History is as much about what is omitted as what is included. This was seen recently, when Professor Henry Louis Gates and Ben Affleck faced a quandary and by all apparent measures failed to present a complete story. On Sunday, April 19, 2015, news broke that actor Ben Affleck requested a portion of his family’s story not be revealed in the PBS series, Finding Your Roots, aired in 2014. He asked that a slave-owning ancestor not be mentioned. After seeking advice and grappling with whether to censor the information, Professor Gates decided to focus on what he said were “the most interesting aspects” of Affleck’s ancestry, highlighting an occultist relative instead of the slave-owning one.
Unfortunately, it also demonstrates how public information is selected. Megastars, celebrities, the rich and powerful, and those who identify with them often have a vested interest in presenting a certain perspective. Many of us would have found it interesting to know who this slave-owning ancestor was. This perhaps would have been a means of illustrating how pervasive and commonplace slavery was throughout the United States. The information also could reinforce the need for reconciliation in addressing this nation’s history of racism and oppression. If it had been disclosed, it would have illustrated that skeletons exist in everyone’s family closet. That opportunity for the humanitarian Affleck, founder of the Eastern Congo Initiative that raises awareness of the abuse of women and children resulting from on-going conflict in that region of Africa, has been diminished because he was embarrassed. His knee jerk reaction was to omit and continue to cover up the truth.
The issue is even more serious for Professor Gates, an academic. He is well aware of his “dilemma.” His integrity is on the line now because of a bad decision. It would have been better to simply leave Affleck’s family out of the series, but possibly an instinct for showmanship overran all Gates’ other considerations. Using Ken Burns, Anderson Cooper, and Reba McEntire as examples of other guests who had no problems disclosing their onerous family histories regarding slavery will not negate this poor choice. As a student of American history and a Black man, Gates forgot that not only do you have to be twice as good, but also you never give people the ammunition with which to question your actions. How can an esteemed academic justify this? We realize that in the past some Harvard scholars have determined what will be included or omitted in the historical narrative (e.g., Thomas Jefferson’s treatment of enslaved children) but hoped that practice was in disrepute. It is not the task of scholars to uphold anyone’s character at the expense of not telling the whole truth.
In the end, gentlemen, was it worth it?