Would you be embarrassed to learn that George Washington was an ancestor?
That is, in the biological, not the “Father of His Country” sense.
Would you be embarrassed to learn that you were a descendent of Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward Jr., Thomas Lynch Jr., or Arthur Middleton — the South Carolinians who signed the Declaration of Independence?
How about the dozens of other Declaration signers — not all of them Southerners — who like those S.C. big shots owned slaves?
Why ask these questions?
Because movie star/humanitarian Ben Affleck wrote last week on his Facebook page that he asked to have a slave-owning ancestor omitted from the PBS show “Finding Your Roots.” Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, the series’ executive producer and host, granted that request.
From Affleck’s social-media missive: “I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.”
But again, what about Washington, who was too busy in early July 1776 preparing a futile defense of Manhattan to be in Philadelphia to sign the Declaration?
He also owned slaves.
Or by freeing his slaves in his will, did Washington earn absolution from America’s original sin?
And with no offense intended to those of any or no religious faith, we now turn to Deuteronomy 24:16 (King James Version, of course):
“The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin.”
Gee, the death penalty goes way back.
Then again, so does human bondage.
No, we can’t right historic wrongs unless we fully acknowledge and understand them and their consequences.
Still, the silly spectacle of Affleck trying to cover up his bloodline connection to slave ownership exposes how guilt trips can take wrong turns.
In the week since Affleck’s admission, assorted media outlets have reported that he has additional slaveowning ancestors.
There were roughly 4 million slaves in this country — including some in non-seceding Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri — when the Civil War began here in 1861 with the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter. There were lots of slaveowners in the United States for most of this nation’s first century — and lots of us descend from them.
For instance, my roots extend to — and beyond — Mark Anthony Cooper, born in 1800 in Hancock County, Ga. Perhaps my most illustrious ancestor, the 1819 South Carolina College graduate (too bad for him Clemson wasn’t a school yet) commanded a battalion of Georgia volunteers as a major in the Second Seminole War. Fort Cooper State Park in Inverness, Fla., is named for him.
Elected to the U.S. House both as a Whig and a Democrat, Great-Great-Great Granddad narrowly lost the 1843 Georgia governor’s race. Then he became a thriving industrialist, with his Cooper Iron Works in Etowah paving the mid-19th century railroad way in that state.
Then he lost his fortune and two of his sons (one of them was my great-great grandfather John Frederick Cooper, who died of a wound suffered at First Manassas) in the Southern cause during the Civil War.
Yes, Mark Anthony Cooper, who died in 1885 and was just one of my 16 great-great-great grandfathers, owned slaves. Yes, the Confederacy was created, in large part, to perpetuate the evil institution of slavery. Yes, after the Confederacy was vanquished in a war that cost more than 600,000 lives, Southerners who mourned “The Lost Cause” imposed another century of race-based injustice.
That’s on them, not you
Finding your roots is a worthy endeavor.
Yet we all have a vast range of ancestors. Many of us, including me, have ancestors who fought on both sides in the Civil War. Many Americans descend from both slaves and slaveowners, or in my case, slaveowners and at least one indentured servant.
Hey, you shouldn’t even take much credit — or blame — for what your two parents did.
So definitely don’t misplace excessive personal pride — or shame — in the actions of your 32 great-great-great grandparents or anyone else on your family tree.
Affleck, though, should be embarrassed by the 2003 cinematic fiasco “Gigli,” featuring him and future fiance (but not wife) Jennifer Lopez. IMDb.com’s telling summary: “The violent story about how a criminal lesbian, a tough-guy hit man with a heart of gold, and a mentally challenged man came to be best friends through a hostage.”
And the miscasting of Affleck as the first title character in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” due for release next year, isn’t merely embarrassing.
Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is email@example.com.