Slavery: Ben Affleck and Buyer’s Remorse

 A Complicated Matter

Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck

Hacked Sony emails show that Actor Ben Affleck, while participating in PBS’s Finding Your Roots, found his and wasn’t so thrilled.

His very great granddaddy owned African slaves.

I can remember when the scandal would have been the discovery of African blood coursing in “white” veins, certainly not owning a few.

Is Affleck’s shame (if that is what it is) the face of racial progress or silly nonsense?

The latter, I think.

Buyers, Sellers, Abettors

slave sale

The sale, purchase and use of humans by humans is as old as history itself and true culpability rests with all who participated, regardless of their place in the proverbial “chain”.

Africans sold Africans by the millions but in the New World it was indigenous Indians who first felt the sting of a lash, also from a European hand.

And slaves were sold at least twice, often more:  first in Africa and then at their destination.

Improbably, the sold were sometimes sellers, as well.

In the Old World, slaves were captives of war and likely to be of all colors, origins and religions.

By God, OK


Christians, Jews and Muslims all found spiritual backing for their trade in humans if they needed it though it was not allowed for a Muslim to enslave another Muslim.

Christians had no such noisome restriction.

The Holy Bible was said to sanction enslavement with a sort of ancient “some win/some lose” argument.

Many New World slavers were convinced that buying Africans was tantamount to saving a life if not a soul.

Having been dragged to the New World in chains they were somehow blessed by the Christian God.

By George, Too

Affleck’s slavery narrative is American but he apparently missed the connection with America’s founding fathers.

Everyone now knows of Thomas Jefferson’s liaisons (and children) with his slave mistress Sally Hemings.

Less well known is that Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha, as Sally’s mother Betty was the slave concubine of Martha’s father John Wales.

Less well known still is that Martha Washington had a slave half-sister, Ann Dandridge living at Mount Vernon.

Once again, a father took a slave as a lover.

Martha Washington’s wastrel son, Jacky Custis, had an incestuous encounter with Ann, his aunt, resulting in the birth of William Costin, who was considered free though his mother was not.



And then there is West Ford, the young boy who was the George Washington look-a-like.

Ford, a slave, was fiercely protected by George’s sister-in-law Hannah Washington.

Hannah was John Washington’s wife and she “went to the mat” to ensure she would control the fate of Ford after John’s death.

Who fathered West Ford?

Henry Wiencek, writing in An Imperfect God speculates that it was neither George nor John but probably one of John’s sons.

Either way, the slavers and the slaves were inextricably entwined and we remain so today.

By Far the Greatest Wrong

J.M.W. Turner

Slave Ship, J.M.W. Turner

To own a human would be noxious but to condemn a race to slavery in perpetuity is iniquity and so claimed the immortal Dr. Johnson, a vehement contemporary opponent, here writing to his chronicler, Boswell:

“No man is by nature the property of another… it is very doubtful whether [a slave owner] can entail that servitude on his descendants.”

And his famous comment directed at holier-than-thou American revolutionaries clamoring for freedom from Britain:

“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of slaves?”

It is our attempted (and futile) escape from the past which keeps us all enslaved.

The sheer totality of world human bondage is a part of us all regardless of our recognition or acceptance.


Some sources:

Henry Wiencek,  An Imperfect God

Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade










1 Comment

  • Victoria Huckenpahler says:

    Thank you for putting things in a perspective. Some folks conveniently forget that Africans sold Africans. This is not to say that appropriating another human being for one’s own use is ever right, but it does demonstrate that the white man was not alone in engaging in these actions.

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