Even for Batman

Henry Louis Gates got seduced by Hollywood fame.

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).

However, he is now most famous for letting the now-single life-ruiner Ben Affleck hide his slaveholding ancestors from the world to spare Affleck the shame of being a white American with a past.

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.


  1. says

    One of my mother’s ascendants fought in the American Revolution as an officer with Maryland, so chances are extremely high that we are descended from slave owners. I don’t see it as something to be ashamed of — it’s not like I picked my ancestors — but as a lesson for how far we have come from those days, and as a reminder of how far we still have to go. When we refuse to acknowledge the errors of the past, we can do nothing to keep those errors from being repeated.

  2. cuervocuero says

    And the show is an Americanisation of a British show (as so many are). The Brits just take what happens. Pne progressive was even more motivateded by his ancestors in poorhouse privation.

  3. quixote says

    For heaven’s sake. Affleck’s stupid ancestry means exactly nothing now and people’s interest in it is purely gossipy. The fact that Affleck wants to hide it says something about his character — no surprise, really, given the rest of his behavior — but the worst you can say of Gates is that he (tried to) let Affleck have the sort of control over his own data that we should all have.

    It’s up to Affleck to make this known. I don’t see at all how Gates is culpable for not publicising his history when asked not to.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    History will have no choice but to remember this embarrassment as Gatesgate.

  5. Maureen Brian says

    So, if a descendant of one of Mr Affleck’s ancestor’s slaves should happen to be on some history / genealogy show then he won’t be allowed to mention it either. Just in case.

    Post-racism, my arse.

    (I recall that when Moira Stuart, esteemed television presenter, was on the British version she traced one line to somewhere in the Caribbean where her people were slaves. She said, on camera, that this was too horrible, she didn’t want to go any further in that direction. Her decision was respected. That couple of minutes was included in the show as broadcast.)

  6. Al Dente says

    Despite what evangelicals may say, we are not responsible for the actions of our ancestors. I know, for instance, that one of my ancestors was a bigamist. So what? That doesn’t effect my relationship with my wife or my other wife.

  7. Pen says

    I did hear about this and wondered why Ben Affleck was being weird about his ancestry. I think articles that contain phrases like “spare Affleck the shame of being a white American with a past” and “he’s the most famous black studies professor in America who colluded in the suppression of a story about slavery” have made it clear to me. Who wrote that bullshit? (yeah, I know, I could find out by following the link).

    I would be helpful to remember that while Gates had the possibility of deciding that he wouldn’t feature Affleck at all (and I kind of wish he had done that), his series wasn’t in the nature of an expose. It was a consensual visit into people’s private lives, so doing without Affleck have been his only recourse.

  8. johnthedrunkard says

    Real-life history refuses to comply with Affleck’s moral requirements. At least his ancestors didn’t ‘offend’ any Muslims.

    It is the dual pressure: to sanitize the past to match contemporary standards, AND to mine it for grievances that can be tossed around for grandstanding purposes.

    An actual sense of history ought to deflate both tendencies.

  9. sigurd jorsalfar says

    They should just change the name of the show to “Hiding Your Roots” and then they can air it and recoup some of their expenses.

  10. rjw1 says

    Who gives a rat’s, is there some kind of genetic guilt passed down from generation to generation? Apparently, for some people, there is.

    Everyone has a billion ancestors.

  11. says

    Kind of a silly thing for Affleck to get all worked up about, true. I mean I have both John Q. Adams, who was pretty vocally antislavery, and Richard Brew, a slave trader who built a castle in Ghana and took a bunch of local princesses for wives, in my family tree (albeit not direct ancestry). You get all kinds.

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