The Family Money We Don’t Like To Acknowledge

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“Affleck” always makes me think of the AFLAC duck

Stars, they’re just like us! They don’t want to think about how their ancestors enslaved people. When they are interviewed for a PBS docuseries like “Finding Your Roots,” they ask that alarming material be edited out.

The Oscar-winner [Ben Affleck], addressing the issue for the first time, confirmed reports that he asked executive producer Henry “Skip” Gates Jr. to ignore his ancestors’ slave history after the genealogical series made the discovery. Gates is also a professor at Harvard.

“I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves,” Affleck explained, adding that the revelation made him feel quite vulnerable. …

Anderson Cooper, baseball star Derek Jeter and filmmaker Ken Burns have recently appeared on the PBS docuseries. All three celebrities discovered that their ancestors were slave owners.

It’s rare for white people to acknowledge that so much inherited wealth comes from that lengthy period at the beginning of US history when the country profited from free labor. (“According to Harper’s magazine (November 2000), the United States stole an estimated $100 trillion for 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and 1865, with a compounded interest of 6 percent.”) Lots of white people have family money, and benefit from America being as affluent as it is, because of shit white people did to other people back in the day.

On the plus side, this particular Affleck-related revelation has occasioned some soul-searching and some fascinating, easy-to-relate-to op-eds. Like this one by family historian Susan Reed in the Boston Globe.

Like Ben Affleck, I didn’t think my family could have been involved in slavery. Once I discovered it, I too felt ashamed and never spoke about that part of our history.

And, like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, an old family tale had us believing that we were part Native American. For a while, I proudly told this story until I found out it was a lie.

Staring at the facts in cold, hard type as the family historian has forced me to grapple with several unpleasant realities about our pursuit of property. Mine, like many others, is a messy American tale, replete with hope as well as despair.

And this one by Andrew O’Hehir at Salon:

I would say to Affleck, in all seriousness, that nothing is more liberating than learning the truth, and that the interconnections of American history are marvelous and various, and become more so when faced in full. The only responsibility he inherits from his slave-owning ancestor – who, for all we know, was a lovely and well-meaning person who believed it was a deeply immoral institution, like the prominent plantation owner who became our first president – is the responsibility not to turn away. That’s precisely the responsibility he has abdicated. The discovery of a genetic relationship to a 19th-century American who owned other humans as property tells us nothing about Ben Affleck as an individual. His desire to banish that fact to the memory hole, because it left a bad taste in his mouth and he felt “embarrassed,” tells us somewhat more.

Slavery was a global phenomenon, and my connection to it lies outside the United States. On my mother’s side I am descended from a prominent maritime family in the French port city of Nantes. In the 18th and 19th centuries, some of my direct ancestors apparently owned ships that transported manufactured goods from Europe to West Africa, where they were exchanged for human beings who had been taken captive by local chieftains or abducted by slave-traders. That human cargo was then taken to the West Indies and sold into slavery, mostly to work the sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). …

Wow! The historian in me loves this. More family stories, please. And less white guilt. This isn’t about digging up a stick to beat oneself with. It’s about understanding history so that one can come to terms with it. It’s about not being afraid of facts, even unfriendly ones. For instance:

slavery was a national enterprise. Many firms on Wall Street such as JPMorgan Chase, New York Life and now-defunct Lehman Brothers made fortunes from investing in the slave trade the most profitable economic activity in New York’s 350 year history. Slavery was so important to the city that New York was one of the most pro-slavery urban municipalities in the North.

Do people nowadays need to feel individually responsible? Probably not. For one, it’s unproductive. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t understand the scope of this original sin. O’Hehir continues:

owning slave ships, rather than just slaves, is heavy-duty historical crime, but I didn’t do it. I have never heard anyone, outside the God of the Old Testament, argue that the sins of our forefathers are visited upon us in any literal sense. If white guilt even exists, it’s a useless and self-indulgent phenomenon. Those who believe they see it everywhere on the left, if you ask me, are projecting their own fears and anxieties – their unwillingness to think clearly about what really happened – onto others. …

It was “the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans” that made our country rich, and set it on course to become a global economic and military power. Furthermore, the greatest moral wrong slavery did not lie in the fact that it deprived African-Americans of their rights as citizens of a liberal democracy. All you have to do in that case, Baptist archly observes, is extend them those rights, perhaps “even elect one of them as president,” and the issue has been laid to rest. Slavery was also a crime of physical and economic violence, a work of “massive and cruel engineering” that killed and brutalized many people and stole the entire productive lives of those who survived. As my ancestors in Nantes learned, presumably without ever wielding a lash or cursing a cane-cutter, it was pretty much a license to print money.

A piece in Paste frets about the effect this whitewashing will have on the reputation of scholar and host Henry Louis Gates and the fate of his show:

Getler sums up his opinion thusly: “So Gates, aside from the decision he made – and it looks to me like a bad one – also, in my opinion, violated the well-known “no surprises doctrine” for public affairs programming and many other things by not informing PBS about these demands by Affleck and exchanges with Sony. The emails make clear that Gates understood the serious journalistic and credibility issues at stake, and the risks should this become public.”

PBS’ internal review continues, but it’s hard to imagine Gates not taking a very serious credibility hit at best.

In a way, this conversation is about acknowledging the trust fund, only on a larger scale. If you have one, it’s not your fault or to your credit; it’s merely one fact about you among many. The more people are relatively open about their situations, the better. After all, trying to ignore or repress privilege doesn’t negate it. It only makes a person look a little silly. And, as the Concessionist puts it, “It’s not possible to trust someone who’s deeply uncomfortable with who he is. Eventually, they snap.”

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