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Skeletons in Our Closets

By October 26, 2015 One Comment

by Rebecca Koerselman

I love PBS. I don’t wear tweed, but I do enjoy PBS programming. I suppose that means I contribute to the stereotypes of academics who like public television. I am a certifiable nerd, and happy to watch a lot of PBS. From documentaries like American Experience to children’s programming to Antiques Roadshow and BBC programs like Downton Abbey, Foyle’s War, Call the Midwife, and Sherlock, there is a reason my family knows to call before Sunday evening if they want have an engaged conversation with me.

One of the shows that I enjoy watching recently made headlines. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also the executive producer, writer, and presenter of a program called Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  Gates and his team of researchers invite politicians, journalists, artists, celebrities, and historical figures to explore their family histories. Typically, Gates groups two or three guests with a common theme. For example, one show exhibited the family histories of Tina Fey, David Sedaris, and George Stephanopoulos, all who had who all had Greek ancestors. Another show featured Angela Bassett and hip hop artist Nas, both who had ancestors from the free African American population. I enjoy the show because I get to see a noted historian (and his team of researchers), do historical research and present it to the public in a compelling format. In addition, Finding Your Roots models good historical scholarship: hunting and finding evidence from as many primary and secondary sources as possible to discover the answer to a question: who am I and where do I come from? For most people, family history is the most accessible and kind of history.

Koerselman 19In June, Americans read that Ben Affleck, director and actor, was featured in an episode of Finding Your Roots. Allegedly, Affleck discovered he had slave-owning ancestors and “pressured” producers of the PBS show to not air that part of his heritage on the show. Gates claimed no one was “pressured” and that the producers of the show decided not to discuss Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor because they discovered more interesting ancestors that included an occult enthusiast and a Revolutionary War veteran. Whether or not the accusations or protestations are true I cannot say. But what interests me is the public admittance of embarrassment over an ancestor that owned slaves. Slavery is a particularly significant reality of United States history. People owned slaves and grew wealthy from their labor. Many other Americans did not own slaves but purchased materials produced by slave labor, from tobacco to rice to cotton used to make textiles in northern factories. Even passionate abolitionists, opposed to the institution of slavery, did not advocate for equality between African Americans and the white population in the United States. The history of dealing with the aftermath of slavery and its long term effects continues to affect us into the present. From “Black Lives Matter” campaigns to the flying of Confederate battle flags, the debate over slavery and its meaning continues.

How many Americans had ancestors that owned slaves? Many, I’m sure. My ancestors arrived in the United States after the Civil War, so I can safely say that my ancestors didn’t own slaves in the United States. But does that mean I never had any ancestors in Holland that owned slaves? Or bought, sold or traded slaves? Probably not. More broadly, do any of us NOT have skeletons in our closets? No one is blameless and no one has a perfect family history. If you think you do not have any ancestors who have done anything wrong, I suspect you haven’t examined your family history very closely. Most families, perhaps like Affleck, prefer to ignore, bury, or hide the embarrassing or morally repugnant actions and beliefs of our ancestors. Why? Is it embarrassing? Of course. Morally repugnant? At times, certainly.

What better way to grasp the brokenness of this world and cultivate a culture of honesty about the sins of the past?

See the NY Times article by John Koblin, June 6, 2015 for more information on the Ben Affleck and Finding Your Roots debacle:

For a humorous satire on white guilt with regard to slavery and black history month, see SNL’s “28 Reasons”:

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

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