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Ben Affleck and white liberals’ discomfort with Black history

It’s not just conservatives who would rather hide truths about racism that make them squirm.

Instead of publicly reckoning with a truth that has tainted the marrow of this nation — long before it was a nation — for more than four centuries, Ben Affleck chose to protect his small piece of the white purity myth.PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

With each story about another Republican governor’s or legislator’s efforts to erase Black history from their state’s classrooms and libraries, I recall a bit player in this nation’s uncivil war against its difficult past:

Ben Affleck.

The Oscar-winning actor-director loves talking about his Massachusetts background. But while taping a 2014 episode of “Finding Your Roots,” the popular PBS series about genealogy, Affleck learned something about his family’s history he wasn’t so eager to share — he is a descendant of a slaveholder. In a transcript of the segment, Affleck said, “It gives me kind of a sagging feeling to see, uh, a biological relationship to that. But, you know, there it is, part of our history.”


But he still asked Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., the show’s executive producer and host, to withhold that history from the finished show.

No other guest had ever made such a self-serving request. But when the show aired, there was no mention of Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor.

The incident leaked a year later, and Affleck apologized in a Facebook post. “I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves,” he wrote. “I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.”

An internal investigation by PBS led to a postponement of the show’s third season. Gates also apologized.

Sharing a bloodline with a wealthy Georgia landowner who enslaved 25 Black people made Affleck uncomfortable, so he wanted it concealed. Instead of reckoning with a truth that has tainted the marrow of this nation — long before it was a nation — for more than four centuries, Affleck chose to protect his small piece of the white purity myth.

That’s also the impetus for Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida banning books by Black authors or classroom lessons about Black people.


Of course, Affleck is not a Republican governor with presidential aspirations. He isn’t making laws that coddle fragile white sensibilities at history’s expense or threatening to punish those who don’t comply. He is not stripping school bookshelves nor is he using the weight of his office to sandblast clean this nation’s unforgivable sins or their indelible shadows.

But his insistence on presenting only the best about his family history showed years ago that it’s not only conservatives who want to expunge facts for fiction about this nation and safeguard their own heritage as heroic, godly, and exceptional. Just because someone says they would never vote for DeSantis doesn’t mean that they don’t silently endorse a white supremacist history of this nation. Perhaps that’s why outrage in some circles has felt muted, half-hearted, or even scolding.

With his National Book Award winner, “Slaves in the Family,” Edward Ball bucked that tendency nearly 30 years ago. He recounts what he calls “a little joke” his father would make about familial history: “There are five things we don’t talk about in the Ball family. Religion, sex, death, money, and the Negroes.”

Before his death, Ball’s father gave him an unpublished manuscript from a distant cousin and told him, “One day you’ll want to know all about this. Your ancestors.” What Ball finds are hundreds of Black people enslaved by his ancestors on numerous South Carolina plantations for more than a century. What he finds is his true American family.


Honest conversations about this nation’s origin story are now met with derision and backlash. With each move away from the truth we drag it along and what remains unspoken and unresolved weighs this nation down.

Ball’s wasn’t a unique story. What’s unique is that he chose to share it. America’s foundation is built on the stolen lives of Black people but also their achievements, sacrifices, and creativity. And even love for a nation that has never found a way to love them back.

The America that DeSantis is selling in Florida — and with his dreams of the White House, one he wants this nation to buy — has never existed. America is not just its feel-good parts, nor is it history’s job to soothe white people through their discomforts.

When Affleck learned that one of his ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War, Gates told him, “You are descended from a patriot.” He is also descended from a slaveholder. That one could be taught and glorified in schools while the other is banned and branded as indoctrination will remain a disgrace until this nation learns from — and learns to face — its complexities and contradictions.

As for Affleck’s appearance on “Finding Your Roots,” don’t bother looking for that episode on the PBS website. It’s been permanently removed.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.