The fallout from the hacking of Sony Entertainment Group’s emails continues to make news. The most recent story revealed that actor Ben Affleck requested to have a remote slaveowning ancestor removed from the PBS documentary “Finding Your Roots”. Affleck and PBS have both faced criticism for the decision.
Personally I do not feel that Affleck should be judged too harshly for this. Though I feel that confronting that part of history and discussing it would have been ideal I don’t necessarily believe it was excluded for malicious reasons. Affleck is clearly deeply ashamed of that aspect of his family line. In a country where people openly yearn for the days when human beings were sold and look back at the Antebellum South with affection I am glad that Affleck at least has the sense and decency to not be proud of such things.
The controversy, however, brought to mind the fascinating story of another White American man with family ties to that particular aspect of American history: Edward Ball.
I discovered the work of Edward Ball through a post from a Facebook friend in 2013. This individual highly recommended Ball’s Slaves In The Family. Initially the premise of the book left me bewildered and amazed. In the collective memory of the United States our version of slavery is that bad thing that happened in the distant past-back in the 14th century according to those who frequent FOX News(I always wonder what such people were doing in history class).
The presence of 42 million African-Americans makes it impossible for Americans to completely erase their history but they are not comfortable with dealing with it and the aftermath either. In discussions on race between White and Black Americans the strident denials of having any slave-owning relatives always comes up. It is denied so fervently that I sarcastically muse that aliens must have bought and sold my great-great grandmother, for so few Americans are willing to admit that their great-great-great grandparents had anything to do with it. Enter Slaves In The Family.
Here was a book written by man, and not a man from just anywhere in the States. Born in Georgia with family ties to South Carolina and Louisiana, Edward Ball is a product of the Deep South, the heart of the Confederacy. So to learn that an individual of his pedigree devoted a book to his family’s history of living off the pain of enslaved African-Americans was amazing to me. In Ball’s words there was no sugar-coating, no weak explanation that it ‘was a different time’, no callous insistence that slavery was actually good for the victims. But in Slaves In The Family the author goes beyond raising his hand and acknowledging what was done.
Not only does Ball open up and share the details of his lineage in South Carolina, he tracks down the descendants of those his forefathers owned and faces them, refusing to turn away from the damage that was done to them. In writing Slaves In The Family Ball went against his family’s code of silence regarding their slave-owning past, earning their scorn. Given that so many would rather brush over and/or downplay that history I was extremely impressed with both the sensitivity and boldness that Ball shows. In a climate where deliberate obviousness is the norm, Edward Ball’s courage is worthy of both recognition and applause.