When my friend Diana told me about her family legacy, I was stunned. But no more stunned than when she discovered it herself. Here, in her own words, is Diana Roman’s story:
My mother’s frequent phrase was, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” It’s engraved on her headstone. As an adult, I now realize that she was trying to teach me about empathy.
Few people can empathize more with Ben Affleck’s embarrassment about his slave-owning ancestors than me. I’m descended from a family that is said to have owned the most slaves in American history. Over a 200-year period, my ancestors enslaved more than 10,000 people on 43 plantations in three states. I first discovered this family history about 10 years ago; I remain in horrified awe of the size and scope of the family “business.”
Am I responsible for their behavior? Not at all. But I am accountable to the legacy of what they did. I inherit their story and can either choose to ignore it or to use it to create something positive.
Even though it’s 2015, slavery is still “the big ugly” that most white folks don’t want to deal with. It was recently revealed that Ben Affleck asked PBS not to include his own slave-owning ancestry, in his segments for TV genealogy show “Finding Your Roots.” He later rationalized his request, saying that he was embarrassed.
Why is the mere mention of slavery still so inflammatory? Is it really about slavery? Or is it actually about the current state of affairs for African-Americans in our society today? Is the taboo rooted in discussion that we know we should be having, but that we don’t want to have?
History lesson: Twelve million Africans were kidnapped from their home countries and sold into slavery via the transatlantic slave trade. Seven million were dispersed throughout the Caribbean; four million were sold to Brazil. Half a million were transported to America, and two hundred thousand went to Europe. These facts beg the question, why, more than 200 years after the slave trade was abolished and 150 years after its slaves were emancipated, does the country with the smaller statistic for culpability for slavery still possess the worst state of race relations in the world?
It’s our national dysfunction. This is the dialogue we are all trying to avoid. Yet when we avoid the conversation that we need to be having about race, we rob ourselves of the cure that we so desperately want.
I understand why Ben Affleck didn’t want to open that dark chamber. There is still so much darkness about slavery and the racism that it engendered in our society. But the current conundrum beckons the thought: Instead of trying to run from the darkness, we should be turning on the light. The Chinese symbol for crisis is made up of two characters: “danger” and “opportunity.” Ben Affleck, you are the man in the arena of the moment. I empathize with your fear, your shame, and your embarrassment. I have felt that same shame over my own family’s legacy.
You may think this is the worst PR event of your career, but I challenge you to see it as opportunity. You have the eyes and ears of the nation tuned in your direction. I encourage you to use that spotlight to jump-start a dialogue that addresses the current state of racial affairs in the country we all so dearly love.
Don’t let the fear or embarrassment rob you of the power to utilize this opportunity for healing and change. Move past your demons, and start a bigger, better conversation. I’m willing to join it, are you?