Whitewashing History

Francis: What do Ben Affleck and the Confederate Flag controversy have in common?

Recently it was revealed Boston-bred actor Ben Affleck asked the producers of the PBS genealogy show Finding Your Roots to omit the fact that his ancestors owned slaves from their broadcast about … his roots. For two seasons, the show has traced the family histories of public figures, something one might assume that Affleck knew when he signed on.

In April, when the story first came to light with the fallout of the Sony email hack, Affleck said that he was “embarrassed” and “didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves.”

The irony here, of course, is that Affleck’s white privilege allowed him to decide that because the slavery narrative was an inconvenience or an embarrassment to him, he could re-write his own history and do without it harm to his own image. I can’t figure out why anyone would care that his great-great-somebody owned a slave, or why, given his Boston affiliation, this wouldn’t already be readily assumed.

News flash, white people: Some white people owned slaves. Some of those white people may have been members of your family. This is not a reflection on you, nor is it a specific indictment against all white people. These are just facts.

But White America seems to struggle so much with White American history, in part, because it forces recognition of the present advantages that history confers. Instead of editing out, some white people distance or attempt to rationalize the irrational cruelty of slavery.  There seems to be a conscious effort to step all the way around slavery  and relatedly, the violence of Reconstruction, and institutional racism — and White America’s active role in establishing today’s still-imbalanced racial landscape.

Affleck is not alone in his struggle; there are a whole lot of white people who will tell you that the Confederate flag is about “heritage” and “culture,” though no one can (or will) say what made the Southern way of life so distinct.

Because the answer, of course, is slavery.

The flag that flew in the defense of the “Southern way of life” is the flag that flew in defense of Confederacy’s right to exist as slaveholding states. There are those who will also tell you that secession was about taxes and states’ rights. Again, I point you to the fact that was about the right for the succeeding states to hold slaves. As Yoni Appelbaum deftly points out for The Atlantic:

 “When South Carolina seceded in 1860, it issued a Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina. It glossed over states’ rights. It did not mention the tariff. South Carolina was seceding, it explained, due to the ‘increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery,’ and the election of a president who believed ‘that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.’”

 These types of avoidance happen all the time, though. In February, The New York Times did a story based on a report of the history of lynching in America. Lynching was used as a intimidation and punitive tactic by whites against blacks during the antebellum Reconstruction era, particularly in the South, where many black communities were taking shape and burgeoning into an economic foothold. Nowhere in the Times piece does it mention white people as the perpetrators of the violent acts —only as the victims of the acts that led to the lynchings.

A feature in Vox, where a former plantation tour guide recounts her experiences, further exemplifies this. Unable to discount the existence of slavery while at an actual plantation guests frequently searched for its upside: “These were house slaves, so they must have had a pretty all right life, right?” or “Did the slaves here appreciate the care they got from their mistress?” This is not unlike the way I was first taught about slavery in second grade, when a teacher smiled at me sweetly and told me that blacks enjoyed being slaves.

(She also told me that Egypt was not in Africa, but that’s another post for another day.)

Americans, of any race, are very consumed with ideas of legacy and heritage. It is the cornerstone of how we define ourselves externally as a “nation of immigrants,”  but the internal discussion about who we are is far more complex. I’m not necessarily sure it’s a conversation that can be had honestly, as long as white people keep editing out the parts that make them look bad.

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