In May of 2014, I published a piece about my family’s escape from sharecropping. I was surprised to learn that so many people didn’t know that sharecropping was slavery rebooted. The title of this article was Dismantling Collective Amnesia. It received a tremendous amount of feedback from writers and historians alike. I was applauded for both sharing and remembering the story. Still, it wasn’t as if I had a choice. Such transgenerational survival stories do not afford the convenience of forgetting.
Fast forward to April 2015. It was revealed that Ben Affleck participated in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s well known PBS series, “Finding Your Roots.” However, when one of his ancestors (Benjamin Cole) was discovered to be a former slave owner, he requested that Benjamin Cole be completely erased from his family history. This ancestor (that Affleck shares his first name with) would not be included in Affleck’s “Finding Your Roots” episode. This was in order to avoid being associated with his ancestor’s past. Supposedly, Gates’ team allowed this erasure to occur.
This created a firestorm, in which Gates, a renowned African American Studies historian, faced criticism. It is unknown as to how much pressure was placed on the team to exclude this pivotal component of Affleck’s family history. But one thing is certain. Affleck represents America’s denial problem. His initial refusal to include the full truth of his family’s history aligns perfectly with America’s current trajectory of denial and erasure. It’s the same premise as “all this racism with no racists.” All this oppression with no oppressors. Affleck may have been trying to deter attention from someone he was ashamed of, however he contributed to the historical denial of oppression mounted on people of African descent; as if slavery were a figment of Black imagination, and slave owners are simply fictional characters that exist only in our minds.
It’s the same travesty as schools in Texas and Massachusetts seeking to rewrite history books to make slavery appear less brutal. It’s the same as publishers seeking to detract “nigger” from Mark Twain’s books to make him appear less racist. It’s the same as the years of denial that Thomas Jefferson was a slave owning rapist.
Furthermore, Affleck’s ability to dodge this history is a brilliant display of his own racially tiered privilege. Black Americans do not have the privilege of dodging history and the pains of slavery simply because it makes us uncomfortable. Black Americans do not have the privilege of making special requests to disconnect us from being the descendant of enslaved people. So much of the U.S. Black experience is systematically connected to slavery and the imagery of servitude. There is no escaping this, no matter how factually incorrect many of these depictions may be.
The truth is many people of African descent were enslaved in the Americas. The truth is there were enslavers that made this industry possible. Affleck’s ancestor was one of them. His attempt to disconnect himself, is an attempt to erase this truth, thereby erasing the truth about how racial oppression operates and who is behind it.
Ignoring these truths is not a viable solution. Acknowledgement and discomfort is necessary in order to dismantle institutional oppression. Though Affleck is a well known liberal, his denial is representative of many white liberals and conservatives alike who seek to dodge history in order to quell discomfort and personal responsibility towards acknowledging and dismantling systematic privilege.
Current day systems of oppression thrive on the lives of marginalized groups. For example, the current struggle for living wages among America’s working class is closely linked to strategies from chattel slavery for maximizing labor and increasing profit with low wage expenses.
The plantation didn’t just produce the commodities that fueled the broader economy, it also generated innovative business practices that would come to typify modern management. As some of the most heavily capitalized enterprises in antebellum America, plantations offered early examples of time-motion studies and regimentation through clocks and bells. Seeking ever-greater efficiencies in cotton picking, slaveholders reorganized their fields, regimented the workday, and implemented a system of vertical reporting that made overseers into managers answerable to those above for the labor of those below.
The perverse reality of a capitalized labor force led to new accounting methods that incorporated (human) property depreciation in the bottom line as slaves aged, as well as new actuarial techniques to indemnify slaveholders from loss or damage to the men and women they owned. Property rights in human beings also created a lengthy set of judicial opinions that would influence the broader sanctity of private property in U.S. law. – Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman (How Slavery Led To Modern Capitalism)
In order to break these systems apart, there has to be a truthful discussion about what happened, who was responsible, and how it can be rectified. There must be a sincere attempt at truth and reconciliation.
This was Affleck’s opportunity to show his enslaving ancestor as an example of the ills of America’s past. Then show himself as a person working to rectify these ills. Instead he chose to ignore the issue altogether. For that, he reinforces a hard truth about America. Denial is chosen over healing. Erasure is chosen over accountability. Consequently, marginalized and systematically oppressed communities continue to be blamed for their own oppression, and history is laid to the wayside.
Jessica Ann Mitchell is a writer, social justice advocate and the founder of Our Legaci. Learn more about her work at JessicaAnnMitchell.com.