I love genealogy but I can’t stand this show. Henry Louis Gates is the Dr. Oz of historians and this show is the most pandering mess on PBS.
Case in point:
The Anderson Cooper episode:
Anderson acts surprised at every revelation. This is next to absolutely impossible: his mother’s family is one of the most well documented in America and so memorialized on all sides all around NYC caused Anderson’s dad to joke that when Anderson was small he actually thought when people died they became statues. These are not just the Vanderbilts but Civil War generals and diplomats and socialites of all ilks who were always in the news, and he’s an investigative journalist- no way anything on his mother’s side is surprising.
As for his father’s side: true, they were simple Mississippi farm folk, but HIS DAD WROTE A (very good) BOOK ABOUT THEM! It’s filled with anecdotes, discusses their ancestry, and Anderson has said repeatedly that he re-reads the book every year and visits his family and the places where his father lived in Mississippi fairly regularly. Not much on that side should be a surprise. Hold onto that for a moment…
Now, on the same episode he featured Ken Burns. Burns had ancestors who fought for the South in the Civil War, which I found interesting considering he’s a New Yorker but folks move around so it’s not that surprising. What irked me was that he acted as if this was news to him. We’re supposed to believe that
1- a professional researcher
2- who has a professional research staff
3- who made his bones on a long documentary about the Civil War
has never had enough curiosity to research his own family’s Civil War history?
I’ve done genealogy for myself and many other people. Do you know how long it takes for most white families whose ancestors were here in 1860 to get back to their ancestors Civil War records? For most people, I could literally have at least some of your family branches back that far and your ancestors unit and even facsimiles of their Civil War papers by this afternoon, possibly sooner.
And, it’s revealed, Burns had ancestors who… gasp! Owned slaves.
Okay, with all people who have ancestors in a slave owning state at a time when slavery was legal and the rich white person discovers his/her ancestors owned slaves or the rich black person discovers his/her ancestors were slaves the show loves to milk this as Gates explains the situation like telling them “there’s a lump in their genealogy glands” and the person acts as if this is the first time they’re ever hearing about slavery. Burns acts embarrassed and appalled at his ancestor’s ownership of other humans.
This is just freaking stupid: why should anybody be embarrassed, OR for that matter proud of, anything their ancestors did? I take great interest in the histories of my ancestors because it’s interesting in and of itself and a great way to study microhistory and get a better understanding of their time, but if they were the biggest bravest conductor on the Underground Railroad or if they sacrificed a stable boy to the chicken god who spoke to them every solstice that doesn’t reflect on me: I don’t share the glory or the blame either one. But, be that as it may…
When they go into Anderson Cooper’s ancestry they find something interesting: one of his ancestors in 1860 was actually murdered by a slave. He was a very old man- around 80- and the slave was immediately and hardly surprisingly taken out and hanged. (The slave actually got off pretty easily: in the accounts I’ve found the more common execution of a slave who killed or attempted to kill a white person tended to be flogging and burning- three runaways were burned at one time in an incident in Autauga County, Alabama, when my ancestors lived there [didn’t involve my ancestors, but I found it in looking at a newspaper archive]).
Anderson does his “Oh gee, wow, I wish I didn’t know that” and puts on a tighter tee shirt to show distress or whatever, and Gates says something like “Makes you wonder just what he did to the slave”, and both allow that the ancestor was an awful human being that his slave had to kill him to be free and yadda blah.
Okay, so much wrong with this…
It is entirely possible that Cooper’s ancestor was more evil than Simon Legree.
But there’s no way whatever of knowing that from the information on hand.
It is also possible that the slave was mentally ill, or violent (the fact somebody is a victim doesn’t necessarily make them sane or always right). While I honestly don’t know of any incidences in which a slave who killed a white person wasn’t put to death, there wasn’t usually a trial (there was sometimes: I do know of a couple who went to trial- both were found guilty) so we don’t know what happened.
Cut back to Burns, who is still processing, and give me a freaking break. If you are really upset by things done by people that not only did you never meet but probably people who were dead long before the oldest person you’ve ever known was born, you really don’t want to delve into anybody’s history. We’re all here today because of one atrocity or another that our ancestors either committed, fled from, took advantage of, or was brought here by (there’s a reason that so many places from Piscataquis, Maine to Temecula, California have native American names but no native Americans there).
We can learn from it, but let’s not sensationalize it. Leave that to the History Channel.