Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a popular and revered scholar who has written many acclaimed books and made many acclaimed documentaries about black history (and was also forced to drink a beer with the white cop who arrested him in his own home, because that’s America for you).
Well at least it wasn’t Charlie Sheen…
“Finding Your Roots,” his PBS genealogy show on which notables like Tina Fey and Nas find out what their long-dead relatives were like, has been shelved, with apologies all around. It’s one of the more esoteric pieces of celebrity flotsam to surface from the giant Sony email hack. Gates was done in by a disastrous series of emails with Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton about Affleck.
In case you missed the kerfuffle: Affleck discovered through the show that, way back, his family owned slaves. He was not amenable to this information being shared with the world, because slavery is wrong and Affleck is above such things as being connected to America’s horrific history. He told this to Gates, who agonized with Lynton over whether or not to honor his famous guest’s demand. Gates then cut all references to slavery out of the Affleck episode, though he said he did it because he found more interesting material. Nobody knew about any of this until the emails were uncovered in April.
It’s odd to say “way back” and “his family” in the same breath. If it’s way back then it’s not exactly “his family” but a branch of his family. Suppose it’s four generations back: then that’s one of sixteen great-greats. If five generations, it’s one of 32. If Gates had told Affleck that maybe he would have calmed down, but then again that would go against the implication of “Finding Your Roots,” which is (or was, now) that it’s worth hyperventilating over even one of 32 (while ignoring the other 31).
In his Affleck emails, Gates openly admits that he is compromising himself. He knows what he is doing, and he is very honest about it:
“To do this would be a violation of PBS rules, actually, even for Batman.”
“It would embarrass him and compromise our integrity.”
“Once we open the door to censorship, we lose control of the brand.”
And yet. Gates acquiesced. You can’t accuse him—a Harvard professor, Emmy-winning documentarian, MacArthur genius grant recipient—of not knowing what he was getting into. After all that, he did exactly what Ben Affleck told him to do. Now, he’s the most famous black studies professor in America who colluded in the suppression of a story about slavery.
Yes but he got to hang out with some movie stars.