Support the news

Ben Affleck Needn't Have Tried To Conceal His Slaveholding Ancestry

Wendy Kaminer: "Instead of regarding it as a source of embarrassment or bad publicity, why not use it as a part of a history lesson in the progress of an American family?" (Erin/flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
Wendy Kaminer: "Instead of regarding it as a source of embarrassment or bad publicity, why not use it as a part of a history lesson in the progress of an American family?" (Erin/flickr)

Ben Affleck has apologized for trying to suppress information about a slaveholding ancestor, revealed by his participation in PBS’s "Finding Your Roots." He was embarrassed by the news, Affleck explained. Why, I wonder. He bears no responsibility for the conduct of a distant ancestor. It indicates absolutely nothing about Affleck’s own moral character or ideals.

[Ben Affleck's] reaction to the news that his family tree included a very rotten branch was not all that surprising.

Still, his reaction to the news that his family tree included a very rotten branch was not all that surprising. If you take pride in the accomplishments or status of your ancestors, as many people do, you’re apt to feel tainted, or, at least, embarrassed, by their sins. You may be pleased that your roots date back to membership in a group you admire, or disappointed when they don’t, although taking pride in your forbears’ race, religion or ethnicity is merely the flip side of finding shame in it.

Consider Oprah Winfrey’s reactions to the results of her DNA tests, as reported by Henry Louis Gates, in "Finding Oprah’s Roots": She was “thrilled” to learn of her probable 11 percent Native American ancestry, but “needed a moment to process” the unwanted finding that she was not of Zulu descent. “If you tell me that I am not Zulu, I am going to be very upset,” she‘d warned Gates, who wondered if she would be angry at him for uncovering such an unwelcome fact.

Gates tells this little tale with a straight face, which, from my perspective, makes it all the more amusing. Reactions to genealogical findings are often so irrational.

Well, we are not merely rational creatures, and exploring your roots can be an interesting and harmless diversion. But it can also be a pernicious one that reinforces tribalism and its attendant evils –- bigotry, discrimination and violence against groups perceived as the bearers of tainted blood.

Bloodlines are supposed to be irrelevant in America, but a belief in racial purity persists, and not just in the minds of our most malevolent bigots. Consider the official federal application process for a “Certificate of Degree of Indian or Alaska native blood.” Your “degree of Indian blood is computed from ancestors of Indian blood” who were listed on a census roll or other federally approved documents.

This familial evolution from slaveholding to civil rights activism is nothing for Affleck to trumpet or conceal. (It wasn’t his doing.)

You don’t have to be a student of the Nuremberg race laws to recoil from government policy addressing the “blood quantum” of its citizens. Yes, policies like this can be well-intended, designed to compensate for historic injustices. Tribalism may have uses as well as abuses. We are advantaged or disadvantaged by economic, social or genetic inheritances, over which we’ve had no control. And we can learn something about the history of the nation by studying the genealogical history of its people.

Consider the report about Affleck’s slaveholding ancestor. Instead of regarding it as a source of embarrassment or bad publicity, why not use it as a part of a history lesson in the progress of an American family? In his response to the fracas over Affleck’s story, Henry Louis Gates denied censoring any part of it, stating, “we focused on what we felt were the most interesting aspects of his ancestry—including a Revolutionary War ancestor… and his mother who marched for Civil Rights during the Freedom Summer of 1964.” This familial evolution from slaveholding to civil rights activism is nothing for Affleck to trumpet or conceal. (It wasn’t his doing.) But, as an “aspect of his ancestry,” isn’t it perhaps a little interesting?

Related:

Wendy Kaminer Cognoscenti contributor
Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer and social critic, writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion, and popular culture and is currently a correspondent at The Atlantic. Her latest book is "Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity and the ACLU."

More…

+Join the discussion
Share
TwitterfacebookEmail

Support the news