Your Slavecestors Should Be Televised

April 20, 2015

by — Posted in Genealogy, the stuff in between

Outright omission is just as bad as saying it never happened.

At first, it got ugly when news broke that Sony Pictures had serious pay disparities between genders.  Then, things got uglier when it was discovered that the former CEO of Sony and a producer joked that President Barack Obama only “liked black movies.” We thought it was over.  But oh no. Like a non-paternal event, it just keeps on getting interesting.

In the last few days, even the genealogy world has ended up at the center of the notorious Sony Hacking controversy. News has emerged that actor Ben Affleck requested to have his slaveholding ancestors edited out of the final cut of his episode during season 2 of Dr. Henry Louis Gates’ groundbreaking PBS program, Finding Your Roots (FYR). The genealogy world has been in an uproar ever since.

What Genealogists and Family Historians Are Saying

“He had a right to choose that it be edited out.”

“Editing it out hurts the credibility of Dr. Gates and the program.”

Just as the very subject behind this post divided the United States before the Civil War, the same subject is continuing to do so 150 years after the 13th Amendment.  It’s so touchy that the disappearance of Affleck’s profile on the FYR website leads one to believe that a true firestorm of emotions is at hand and nobody wants to get burned.

What PBS ‘nem Says

This appears to be a flat out violation of editorial guidelines. They state:

Fairness to the audience implies several responsibilities. Producers must neither oversimplify complex situations nor camouflage straightforward facts. PBS may reject a program or other content if PBS believes that it contains any unfair or misleading presentation of facts, including inaccurate statements of material fact, undocumented statements of fact that appear questionable on their face, misleading juxtapositions, misrepresentations, or distortions.(1)

Well. Can’t argue that, can we? LOL It seems like FYR may have to find another home to air itself as it’s third season is scheduled to hit the airwaves in late 2015.

My Thoughts

Was the omission wrong? Yes.

Was it a violation of editorial policy? Yes.

Should the actor, producers, and network be scrutinized because of the decision? Yes.

People have argued that we shouldn’t be having this discussion since the information “wasn’t supposed to be released” since systems were illegally hacked to obtain it.  Aiding and abetting fugitive slaves was once against the law too, but at some point, the inhumanity of slavery in the United States was addressed and thus, I live as a free person. The issues that the breach unearthed shouldn’t get lost in the fact that the information was illegally obtained. The issues shouldn’t exist to begin with.

Immovable In and Out Points

George Fields, my 5x great grandfather.
George Fields, my 5x great grandfather.

As a descendant of both former slaveholders and slaves (I call them slavecestors),  I don’t get the option of editing either of them or the system that joined the two together out of my family history.  Even if I descend from Free People of Color, I still don’t get the option of editing slavery out – someone at some point would have had to have been enslaved and thus, slavery would still be a factor and always part of the discussion.

Further, even if a person doesn’t have slaveholding ancestors or isn’t a descendant of the formerly enslaved, their ancestors line of work, location, the time in which they lived, and other things could show that they too did have involvement with slavery (albeit indirect) if they lived in the United States. Simply put, nobody can’t escape it.  It’s like saying a person doesn’t have 32 3x great grandparents. It’s scientifically impossible.

Truth! Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are.

Yes, I’m just a “regular person,” and many would say that Affleck had a lot more to lose with the information going public. On the other hand, what was he losing by acknowledging it? Does he believe he or his family are going to be unfairly judged because of something their ancestors did that they had no control over?

David Vann, my 2nd cousin 5xs removed. Source: Rome News Tribune
David Vann, my 2nd cousin 5xs removed. Source: Rome News Tribune

The fact that the producers chose to honor his request also says alot. If most African American guests on the show requested that slavery not be mentioned during their segment, Dr. Gates would have had a VERY short show.  What about the Holocaust? Super short show. What about anybody who had an ancestor who dealt with being marginalized? 1 minute show, if you count the intro with the flying tree branches and photos. There would have been no African American Lives 1 or 2 and forget about The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. Blam. Splat. Not even existing.

Many of us in the U.S. are tattooed with the scarlet letter of ancestral involvement in slavery. While it’s as American as July 4th and the Statue of Liberty, we often spend so much time trying to hide behind it and act like it doesn’t exist. Except during February. We can talk about it then and only then. Even major genealogy societies and conferences still don’t appropriately address African American genealogy research. Why are we even surprised that Affleck and the producers would do this if many within the genealogical community do it every single day?

Me and others have raised questions about the FYR’s integrity from the lens of a family historian and genealogist (See this recent post from my geneabud George Geder regarding the use of Photoshop on the show). We have valid concerns when it comes to how the research is presented, and what they choose to air. At the same time, we all should be just as critical of our peers in the genealogy world when it comes to slavery and issues of race.

Why is it ok for our peers to willingly hide behind their ancestors who were slaveholders and hoard the information they have obtained on them and their former slaves but yet they expect others in the genealogy community to freely share info on ancestors they have who weren’t slaveholders? Isn’t this a double standard?

Why is it OK for seminal organizations, such as the Federation of Genealogical Societies, to come out publicly against the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but they can’t openly address the issues of race that have been openly discussed by several bloggers, including Dear MYRTLE? We’re all chants and signs on one issue but for another, we’re hiding in a corner. 

Yes, all of this started with an illegal activity. We wouldn’t be talking about it if the activity hadn’t taken place. On the other hand, if the law hadn’t been broken, would we really know the truth? Sound off below.

Endnotes

Featured image, Adeline Cunningham, between 1937-1938. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/99615275/

(1)”Editorial & Funding Standards.”Editorial Standards and Policies. Section IV. Editorial Standards, A. Fairness PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2015. <http://www.pbs.org/about/editorial-standards/>.

 

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Nicka Smith
Genealogist, Photographer at Who is Nicka Smith?
Nicka Smith is a professional photographer, speaker, and documentarian with more than 18 years of experience as a genealogist. She has extensive experience in African ancestored genealogy, reverse genealogy, and family reunion planning and execution. She is also an expert in genealogical research in the Northeastern Louisiana area, sharing genealogy with youth, documenting the ancestral journey, and employing the use of new technology in genealogy and family history research.

3 thoughts on “Your Slavecestors Should Be Televised

  1. Teach Preacher! Well said Nicka; transparency is key to all of what we Genebuds do. FYR should have known better. And Ben for asking, humm! What publicity we have! Lol

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