Last night, I watched an episode of the PBS series, “Finding Your Roots”. If you aren’t familiar with the show, it is one where celebrity family histories are explored by a genealogist. The current format is three stars per hour-long episode. That means not a great deal of detail is given and they usually only focus on a single ancestor. This is also the show, iirc, that got into trouble several years ago when it helped “erase” part of a liberal star’s background by omitting the fact his ancestors had owned slaves.
Anyway, one of the stars last night was Ted Danson and, while there was no washing away of history, we got to see a liberal Hollywood star come face-to-face with the fact the world was different 200 years ago. Then we got to watch the host of the show, Henry Louis Gates Jr., jumping through a number of mental hoops to make Danson feel better about his ancestor.
You see, the truth of the matter was our former Cheers star discovered he had an ancestor who played a role in helping win our independence from England. That was a good thing. Danson was all smiles. Then Gates presented a facsimile of a page from a book where Danson’s ancestor was described as a slave owner. Oh, how fast the color drained from his face. You could see him trying to come to terms with the horror of it.
I will give Danson credit. He didn’t immediately recoil in horror. It was close but he thought about it. He admitted times had been different then and the act of owning another human had not been against the law. You could see he was uncomfortable with it and, to be honest, I probably would have been too. Just as I would have been proud to know that same ancestor allowed the slave to work and keep his wages, letting the slave eventually buy his own freedom.
But it was watching Gates trying to reassure Danson that struck me. He bent over backwards pointing out how much better Danson’s ancestor was than the founding fathers — and he named more than one — who owned slaves and did not let them go. You could see the politicizing of the show happening then — not that it hadn’t before.
You see, that incident I referred to in the opening paragraph dealt with much the same sort of situation. In that case. Ben Affleck, he who is such an advocate of social justice (and alleged groper), upon learning one of his ancestors had been a slave owner asked that the information be withheld from the public. After all, it wouldn’t do his image as a champion of all things right and proper any good to know he had such a stain on his family tree.
Now the trouble came when Gates agreed to withhold the information. It eventually came back to bite him and he had to make a public apology.
But here’s the thing. If you shake any of our family trees hard enough, you are going to find things you aren’t proud of. Those things might be the proverbial horse thief or other crook. It might be discovering your ancestor fought not he wrong side of the battle for independence. It might even be learning your ancestors did something that is abhorrent by today’s standards but allowable back in their day.
It is what we take from that knowledge that matters. I have a feeling if I checked hard enough on my father’s side of the family, I’d find not only members of it who supported the Confederacy but who probably owned slaves. Do I like that knowledge? No. But I’m not going to hide from it, nor am I going to go around making abject apologies for something I had no control over and for something that was not against the law at the time.
Here’s the thing. Slavery is an evil institution. Always was and always will be. White American land owners weren’t the first to own slaves nor were they the last. It isn’t difficult to find places on this earth where it is still occurring. It is the current situation I will fight against, that I do condemn. Isn’t that better than focusing on inequities of the past and, while we do so, ignore what is going on in the world around us?