Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Ben Affleck says he is 'embarrassed' by slave-owning ancestor

I have often thought that a hidden side of so-called "individualism" in U.S. society tracks back to a deep, white history of slave ownership and other colonial forms of violence against native people of the Americas.  Since, by definition, individualism does not require an engagement with the past, it handily exonerates it through its structured silences surrounding it.  

Hopefully, Affleck will take this information and both question his own unearned privileges and consider what his responsibility is to challenging racism and other ongoing forms of violence and oppression that continue to be inflected by questions of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.


Ben Affleck in March 2015.
Image: Roll Call via AP Images/Associated Press
Ben Affleck has expressed regret on Facebook for asking producers of the PBS show Finding Your Roots to omit that he had a slave-owning ancestor during an episode about his family history that aired last fall.
The post Tuesday night comes as PBS conducts an internal review into the incident, which became public knowledge after WikiLeaks published hacked Sony emails online.
"I didn't want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed," the actor wrote. "The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth."
The PBS probe centers on whether Affleck's request, and producers' acquiescence,
may have violated the network's editorial standards.
In his post, Affleck wrote about his influence on the episode's content, and the show's host, Henry Louis Gates Jr., which he described as lobbying.
"I lobbied him the same way I lobby directors about what takes of mine I think they should use. This is the collaborative creative process."
The director commented further on his post to clarify his exchanges with Gates, a Harvard professor also known as Skip, in an attempt to steer the conversation away from censorship.
"When I told Skip I was uneasy about the slave owner, he told me he had not included it in his preliminary cut because there wasn't much detail - a name and no details, so he wasn't going with it to begin with," Affleck wrote.
In an email exchange about the incident, however, Gates used the term censorship to describe Affleck's request.
"We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. What do we do?" Gates asked Sony executive Michael Lynton, according to the hacked email conversation. "To do this would be a violation of PBS rules, actually, even for Batman,” Gates wrote in a later email.
Affleck also expressed remorse for trying to hide his family's history with slavery in his Facebook post.
I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story. We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing. I am glad that my story, however indirectly, will contribute to that discussion.
Gates said he chose to focus on Affleck's other ancestors who were more interesting—including a Revolutionary War ancestor and Affleck's mother who marched for Civil Rights—rather than the slave owner, according to an April 17 statement. Gates used his own "independent editorial judgment to choose the most compelling narrative," PBS said in a statement.
The network's review began Saturday, spokeswoman Anne Bentley said in a statement Tuesday.
"We have been moving forward deliberately yet swiftly to conduct this review," she said.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.

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