CONNECTING PEOPLE TO IDEAS AND TO EACH OTHER
CONNECTING PEOPLE TO IDEAS AND TO EACH OTHER
Essay

Dear Ben Affleck, My Ancestors Were Slaveowners, Too

Get Over Your Guilt. It's Part of America's Historic Problem with Race.

Dear Ben,

I’m certain being in the spotlight for not wanting the PBS show Finding Your Roots to include mention of your slave-owning ancestor has been a real pain. The unwanted headlines, the online comments, the “Dear Ben” letters must be getting old. I’m sure you want this whole episode behind you. I get that: I’m related to the most successful transatlantic slave-trading dynasty in U.S. history.

I thank you for your honesty in admitting you were embarrassed. Many white people, upon discovering enslavers among our ancestors, feel embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty. But as I learned from Will Hairston, a white descendant of one of the wealthiest Southern enslaving families in American history, “Guilt is the glue that holds racism together.”

The legacy of slavery continues to benefit people who look like you and me, Ben—and they harm people of color.

I appreciate you writing on your Facebook page, “We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing.”

Yes it is. And I can tell you from personal experience that what you choose to do next to continue that examination is what matters now.

Growing up in Southern California, I didn’t think much about family beyond my sister, parents, and grandparents. But when I was in my 20s, in the early 1980s, my friend David Howe told me he suspected we might be related because his father’s middle name was DeWolf. David’s father Halsey, an avid genealogist, confirmed that David and I were sixth cousins once removed, with a common ancestor born in 1695. Halsey told me about scoundrels in the family: “slave traders, rum runners, and privateers.” I envisioned something out of Pirates of the Caribbean.

Twenty years passed before I learned just how involved my family was in the slave trade. In December 2000, David received a letter from Katrina Browne, one of 200 she sent to far-flung relatives, inviting them to join her in retracing the triangle trade route of our ancestors. David shared the letter with me and suggested I call Katrina, who turned out to be my seventh cousin. After multiple conversations I was invited to be one of nine relatives to join her on a journey from New England to Ghana and Cuba and back.

During that summer of 2001, we learned facts of history I never learned in school; like that 95 percent of all slave-trading was done by Northerners, and half by people from Rhode Island. And that people were enslaved in all 13 original colonies. As for our family, three generations of DeWolfs, over 50 years, were responsible for transporting more than 10,000 people from West Africa into slavery in North and South America and the Caribbean islands.

The result of our journey that summer was the Emmy-nominated documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, which premiered at Sundance and aired on PBS. I wrote Inheriting the Trade about my experiences in making the film.

Some members of our family did not appreciate our unearthing the family skeletons. We heard things like, “Why bring this up? That was so long ago. I’m not responsible for what my ancestors did. Black people are better off in America anyway. Why don’t they just get over it?”

As I learned by listening to African and African-American people on both sides of the Atlantic, “We don’t just get over it, because it’s not over.”

We stood in a slave dungeon in Cape Coast, Ghana, where as many as 200 men would be crammed together in a sweltering, 450-square-foot cell for up to 12 weeks waiting for a ship to take them away to be enslaved in a foreign land forever—sometimes by people I’m related to. Professor Kofi Anyidoho, distinguished national poet of Ghana, told us, “Slavery is the living wound under a patchwork of scars. The only hope of healing is to be willing to break through the scars to finally clean the wound properly and begin the healing.”

When traumatic wounds are not healed, we can literally pass them on to our descendants through our DNA (watch the documentary The Ghost in Your Genes). Unhealed wounds are passed on structurally as well. The legacy of slavery continues to benefit people who look like you and me, Ben—and they harm people of color. We only have to read the newspaper headlines to see that inequity and injustice based on race remains deeply embedded in the fabric of our nation.

You’re right. The harm our ancestors caused is not our fault. But repairing the present-day consequences of that harm is a responsibility we all share. I’m proud that Katrina decided to confront our family history—and that she made a commitment to deal with these consequences—head-on. Expressing regret is one step, but regret doesn’t amount to much without a commitment to repair the damage.

Here are a few suggestions. First, do the research, or hire people to do the research, on your ancestor, Benjamin Cole. You will find more ancestors who were involved in slavery. Find their wills, deeds, property documents, and letters: anything that offers evidence or clues to the identities of the people whom they owned. The descendants of enslaved people need this information, and white descendants of their owners control those records. Make those records readily available. Contribute your findings to Our Black Ancestry, a website dedicated to providing resources for African-American genealogical research.

Support efforts like The Slave Dwelling Project, which works to identify and preserve extant slave dwellings from demolition. To fully understand our personal and national history, it is critical to preserve and share as much of the history—physical, written, and oral—as possible.

You may have seen that several people posted links to Coming to the Table on your Facebook page. I’m the executive director of Coming to the Table, a community of descendants of enslavers and the enslaved who work together to acknowledge and heal wounds from racism that are rooted in the United States’ history of slavery. We—white people—need to come to the table in support of these and other such efforts.

And now I have a confession, Ben. I’m writing this “open letter” because you’re in the news. My real interest is to invite all white people in the United States to recognize our shared obligation in this work. Rather than distancing ourselves from culpability, let’s recognize that slavery drove the economy and built this nation we proudly call home. Every white person—directly or indirectly—participated and benefited. Everyone who has immigrated here has benefited.

Ben, you can wait for this story to fade and do little or nothing to make a difference. Any white person can do the same. But America won’t change until enough white people change. You have the unique benefit of using your celebrity to make a difference. All people of European descent can use our power and privilege, to whatever degree we have them, to make a positive difference. When we commit to doing so, we will heal wounds and achieve a better nation and world.

  • Allison Thomas

    Thank you Tom. Such an important message.

  • migdia chinea

    With all due respect, playing a Hispanic in Argo, when hispanics hardly work in entertainment (fewer than 2%) and not hiring minorities would make guilt disingenuous. Employment for minorities is at an all time low. It’s daunting to try to pursue a career in entertainment and demonstrates how the establishment wants all of us to stay away.

    • Gwen Kelly

      No doubt much has yet to be done to make the industry more equitable for talent of color.

  • LorraineDevonWilke

    Beautifully put, Thomas, with such an important message. I hope Ben actually gets the letter, but even if he doesn’t, the meaning to ALL Americans is clear. Thank you for articulately it so thoughtfully.

  • Paulette Moore

    Thank you Thomas – this is great advice – and excellent guidance.

  • Ralphie

    I agree with the statements: “Expressing regret is one step, but regret doesn’t amount to much without a commitment to repair the damage.” and “The legacy of slavery continues to benefit people who look like you and me, Ben—and they harm people of color.” And am hopeful that more people come to terms with the past, and benefits gained (and continue to gain).

    I would like to suggest, however, that we not forget economic and political policies that would go far in addressing the gaps between groups we see today. Three progressive policies that are needed: 1) universal, single payer healthcare for all, 2) well funded education system, and financial assistance for college, and 3) living-wage employment.

    And let’s roll back regressive policies which exacerbate inequalities, including: The death penalty, draconian drug laws, and military build-up (which robs moneys from people, and creates a hostile power structure that reaches to local levels).

    “Guilt” is something that comes from within and every individual must deal with his/her issues on their own and in their own way. But when ready to take real steps in making this country more equitable, the above policy changes would be a good start. As Bryan Stevenson has said: “The opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice.”

    And for those who might need a primer in damage from racists policies that continues impact people today, I would recommend highly Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article “The Case for Reparations”
    http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/05/the-case-for-reparations/361631/

  • NARMA

    The tone of Mr. DeWolf’s article appears to be so narrow that it tends to claim all the miseries of the TransAtlantic Slave Trade for the Europeans. Not so. There is nothing exceptional about his forbears actions. Without the cooperation and complicity of others there would never have been a trans-atlantic human trafficking business. The untold never-to-be generations of native americans and africans whose histories are erased with every moment by those who made their wealth on disenfranchisement, virtual extermination and obliteration of the indigenous languages, cultures, usurpation of their mental and physical uniqueness, are things the perpetrators and their ensuing posterity will never get over. It is part of their histories. Why not thank their ancestors for the memories and benefits that accrue to them because of the avaricious manner they went about to gain materially. No one person, ethnic, linguistic, religion, or culture can claim total responsibility for the deaths, diseases and abuses visited upon humanity by other humans whose ancestry had suffered similar tragedies.

    There is an important small book titled “Sometimes the Diaspora Begins at Home” gives vital information concerning the involvement of Africans and others in the capturing and selling of those whom they deemed worth the time and effort. No one has clean hands

  • victori bass

    Thank you. The old adage of accepting what can’t be changed, (the past) changing those things we can (the present) we are our ancestors, in a way, we carry their baggage, and we are here to rectify their wrongs, just by the simple admission that it was wrong, and although we can’t change the wrong committed, we can provide a light to the present darkness just by taking the lid off the past, and revealing its ugly truth, to a generation in search of a pedigree, in need of their roots, and thirsting for water. Supply the drink!

  • Gene F. Barfield

    This thoughtful and forward-minded message ought to be widely read. Its meaning, its content and intent are pertinent for every American. Thank you for this.

    As a trained professional in historic preservation I relate especially to your comments about preserving those parts of the built environment that can help tell the true stories of our past in a proper, complete way. It remains an unfortunate fact that mainline historic preservation, as practiced widely in the U.S., continues to focus mostly on ‘high-style’ architecture, at the expense of many sites, structures and objects of huge significance. I recall visiting one North Carolina site, an antebellum plantation which was undergoing renovations and rehabilitation for planned use as a museum. Unfortunately all attention was focused on rehabbing the ‘big house’ because it could be used as a site for fancy gatherings; there were plans in place to destroy most of the remaining structures that would have afforded an immediate and direct opportunity to tell the stories of the lives of the people without whom the plantation could not have existed – the slaves. A better informed or motivated program would have ensured that the slave quarters were the primary focus of preservation rehab efforts. The honest truth is, at least in preservation terms ‘big houses’ are a dime a dozen, with plenty available to depict the lives of the slaveowning classes in thorough detail. The less graceful, less physically durable slave quarters are more critically needed to tell an honest, balanced historical story. Given the reasonably well informed presence of preservation practitioners in some of the efforts the above story represents, one is left to question intentions in such efforts.

    We cannot escape our history; it is pointless to try. Personal culpability for ownership of other human beings in the United States is past. Personal responsibility for truth, for much needed healing, remains.

  • Wolfgang

    A very profound article! I wish everyone could read this…

  • bella

    I think the most dangerous thing we can do as Americans is “forget” about slavery. It is this mentality that enforces the thinking that racism is a thing of the past, and this mentality is what leads to little civil rights progress, the lack of
    sympathy for victims of racism, and other things. If people don’t think that it
    is real or relevant, the subject moves into the background. DeWolf mentions
    that any person living in the United States benefits from slavery, because it
    was the basis of our economy that led to the growth and success of this
    country. With information like this, slavery suddenly seems more relevant and immediate instead of something of the past. While the act of enslavement may be gone, the slavery mentality has not yet dissipated, as evidenced by the numerous deaths of black people by police, and their ability to get charged dismissed despite the fact that a life was lost. So yes, slavery is a shameful and horrible thing of the past, but forgetting about it is worse than having to face it. If we push it to the back burner and delete it from our ancestry, suddenly it feels
    very distanced from us and nothing will be done to remedy the issues that are occurring in this country. A man who has such a platform trying to expunge this history from his name is setting a dangerous precedent for us all.