Facing the past: acknowledging the dark sides of history

Recently I contributed a piece to the new online women’s magazine The Pool, launched last week by Lauren Laverne and former Red editor Sam Baker.

My article focused on how to acknowledge unpalatable elements of family heritage – a topic I deal with in my upcoming book Thicker Than Water (Harper Collins, 2016) – following the revelation that the actor Ben Affleck attempted to hush up his family history of slave ownership during the production of US genealogy show Finding Your Roots.

Full text can be found here, or after the fold

How do you acknowledge a shameful heritage?

History is awash with blood, but what if, like Ben Affleck, you discover your ancestors are responsible for shedding it?

By Cal Flyn on 24.04.15

What would you do if you found a dark secret in your family tree?

Would you cry about it? Talk about it? Cover it up?

A few years ago, I faced exactly this dilemma. A bit of curious research into a distant relative – a man who had been held up as a family hero – turned up a shocking revelation. Not only had he been a great explorer and pioneer of early Australia, he too has latterly been identified as the leader of a number of gruesome massacres of the Aboriginal people.

In 1843, he led a loosely formed militia in a surprise attack which killed more than 80 men, women and children. He and his peers would kill again, in assaults so ferocious that the sites would forever be synonymous with bloodshed: Butchers Creek, Boney Point, Skull Creek, Slaughterhouse Gully.

For me, this discovery came as a bodyshock – it was not a heritage that I was comfortable to have inherited. Since then, I have spent a lot of mental energy processing my discovery, and what the implications might be. I didn’t know how to feel. I still don’t.

While filming an episode of the American genealogy show Finding Your Roots last year, the actor Ben Affleck found himself in a similar situation. Researchers had discovered that a relative of the star had been an owner of slaves. Affleck’s response was unequivocal, however: he did not want this information to be broadcast.

History had shifted from the academic into the actual, from concept to concrete

“I was embarrassed,” he explained. “The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.” He took action, too, to keep the discovery quiet: “lobbying” Henry Louis Gates, the series’ executive producer, to remove all references to the relative from the show.

It put producer Gates in a difficult position. He turned to Sony Picture’s chief executive officer, Michael Lynton, for advice. In an email that has since been leaked, Gates explained: “We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found.” If it got out, they had agreed, “it would embarrass him and compromise our integrity”.

And so it has proven. It has been a sorry episode, but it has too underlined the necessity of acknowledging the past. In particular, the less palatable elements of our own family histories, which grow ever more accessible with the proliferation of genealogy websites. So often the descendants of history’s “bad guys” brush over the details of the past, out of shame or embarrassment.

But this queasiness in discussing our links to dark chapters in history allows us to distance ourselves from the events of the past, events which underlie very real inequalities that remain entrenched in society today. Pulling the skeletons from the cupboards of Affleck and others offers potential for reconciliation in a rift that has never truly healed – in part because the complicity of so many has been quietly forgotten.

Britons too, heirs to a vast colonial legacy, have many unpleasant episodes in the not-so-distant past that have been carefully filed away – as I found out to my shock.

But, once the initial flood of emotion had receded, I found it had profoundly changed my attitude towards history. It had shifted from the academic into the actual, from concept to concrete. Too long had those bleak events gone unexamined – I wanted to investigate. I’ve written a book about it, to bring focus upon the secret killings, as well as what can still be done to repair old wrongs.

Affleck, for his part, has also reconsidered: he hopes, he added, that his story will contribute to a national discussion of the “terrible legacy of slavery”.

History is awash with blood. And it is by blood, too, that we relate to its protagonists. Only by accepting this fact can we truly grasp the effects of our predecessors’ actions, which continue to ripple out through the ages.

Thicker Than Water by Cal Flyn will be published by HarperCollins in 2016.

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