DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Oscar-winner Ben Affleck is getting unwelcome attention for something that was apparently missing when he appeared last fall on a PBS show about genealogy. Affleck requested the program not disclose that at least one of his ancestors owned slaves. When Affleck appeared on the show, host Henry Louis Gates spoke with him about other ancestors, including his mom.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FINDING YOUR ROOTS")
HENRY LOUIS GATES: Did your mother ever talk to you about what she did that summer - Freedom Summer as it's known?
BEN AFFLECK: Yeah, definitely. You know, I mean, she just - she was committed to these principles. She saw what she believed was injustice. And so she went to Mississippi to try to participate.
GREENE: And let's talk more about this with Gene Demby from NPR's Code Switch team. He's in the studio. Gene, welcome back.
GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Thank you, David.
GREENE: So what were we listening to there?
DEMBY: So that clip was from "Finding Your Roots." It's a PBS show hosted by Henry Louis Gates, the esteemed Harvard professor. He's also the executive producer of the show. The premise of "Finding Your Roots" is sort of a tour of the family histories of famous people. So in this case, Gates is talking to Ben Affleck about Affleck's forebear who fought alongside Washington in the Revolutionary War and another ancestor who was an occultist who dealt with spiritualism. In this clip, we're talking about Ben Affleck's mother, who was active during the Freedom Summer in 1964. So the omission of Affleck's slave-owning ancestor is even more glaring because the focus of this particular episode was about freedom.
GREENE: Well, let's talk about what we know about why the fact that Ben Affleck had ancestors who were slave-owners was not included in the show.
DEMBY: So what we do know is that there was a big email dump that came out via WikiLeaks over the weekend. That email dump showed an exchange between Henry Louis Gates, who was asking a friend, Michael Lynton, who was the head of Sony Pictures, how to handle a request from a megastar, a megastar we now know is by Ben Affleck, who wanted the details of his slave-owning ancestor to be excised from the episode. Lynton also tells him that he should take it out, but they're also concerned about what it might look like if they made this request for Ben Affleck.
GREENE: That integrity of the program or something could be questioned for taking this out.
DEMBY: Right, and it's important to note that other celebrities have had slave-owning ancestors come up on the show. And the show has decided to leave that in.
GREENE: All of which suggests that there was some sort of omission here. But we have a statement now from Henry Louis Gates, who explains this in a different way. What did he say?
DEMBY: So Gates says that the other parts of the story, the bit about the occultist forebear and the bit about the Affleck ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War, were more interesting, and they wanted to focus on that. If you watch the episode in context, however, it is very glaring because the focus of that episode, again, is about how implicated people's families have been in both slavery and the fight for the expansion of freedom in America.
GREENE: And, Gene, you did mention that "Finding Your Roots" has had celebrities on, and they did talk about a sort of slave-owning past in their families. Who were they?
DEMBY: Sure. Ken Burns, the famous documentary filmmaker, Anderson Cooper, the CNN anchor, discovered that he had an ancestor who owned 12 slaves and was actually killed by one of them. And Henry Louis Gates spoke at length with the actor Kevin Bacon about his own slave-owning past.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FINDING YOUR ROOTS")
GATES: So your ancestors owned slaves?
KEVIN BACON: It's kind of nauseating.
GREENE: You know, Gene Demby, you can hear in Kevin Bacon's voice there, I mean, this is a difficult subject to talk about it. Take us into sort of how people grapple with this.
DEMBY: I spoke to Khalil Gibran Muhammad. He's a historian and the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. And he said that it's pretty natural for someone like Affleck, who has this big profile and progressive politics, specifically around issues of bias, to be embarrassed about this.
KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: But the impact of slavery on American history is so significant that everyone's implicated. And so this is really an occasion for all of us to come to terms with our relationship to a slave-owning past - or culturally or economically to the very foundations of this country.
DEMBY: And so now Affleck is at the center of this big social media conversation around slavery and how everyone is connected to that part of our history. It's a conversation that Affleck was trying to avoid, but it's a conversation that we can't avoid. And it's a conversation that he, ironically, sort of put front and center once again.
GREENE: That's Gene Demby. He writes for Code Switch. It's NPR's blog about race, ethnicity and culture. Gene, thanks as always.
DEMBY: Thanks, David.
GREENE: And we can tell you now, last night, Ben Affleck himself joined the social media conversation. He posted on Facebook that he was embarrassed about having a slave owner in his family, but regrets wanting the fact excluded. He said he's glad his story will contribute to a conversation about a terrible legacy. Meanwhile, PBS and its New York station, WNET, which produces "Finding Your Roots," they're launching an internal investigation.
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