Ben Affleck…. Let’s Meet in the Middle

29 April 2015

GUEST POST by Diana Roman – President, Our Black Ancestry Foundation

Roman Diana - Gravestone

“There, but for the grace of God, go I.” ~ John Bradford

My mother used to say that phrase all the time. In fact it’s engraved on her headstone. As an adult, I now realize she was trying to teach me about empathy.

Few people can empathize more with Ben Affleck than me. Why? Because I am 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 and 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.

“Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.” ~ Brené Brown

Everyone is focused on shaming Ben Affleck for causing his story to be edited for PBS and later rationalizing his request by saying he was embarrassed for that part of his family history to be told. Even though it’s 2015, slavery is still “the big ugly” that most white folks don’t want to deal with. The bigger issue is: Why is the mere mention of slavery still so taboo and inflammatory? Is it really about slavery or is it about the current state of affairs for African Americans in our society today? Is it about the discussion we know we should have but don’t want to?

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. One begs the question, why does the country with the smaller statistic for culpability possess the worst state of race relations in the world more than 200 years after the slave trade was abolished and more than 150 years after its slaves were emancipated? It’s our national dysfunction to cast blame everywhere except on our own doorstep. Casting blame on others is so much easier than looking in the mirror and confronting the racial issues that exist in our nation today. My interpretation is that this is the dialogue we are all trying to avoid. Let’s not talk about fixing the legacy from slavery. It’s much easier to condemn the past and do nothing about today.

“If you numb the darkness, you numb the light.” ~ Brené Brown

When we avoid the dialogue we need to be having about race, we rob ourselves of the power of the cure we so desperately need. People, it’s time to talk about race in this country. In fact, it’s way past time. I get why Ben Affleck didn’t want to open that dark chamber. That’s why you typically don’t see people run towards a burning building — it’s logical to run away from danger. It’s a spontaneous act of self-preservation. But the fact is that there is still so much darkness about slavery and the racism it engendered in our society. In my mind, that conundrum beckons the thought that we should be about turning on the light.

“Vulnerability is essential to create something that never existed before.” ~ Brené Brown

The Chinese symbol for crisis is made up of two characters: “danger” and “opportunity.” Ben, you may think this episode 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. Use that spotlight to promote dialogue that addresses the state of affairs in the country we all so dearly love and help jump start the healing.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles. The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; Who at his worst if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…” ~ Theodore Roosevelt

Ben Affleck, you are the man in the arena. I empathize with your fear, your shame, and your embarrassment. I get that, when you look at the potentially damaging PR nightmare, you see fear of all it could destroy that you’ve worked so hard to build. But I challenge you: Don’t let the fear of this dialogue rob you of the power to utilize this opportunity for healing and change. Dump your demons. Get past your embarrassment.

I’ll meet you in the middle… Let’s make a difference!

ROMAN Diana

Diana Roman is president of Our Black Ancestry Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing resources for African American genealogical research, preserving historic materials and properties, and promoting the healing of racial wounds. She has amassed a huge collection of materials related to the Hairston slaveholdings and can be contacted at DJRoman@OurBlackAncestry.com.

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3 Responses to “Ben Affleck…. Let’s Meet in the Middle”

  1. Annie W. said

    Dear Ms. Roman.

    Thank you for your gorgeously spoken words!

    After years of researching, I have just found the names of those held in slavery by my great (x6) grandfather in the deep deep north, in NY state. I find that this ancestry, when looked at straight in the face, comes with such tremendous grief. I think grief is what lies beneath the shame, and the deeper level to which we must travel within ourselves, in order to more fully engage in a healing dialogue.

    Given our nation’s politicians’ failure to acknowledge and apologize – apologize out of pure humility and morality for our history of slavery, and the wake of poverty, inequity and trauma that slavery still creates; wouldn’t it be fitting if there were a format for those of us whose ancestors took a direct part in that slavery, to convey remorse and concern for continued racial inequity? A page in the NY times for starters? Wouldn’t it be powerful if Mr. Affleck joined in?

  2. This a wonderful article! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and feelings, you are correct in saying that the conversation needs to be had. My mother use to say what’s done in the dark will surely come to light. Thank you Ms Roman!

  3. I love this article, it is truly forth coming and so badly needed. I too agree with what Ms. Roman wrote and I commend her for wanting to use the past horror of slavery to bring light to a better future. She has chosen to use it as a platform to help heal wombs, I so wish Ben Affleck would do the same thing. This man has the ability to make a difference if he so chooses, rather than walk away and hide from his families reality. Again this was a great article. I thank you Ms. Roman for wanting to use this information about slavery in a positive manner. God Bless you.

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