Ben Affleck Wanted to Hide His Past, but America Can’t Escape Slavery

We consulted a race and legal history scholar to find out what we can learn from the media fiasco.

Ben Affleck. (Photo: Bariskan Unal/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Apr 22, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Ben Affleck may have found his roots, but he was embarrassed by what he discovered: One of his ancestors owned slaves. It’s a revelation that’s been exhaustively rehashed in the media after hacked Sony emails uploaded to WikiLeaks last Thursday revealed that the Gone Girl actor requested this particular part of his family history be edited out of an episode of the PBS series Finding Your Roots. PBS has since launched an internal investigation into the censorship.

Daniel J. Sharfstein, a professor at Vanderbilt University Law School and author of The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America, sees PBS’ decision not to air the footage as a missed opportunity to further a discussion about race in America. Ironically, that discussion has been ignited because of the censorship.

“It would’ve been great to see Ben Affleck respond spontaneously and honestly to this revelation,” says Sharfstein, a race and legal scholar who codirects Vanderbilt’s Social Justice Program. “I think in some ways, the subjects’ reactions to what they learn about [on Finding Your Roots] sort of model how thousands of very similar conversations will happen, every day, every week, every month.”

Finding Your Roots, which wrapped up its second season in November, attempts to renew interest in American history by enlisting celebrities to trace their ancestry alongside host and scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., with whom Sharfstein studied while an African American studies minor at Harvard University in 1991.

Previous episodes of Finding Your Roots uncovered that actors Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon, PBS documentary producer Ken Burns, and CNN reporter Anderson Cooper have ancestors who once owned slaves—and that Cooper’s fourth great-grandfather was killed by his own slave. But thanks to the hacked emails, Affleck has been forced to confront his family history in a very public way.

“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,” Affleck said in a statement posted to his Facebook page on Tuesday. “It is an examination well worth continuing.”

For most Americans, that examination of the past won’t be pretty. “Every one of us descends from someone who did something awful: People who fornicated, who gambled, who stole, swindled, murdered—you could trace your ancestry back to royalty,” says Sharfstein. “We can laugh at a lot of that now. But with slavery, it’s different because we still live with the inequality and the attitudes that are a huge part of its legacy.”

Affleck was embarrassed by his family’s slave-owning roots, but Sharfstein says many Americans have a surprising degree of nostalgia and “unthinkable attitudes” about the Confederacy—beliefs that aren’t confined to the South. Thirty-six percent of Americans say it’s appropriate for today’s public officials to praise the leaders of the Confederate states, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center survey conducted in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Nearly half of respondents in that poll said the Civil War was mainly about states' rights, whereas just 38 percent said it was about slavery.

“So many Americans [are] descended from slave owners. Millions of Americans—and we’re talking about people of all races. And the availability of so much genealogical information these days gives us a really important opportunity to talk and think about what that means,” says Sharfstein.

“It’s easy to think that one’s family history somehow defines you,” he adds. “But to my mind, America was made by people who were leaving everything behind, and people who were creating new stories for themselves.”