Henry Louis Gates has a show on PBS called "Finding Your Roots" where he tells people, mostly stars, about the research he's done on their ancestors
An educator to the bone, Gates goes over quite a bit of where those ancestors fit in United States History. Beyond that, Gates reports on a DNA trace so that each star can know what section of the planet their ancestors came from before they were brought to or came to the United States.
The history part put the show into the edu-tainment category of television along with a number of of other PBS TV shows. But it is the white washing of the history section of this show that concerns me.
This should concern us all because Ben Affleck refusing to talk about his slave owning ancestor then winding up all smiles on the show as he discusses the war hero ancestor is just one example of millions of examples of "focusing on the positive" of white history and erasing the negative impacts of that white history on everyone else. This incident is symbolic and also contributes a tiny piece to the whole, incomplete pseudo-history that has been pouring over us all since grade school.
Do you think the erasure of white-negative-action toward black and brown stopped at the days of slavery? It didn't. The erasure of the uglier side of white history and current events has been constant in this country. All you have to do is review the true-er story of Miriam Carey's death in 2013 to refresh your memory.
It is shocking how much worse our schools history classes are in the 21st century, worse than when I was a kid. And I didn't think e-race-sure could get worse than that. But I was chatting with people the other day that didn't know that the Japanese were rounded up during WWII and held in U.S."internment camps." Those of you that did know, did you also know that a number of Japanese men volunteered from within those internment camps to prove their loyalty to the U.S., to prove their worth?
Did you know that black men did the same thing? They volunteered to fight for this country, to prove their worth and loyalty during...
- the Revolutionary War,
- the Civil War,
Did you know that, while still just a lawyer, the second President of the United States John Adams defended the white British soldiers that killed Crispus Attucks --the black man who has been reported as the first man of any shade to die for this country? And last I checked, the "John Adams" white washed historical record on wikipedia doesn't mention the Crispus Attucks connection to the second president of the U.S.
If you didn't learn any one of these things in school, it should be clear to you that is both normal and standard operating procedure, for human beings to hide ugly things in their history, personal or collective. And it should be crystal clear to anybody that's been paying attention that it is also standard operation procedure for white people to erase the uglier parts of white history. School books, many of them written, produced in Texas, make sure history books for schools don't contain anything controversial (white racism) in them.
It is absolutely unacceptable that our PBS station, supposedly liberal in tone, is continuing the tradition of white washing history for adult edu-tainment. This concern of mine isn't just about erasure or incompleteness either: This select-a-view approach to history is connected to who lives and who dies in the here and now.
Negative white history has been erased to the point that large swathes of white population are extremely ignorant of the actions of the racial history of this country and history of their own ancestors. This leaves them believing everybody started out on equal footing...10 seconds after slavery was declared illegal. Therefore, the resulting racism should actually be expected.
If you, as a white person, are told over and over again that everything your white father, grandfather, and great grandfather was great and your white cousins, white friends, and white co-workers were all told the same thing THEN doesn't it's going to appear to you that everybody is country started out equal and/or have had equal chances for success for a very long time now?
And since this erasure of white racism is continual from 1600s to now, doesn't it look like the U.S. is a meritocracy where blacks and browns are simply failing to pull their own weight?
And since the erasure of white racism, including Ben Affleck's white slave owner ancestors, also includes the erasure of white violence toward black and brown people, doesn't this make violence of white policeman toward black people seem like it sprang up outta nowhere instead of it being a continuation of the same old behaviors?
During black history month I read a paper that hypothesize that police forces might have sprung from the groups of poor white men known as "paddy rollers" or runaway slave catchers.
And wouldn't the paddy rollers to police force connection explain some-tons about the black dead that were killed by white police while unarmed?
In the end, PBS has a lot of blame for this. But Henry Louis Gates knows all of what I just shared here and 10x more. Gates had to know that Affleck was motivated by all the usual pieces of human frailty in general and white fragility in the specific. Unless Gates was completely over-ridden by PBS, and it doesn't look like he was, he gets the lion's share of the blame for contributing to this white washing because he knows that human being do not like to tell on themselves in general and that white people are resistant to telling ugly history since forever. The entire racial climate of the United States is based on these two types of duck-and-cover.
Black man Gates should have been the gate-keep on the truth. He should have told Ben Affleck, "Sorry buh-BYE" He's had so many stars on his show, how could Affleck have been missed? How?
Regardless of who is more responsible for this particular sin-of-omission, Henry Louis Gates and PBS owe us all an apology for their contribution to the bigger racial picture.
Or maybe PBS should just change the name of the show. "Finding Your Roots" could be changed to "Hiding Your Roots" with a couple keystrokes. And we'd be back on SSDD Street in no time at all.
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