How Ben Affleck reacted after he discovered his slave-owning ancestors

WikiLeaks revealed that actor Ben Affleck omitted slave ownership from his family history on the PBS show 'Finding Your Roots.' How should we address the oftentimes uncomfortable truths about our ancestors?

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/File
Ben Affleck poses at the 16th Annual Hollywood Film Awards Gala.

What would you do if you found out your ancestors were slave owners?

Award-winning actor and filmmaker Ben Affleck is now publicly figuring out the answer for himself. His desire to omit this part of his family’s history is now making Mr. Affleck a high-profile example of how others might address truths regarding uncomfortable parts of their history.

In the course of appearing on the PBS documentary series “Finding Your Roots,” Affleck discovered that distant relatives of the actor were slave-owners. For someone known for his humanitarian efforts in Africa, the revelation was one Affleck wanted to keep out of the spotlight.

The show’s host, Harvard Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., listened to Affleck’s concerns and agreed not to feature this part of Affleck’s history in the show. But because of the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack that occurred last year, the confidential e-mails came to light and were published by WikiLeaks earlier this week.

Affleck posted to his Facebook page an explanation for what happened. He said that when the discovery was made, he was “embarrassed” to learn his family included a slave owner. But after the information became public, he said he second-guessed his decision to exclude the information. Affleck wrote:

I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story. 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. It is an examination well worth continuing. I am glad that my story, however indirectly, will contribute to that discussion.

Affleck is not the only celebrity featured on the show who has had slave-owning ancestors. Baseball star Derek Jeter, Ken Burns, and Anderson Cooper all discovered they had slave-owning relatives, and openly talked about it. Mr. Cooper, whose relative owned 12 slaves and was actually murdered by one of them, spoke about his desire to know more about the individual who killed his ancestor.

“I wish I knew more, I wish I knew the name of the slave,” Cooper said on the show. “When you think about how many peoples’ names history just never remembers, and people whose stories are never told, it’s shameful. And I feel such a sense of shame over it, and at the same time it’s the history of this country.”

The exact number of Americans descended from slave owners is unknown, but is guessed to be relatively small. Conservative talk-show host and film critic Michael Medved estimates that since more than 80 percent of the Southern white population did not own slaves, a small portion of current white Americans were directly descended from slave owners. It is the slave industry, and the subsequent laws, attitudes and actions that have shaped the lives of many Americans, Mr. Medved explained:

Only a tiny percentage of today’s white citizens – perhaps as few as 5 percent – bear any authentic sort of generational guilt for the exploitation of slave labor. Of course, a hundred years of Jim Crow laws, economic oppression and indefensible discrimination followed the theoretical emancipation of the slaves, but those harsh realities raise different issues from those connected to the long-ago history of bondage.

Some argue the aftermath of slavery still affects the US and undergirds tense race relations. After attempting to hide the truth of his own ancestry, Affleck suggests that his current situation may contribute to a closer look at America's history of slavery and the effects still seen today.

“I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth,” Affleck wrote on his Facebook page. “While I don't like that the guy is an ancestor, I am happy that aspect of our country's history is being talked about.”

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