck made a huge mistake asking for his negative ancestry to be left out of the show. I don't think it would have affected his image in any way but pulling this stunt does put a little negative light on him. I imagine we all have at least 1 notable family history skeleton if we did the digging.

Guillaume said...

I never liked Ben Affleck much, even less since he bullied Sam Harris. Self-righteous, cowardly idiot. What he did about his ancestry is also cowardly.

Janie Junebug said...

I haven't watched those shows lately, but I enjoyed them in the past. By denying his ancestry, Ben Affleck called more attention to it. It's not his fault that he had an ancestor who was a slave owner. It's not my fault I had an ancestor who left her husband and ran away with the milkman. I think it's one of the bigger scandals in our family.

Love,
Janie

Riot Kitty said...

The only ancestors of mine who were here that long ago were Apaches. If it had been different, though, I would be horrified. I don't know what I'd do if I was in a celebrity's shoes, but covering stuff up usually makes it worse if you're in the public eye.

I'm very interested in your story.

strangelynaked.com said...

REPARATIONS! I'm not the descendent of slaves, but I'll figure out how to collect some of that bounty. Or I'll continue to be super lazy and just look forward to what your next post explores.

bill lisleman said...

Judging people in the past by today's standards is not a useful exercise. History in all it's dirty detail should be told. Those mistakes should be known so that maybe someone might learn today.
Hope I don't miss your slave owner post - I'll assume they were American.

psychelyn said...

Slaveowning ancestors are surely not something to take pride on but I agree that denying the truth does injustice to history. History is based on facts so it shouldn't be tampered.

Your story will bring up some more light in this topic.

Vanessa Morgan said...

How fascinating! I didn't even know these programs existed.

G. B. Miller said...

I remember reading about that, and afterwards, I lost a lot of respect for Ben Affleck.

Sure, we all have skeletons in our proverbial ancestral closet, but if we face it head on with dignity and a good reality check, it shouldn't be something that we're ashamed of, nor proud of.

Rawknrobyn.blogspot.com said...

Those shows interest me too, as does my history. Ben Affleck might have a lot of talent, but he lacks character.

Magaly Guerrero said...

The idea of trying to hide something that big (or for him to believe that it's actually possible these days) is a little sad. Besides, it's not like he could go back in time and tell his family not to be who they were. If we walked around carrying the baggage of our ancestry, we would be broken... and really, really tired.

Anne Johnson said...

My family has been in Appalachia so long that my ancestors also fought the Native Americans for land usage. I always pray to Manito to forgive me for my ancestors' behavior.

The Happy Whisk said...

I haven't seen either the UK or US one. Interesting though, because we all come from somewhere.