So Ben Affleck didn’t want to talk about his slave-owning ancestor on TV with Henry Louis Gates Jr. Or rather with “Skip,” the nickname Affleck repeatedly used for Gates in his hilariously blithe and altogether too revealing non-apology on Facebook, whose central point was to reassure us that, misunderstandings about American history aside, Affleck was still the same cool guy we know and love. Mistakes may have been made, at some point in the past! But not by him.
My first response to Ben and Skip’s Bogus Journey was that Affleck’s initial impulse to whitewash less savory aspects of his family history (“The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth”), and then his tone-deaf response to the ensuing media kerfuffle, were generated by the edifice of caution and cowardice that surrounds Hollywood stardom. Anything that might ruffle the surface of the star’s manufactured persona, or compromise the integrity of the brand, must be repelled. I still think that’s a good starting point, but I also suspect that the willful delusions of the Hollywood star economy, writ large, can be found throughout American culture and American history, and that the legible meanings of Skip-gate go well beyond the banality and incuriosity of Ben Affleck.
Despite Affleck’s distant indie roots and his veneer of bland hipness (or is it hip blandness?), his post-Bennifer reinvention as an actor-director has obeyed the inflexible dictates laid down by generations of agents and PR wizards. His movies are built around the time-honored Hollywood principles that you always “protect the star,” on screen and off, and must flatter and reassure the audience rather than challenging it. In other words, an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War is awesome; one who owned humans as chattel, much less so. Consider how the true story of the Iranian rescue mission behind “Argo” was fictionalized for the movie: First it became a tale of American derring-do with Affleck’s character, CIA agent Tony Mendez, as its hero (talk to Canadians about that one), and then it became a flattering fable about the patriotism of the film industry.
How does Affleck’s reluctance to discuss his personal connection to the slave-owning past make him different from 200 million or so other white Americans, who seem overwhelmingly and suspiciously eager to consign that entire topic to the historical oubliette, the category of Stuff That Doesn’t Matter Anymore and Maybe Never Did? A great many people, including those who profess undying fealty to the Founding Fathers and favor a fundamentalist reading of the Constitution, prefer to view slavery as a weird anomaly that lies outside the central current of American history and is “not implicated in U.S. growth, success, power and wealth,” in the words of Cornell scholar Edward E. Baptist. It’s an omission that distorts and falsifies the whole picture; we might as well discuss British history without mentioning the class system, or medieval Europe without the Church.
If you’re composing an angry email about liberal guilt and victim mentality and how nobody living today is responsible for hypothetical bad things that happened long ago and how the real racists are those who insist on dwelling in the past, let me save you some time. None of that is anywhere near the point, and it’s far less painful to face the historical facts than to keep on pretending they don’t exist or don’t matter. First of all, the question of who did or did not own slaves is irrelevant to the question of who benefited from the slave economy. Even in the plantation states of the antebellum South, less than one-third of the white population were slave-owners; given all the immigration of the last 150 years, the proportion of living Americans with direct ancestral connections to slave ownership or the slave trade is fairly small. It’s a proportion that apparently includes Ben Affleck, and also includes me.
I would say to Affleck, in all seriousness, that nothing is more liberating than learning the truth, and that the interconnections of American history are marvelous and various, and become more so when faced in full. The only responsibility he inherits from his slave-owning ancestor – who, for all we know, was a lovely and well-meaning person who believed it was a deeply immoral institution, like the prominent plantation owner who became our first president – is the responsibility not to turn away. That’s precisely the responsibility he has abdicated. The discovery of a genetic relationship to a 19th-century American who owned other humans as property tells us nothing about Ben Affleck as an individual. His desire to banish that fact to the memory hole, because it left a bad taste in his mouth and he felt “embarrassed,” tells us somewhat more.
Slavery was a global phenomenon, and my connection to it lies outside the United States. On my mother’s side I am descended from a prominent maritime family in the French port city of Nantes. In the 18th and 19th centuries, some of my direct ancestors apparently owned ships that transported manufactured goods from Europe to West Africa, where they were exchanged for human beings who had been taken captive by local chieftains or abducted by slave-traders. That human cargo was then taken to the West Indies and sold into slavery, mostly to work the sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti).
I don’t know how many slaving expeditions my ancestors financed and operated, or how much money they made from this business, but Nantes was by far the busiest port in the French slave trade and tremendous wealth was amassed there. In just over 100 years, before abandoning the trade abruptly in 1830, the city sent out 1,714 slave-trading expeditions that transported more than 550,000 captive Africans to the French colonies of the Caribbean. I learned that from the website of the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery that the city government recently built along the banks of the Loire, at the spot where the slave ships once embarked. I feel a strong urge to go there and see it, but I don’t think that feeling has anything to do with guilt.
Some of my ancestors also went to Saint-Domingue as sugar planters (before moving on to New Orleans), and according to the cousin of mine who did this research we may be related to Toussaint Louverture, the Haitian revolutionary leader who was born a slave. That might sound paradoxical or bizarre but of course it’s not unusual at all. I don’t think I need to explain how that might have happened. As for “white guilt,” well, owning slave ships, rather than just slaves, is heavy-duty historical crime, but I didn’t do it. I have never heard anyone, outside the God of the Old Testament, argue that the sins of our forefathers are visited upon us in any literal sense. If white guilt even exists, it's a useless and self-indulgent phenomenon. Those who believe they see it everywhere on the left, if you ask me, are projecting their own fears and anxieties – their unwillingness to think clearly about what really happened – onto others.
How much did slavery warp and twist the American narrative at its roots, the way it twisted the tormented conscience of Thomas Jefferson, the magnificent rhetorician, prophet of democracy and nightside visitor to the slave quarters? How much has our reluctance to confront the true role of slavery as a central and defining element of our nation’s cultural and political and economic history turned that narrative into a disabling fiction, a burbling, idiotic fantasy of endless jingoistic superlatives and slo-mo commercials of Chevy trucks pulling things out of the mud and all-you-can-eat shrimp at Red Lobster?
American history in its popular form is more effective propaganda than anything devised by Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, whose maxim that “Freedom is Slavery” describes our current predicament with an eerie precision Orwell could never have imagined. In the American context, “freedom” is understood an essential national quality, woven into the flag and seeded in the soil. It is never precisely defined (for good reason) but is always under attack. As you may have heard, freedom isn’t free; in fact, its price is excruciatingly high. “Freedom” is the totem used to enslave us to a false consciousness, and to a decaying economy that long ago revealed its inability to produce universal prosperity. “Freedom” is the ideological clue that binds us to an oligarchic regime whose imperial power and democratic legitimacy are fading, but whose ruling elite has accumulated wealth on a scale never before seen in human history. “Freedom” is the all-purpose excuse for all of America’s misdeeds of the past or present or future, especially those that might otherwise look suspiciously like attacks on freedom.
Paradoxically or otherwise, a reckoning with the real history and legacy of slavery may be required to free ourselves from the myth of “freedom.” While one scholarly tome is unlikely to turn the tide on its own, Baptist’s recent book, “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” represents a landmark moment in the shifting American conversation about slavery. Baptist is acutely aware of the ideological arena I’ve been discussing. He argues that a flawed historical understanding of slavery – which he identifies not just among old-line white-supremacist scholars, but also among more recent African-American or multicultural revisionists – fuels a whole set of misconceptions about the Southern economy, the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War, the Jim Crow period and the whole story of race relations in America. But his primary goal is to document that flawed understanding on a material level.
Slavery, Baptist argues, was not an inefficient and/or romantic remnant of the feudal system, no matter what they taught you in high school. Nor was it a static, anti-modern institution that was “fundamentally in contradiction with the political and economic systems of the liberal republic.” On the contrary, the enforced labor of Africans and their descendants, he argues, was a highly effective and profitable method of producing cotton, the most important raw material of the early Industrial Revolution. Slavery fueled the explosive economic growth of the young United States, and also of 19th-century England. (It was not sentimentality, or a lingering grudge from 1783, that made the British side with the Confederacy.) Slavery, Baptist writes, was a “modernizing and modern” economic force that expanded, shifted and readjusted to changing conditions, and those dynamics “shaped the story of everything in the pre-Civil War United States.”
His central thesis, as he dryly observes, is one that many people are not eager to hear: It was “the commodification and suffering and forced labor of African Americans” that made our country rich, and set it on course to become a global economic and military power. Furthermore, the greatest moral wrong slavery did not lie in the fact that it deprived African-Americans of their rights as citizens of a liberal democracy. All you have to do in that case, Baptist archly observes, is extend them those rights, perhaps “even elect one of them as president,” and the issue has been laid to rest. Slavery was also a crime of physical and economic violence, a work of “massive and cruel engineering” that killed and brutalized many people and stole the entire productive lives of those who survived. As my ancestors in Nantes learned, presumably without ever wielding a lash or cursing a cane-cutter, it was pretty much a license to print money.
Baptist’s new conception of slavery as the booster-rocket of American economic growth inescapably leads to the questions white Americans don’t want to hear, and contributes to that taste in Ben Affleck’s mouth. If people of one distinctive social group had their labor stolen for 250 years (and were effectively confined to a servile underclass for another century after that), and if their unpaid labor created immense wealth that was shared, however unevenly, by everyone else in society – by those who commanded their labor and those who bought and sold the things they produced, but also by those who came here later, specifically because this was the land of wealth and opportunity – well, then what? Are those people and their descendants owed a historical debt? If so, is it metaphorical or real, and how could it possibly be paid?
Those aren’t rhetorical questions, and I don’t know how to answer them. I haven’t mentioned Ta-Nehisi Coates’ magisterial essay from last year, “The Case for Reparations,” but I’m using the unhappy tale of Ben Affleck’s bad-tasting ancestor to frame a similar argument from a different perspective. As Coates is well aware, white people tend to react to the R-word with exaggerated panic, imagining some supercharged Obama tax plan in which their paychecks are docked and the spoils handed out by Cornel West and Snoop Dogg. While the collective, reflective reparations process that Coates imagines sounds like a great idea, it's not politically realistic in any imaginable version of America. African-Americans won their legal and political rights, after many decades of struggle and a fair amount of backsliding, just in time for those rights to be rendered almost irrelevant by our enfeebled system. We elected a black president, who has maintained his veneer of coolness through seven years of paralysis. Sean Combs and LeBron James are richer than every white person who doesn’t run a bank or a hedge fund. So much for the legacy of slavery.
By the time I came along, whatever wealth my French ancestors had generated by buying and selling human beings had dissipated into the general affluence of middle-class America. But did it have something to do, however marginally or indirectly, with the fact that I grew up in a beautiful house on a tree-shaded suburban street, surrounded by books and antiques and Siamese cats? Did the slave labor expropriated by Ben Affleck’s long-ago ancestor somehow contribute to his artsy, comfortable upbringing? (As it happens, he and I were born in the same place.) Those thought experiments are intriguing, but the important questions have to do with the profound racial inequalities beneath that general middle-class affluence in which Affleck and I and millions of other people grew up, and which we understood as natural and nearly universal.
Is the enormous and enduring wealth gap between blacks and whites in the United States a symptom of some mysterious cultural dysfunction among African Americans, made worse by misguided liberal do-gooders and wasteful government programs? Or is the startling fact that the median net worth of white households is about 13 times that of black households, according to 2013 statistics ($142,000 to $11,000), better explained as a natural long-term consequence of the dynamic system of economic violence and social engineering that compelled generations of African-Americans to work without pay to enrich others? Viewed in those terms, the legacy of slavery for black people is more than a psychic or spiritual wound, although it may be those things too. It’s a measurable deficit.
What about those of us on the other side of the equation, who begin to understand that we were born into an inheritance? When you look at those wealth-gap numbers, you have to conclude that every white American inherits at least a tiny slice of the stolen wealth created under slavery. But of course it doesn’t feel that way, and that’s not really what I'm talking about. If we believe that our destinies were shaped by the lingering after-effects of an economic system that was dismantled before we were born, but whose wrongs were never redressed, then what responsibility comes along with that heritage? Perhaps it’s a responsibility to learn and teach the real story of slavery without flinching, not in a spirit of guilt or shame but one of humility and curiosity. Exploring one’s own family history is a metaphorical way of approaching bigger questions: Learning that I had a distant genealogical link to both infamous slave traders and a legendary rebel slave didn’t tell me much about myself, but it made me feel the terrible, interconnected intimacy of this history. Don’t turn your back on that bad-tasting ancestor, Ben. You need him.