I Can’t Hide Mine, Please Don’t Hide Yours: An Open Letter to Ben Affleck

Dear Ben,

Its unfortunate because of a massive internet hack we are in this particular place discussing your ancestral past. It’s horrible that your private matters were exposed because of something beyond your control. That’s untenable in any situation, but we need to address something right quick…this slavery thing.  You were embarassed, and that’s reasonable given the situation and the circumstances that produced it. But Ben Affleck, take it from a Black guy; with a platform like yours, don’t you dare be embarrassed to come from an ancestor who held enslaved people. Because….We need to know.

I don’t think many Black people really understand the profound guilt, shame or embarassment some white descendants of slave holding families feel. It’s not just that many assume personal responsibility for the past or that they grasp that their privilege or power is not just based on perceptions based on skin color.  Clearly these things become suddenly very real. It’s the feeling of inheritance from slavery that immediately engenders the internal deflation of the American dream.  It’s a retroactive forfeit of meritocracy, a moment when you realize your positioning in the now is surrounded by shadows from then.

Recently, I caught flack from a younger African American man on YouTube after they posted my interview on culinary justice with Vice Munchies editor,  Helen Hollyman. He said that my message of Southern people being “family” was an old, kumbayah feel good trick to ease white guilt and win favor. “Nothing makes white people feel better…” he said. I looked at his picture icon, his phenotype clearly showed European ancestry. I felt a sincere pain in my gut, both an aching ego and a deep concern for his. He didn’t get it; if he ever plans on finding his past, he will have to go through the same valley–not around it.

To put it another way: if you don’t own your slaveholder ancestor and I don’t own my enslaved ancestors past and the slaveholders who are a part of my bloodline–we will never know the real America and we will never know or understand ourselves. Even the most Afrocentric among us cannot find our “Kunta Kinte” if we don’t know who enslaved them. We have to share our histories, our knowledge, our experiences if we want to understand where we come from.

I don’t know about your family, but this I promise you–in the South, ancestor worship is a mainstay of many, especially white Southern families of influence and renown. As more and more African Americans get interested in genealogy, because so many of us want to know who we come from, how we got here and how far we’ve come, the dialogue across the color line is especially critical. Many formerly slaveholding families have papers and details vital to the process of climbing African American family trees. We need formerly slaveholding families to come to the fore, not hide.


I don't do this work because I want to live like a slave. I do it because I don't want anyone to forget. Especially me.

Slavery, wherever it was, made something permanent–for good or ill-it created an alternative history of bondage, blood and bone that is inescapable. This is a fact that makes your embarassment–and those of others in your shoes–so much less helpful than owning your past. When you and others like you own it, and you share what you know–we “meet” our ancestors again. They lose their anonymity and come alive. They are healed and we are healed because we can reveal their humanity, bring them out of American amnesia, and with hope, give them honor for all they gave to all of us.  The vast majority of Black roots-seekers are overwhelmingly grateful when white members of these families share what they know. That’s not always the case–some people, in the age of digital, social-media genealogy refuse to talk to possible descendants of their family’s enslaved workforce. Others are even more disturbed at the idea they share genes and names with people of color. It’s unhelpful to us all–the way we all hide, obfuscate, disown, forget, avoid….we don’t heal, we don’t learn and we don’t move forward.

“We’re all family,” is not a cop out, nor
is it an absolution.  It is a necessary and revolutionary change from our past approach to confronting one of America ‘s original sins. It is clear to me that this is not about our feelings, our hangups, our hurts, our embarassments or our causes. It is about what we want to model for the present and the future.

I want to tell you about a young man named Keith. He was my student a decade ago. One class we discussed issues of race and culture, and I was the only person of color in the room. My students began spouting narratives about how they learned from parents or teachers at school that Blacks “didn’t want to uplift themselves like our (ethnic white) ancestors did” or that Black people “wanted to live in the ghetto or bad parts of town.” I immediately tried to quell the bs but some of my students turned defensive and even disrespectful.

Keith had enough. “Shut up, you’re disrespecting Mr. Twitty and you don’t get it.” Another student retorted, “And you do???” Keith said without flinching, “My family owned slaves, a lot of slaves, and you don’t know what that did to Black people in this country.” Keith’s paternal roots went back to a number of large rice plantations in the South Carolina Lowcountry. 

He and his family knew about my interests in the stories of the enslaved and our contribution to American food history. They let me borrow old family books and I learned more of their story. Ten years later, as I make preparations to go to those homeland of my sixth great grandmother–a woman brought from the rice growing land of Sierra Leone to the port of Charleston and her surrounding rice fields, I can think of no one I’d rather to have with me than my former student so he can see a part of my history that inextricably is his as well.

I admire your values and your talents, and hey, the Voyage of the Mimi, was a huge part of my growing up let me tell you…but know this, tell the story of that ancestor, and tell it often, because somebody out there, needs you to.

With respect,

Michael W. Twitty
Descendant of the enslaved and some of their enslavers.

Spring Drive: PLEASE consider contributing 5$ or more to our supply and research fund through the PayPal donate button on the corner of the page. Because of your generosity in the past we have been able to do the work of preserving the food heritage of all Southerners and highlight the contributions, past and present of Africans and African Americans to our nation’s foodways. I thank you in advance for your kindness and support. No 65 million jet here 🙂 just copies, gas money, research fees and the like. Love y’all!


About michaelwtwitty

I am a Judaics teacher and Culinary Historian focusing on the foodways of Africa, enslaved African Americans, African America and the African and Jewish diasporas.
This entry was posted in Pop Culture and Pop Food, Scholars, Elders and Wise Folk, The Cooking Gene and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

82 Responses to I Can’t Hide Mine, Please Don’t Hide Yours: An Open Letter to Ben Affleck

  1. A pretty good post. A very interesting take.

  2. Lenora Good says:

    An excellent blog. Thank you.

  3. Thanks so much. I value you, Michael Twitty. Will share this piece.

  4. Eve Haslam says:

    There are no words for a reply – articulate and deeply eloquent. I could NOT agree more.

  5. In the 1980s, the descendants of the Collins family of Somerset Plantation in North Carolina and the descendants of the slaves of Somerset Plantation met for a family reunion. It was a very important, healing experience, and one that came about as a result of years of genealogical studies done by Dorothy Spruill Redford, who tells the story in her book Somerset Homecoming.

    Imagine if any of the participants had been reticent in any way…..but they weren’t. It was a joyful experience, from all accounts.

    Alex Haley even attended. Pretty cool. I’ve loved this story for years.

  6. Judy says:

    Wow. I’m not even sure how to process this post yet. I am a white girl and I suspect I am descended from slave owners. I have been doing genealogical research, and I’m trying to find out for certain. I know of a 10th generation set of ancestors in NC — three brothers — who set up farming prior to the 1780’s and who owned slaves. I haven’t been able to find out anything about whether their descendants did, though. This is NOT something that white Southerners will ever want to talk about openly. I know of some older folks in the South whose grandparents were slave owners, so slavery is still immediate and painful for them. It’s like asking a German about his grandpa in the SS. The thought of slavery is horrifying to modern southerners, and asking about it is often seen as bad manners or just stirring up pain. I am personally mortified to think that someone in my family could have committed such atrocities towards another human being, and I wonder what I will do if I find out that my direct ancestors did own slaves. I still need to know.
    This article gives me some hope that I’ll be able to face the answer and make something good come out of it.
    Thank you.

    • Kelly says:

      Judy, I am white, and southern going back 300 years, and after I did some research, my family was not surprised to find that our ancestors owned slaves. I can’t speak for every single person I am related to, but the ones I have talked to about our history took it for granted that someone must have owned slaves back in the day. It has not shocked anyone. We also know we have a lot of African-American relatives, and we have a pretty good idea why that might be. So, while there are certainly people who are uncomfortable with this history, I have to disagree that white southerners will never talk about it openly. Many already do.

      And thanks for the great post Michael! Your blog is always interesting–and makes me hungry, lol.

    • LaKisha David says:

      As an African American woman, I greatly appreciate your reply and hope you find the answers and are able to contact those directly impacted.

  7. Yitz Jordan says:

    Definitely feeling the sentiment here. Awesome piece.

  8. duckandjunebug says:

    As usual, you cut through the weeds and get to the heart of the matter. Thank you for being you.

  9. Julie Adair says:

    WE HAVE TO TALK ABOUT THE PAST!!! I’m so on board with this, Keith. One aspect you didn’t mention though, that I think is important is our shared blood lineage. So many whites have black blood, and vice versa, that it’s clear we all hold a little of the other within ourselves. I’m reading a book right now called Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball, which addresses this topic. So many slaveowners had children with their slaves that our history is indeed a shared one, physically as well as emotionally and culturally. Peace to you.

  10. brugorosa says:

    Reblogged this on reflections on food and commented:
    The more I read from Twitty, the more I like him and his quest for truth and freedom.

  11. Jeanine says:

    Great way of putting it out there!I have done research of my own and realized I was of Irish descent.I would not have known if not for a white friend who has the same last name of my family name.He has records of his family genealogy,but of course we would not have ours.He calls us cousins.Which I truly believe we are.We just have to keep connecting the dots.No one should be ashamed of where thier ancestors came from.Thier ills and mistakes are not our burden.It is our responsibility not to continue with these beliefs and behaviors.It is now so much as where we came from it is where WE into to go..Thanks again Michael! Love reading your articles…

  12. Reblogged this on BitterSweet and commented:
    “We need formerly slaveholding families to come to the fore, not hide.” Amen, my brother Michael.

  13. Reblogged this on familytreegirldotcom and commented:
    Mr. Twitty brings a lot to the table in his article. Please take the time to read and share your thoughts. Thank you Michael W. Twitty.

  14. Abbie Rosner says:

    After just having come from a Memorial / Naqba ceremony, the importance of bringing parallel narratives into the light in order to create the possibility for healing that you write about resonates deeply.

  15. susantichy says:

    Michael, you are so articulate, so down to earth, and just plain RIGHT. My research into my family’s slaveowning past has changed my life, and, more importantly, added one little fragment of truth to our national and human story. White descendants: another gift you can offer is your own DNA, posted along with your family tree on the various public websites, making it available to African Americans who are seeking their ancestors. Ben Aflack’s “embarrassment” was a huge missed opportunity to demonstrate the true complexity of our real inheritance.

  16. hspeights says:

    Reblogged this on The Rhythm of the Street and commented:
    Interesting read.

  17. leannejane says:

    I would really like to find out if there were any slave holders in my family. I did a DNA test a while back and was really shocked to find I had African ancestry from the region of Mali. However, I can’t seem to locate the ancestor. I do know he or she is on my Mothers side, as she took a test also. I wouldn’t like it knowing I had an ancestor that held slaves, but unfortunately people thought differently back then. Ben Afflack shouldn’t be feeling so guilty, and I am surprised at this. I think I feel differently about him now that I hear his reaction to this. Does he want to look as though he has something to hide? I guess I want to say, “Be a man!” and know that we know you wouldn’t like having this history. But, guess what? It is “our” history. Hopefully we learn from our past mistakes.

    • Wadine Toliaferro says:

      I prefer that Ben wanted to hide that his family held saves than not giving a damn. Slavery is a terrible thing but it is what it is. From posts, here, it appears that Ben’s secret has led to some pretty positive exchanges between dependents of slaves and dependents of slave owners; that’s a good thing.

      • Wadine Toliaferro says:

        LOL, I don’t know how my post became “dependents” instead of “decendents of slaves and decendents of slave owners”.

  18. nicb12345 says:

    I agree with you. Mr Twitty. I have a gg grandfather whom looks like a white man and If I did not know who he was, I would walk past him on the street. His father is one of the slaveholders. I will one day get to the point in my genealogy research where I am researching the slaveholder and his family. I often wonder that if there is a diary or records maintained in a family library listing the slaves that were owned and I happen to discover the person who has them, will they share it with me or shrug me off. I can not hide the fact that I and my family are the descendents of slaves, something that I am not ashamed of. I love them. It is something that continues to reverberate in black communities, black families. Slavery did insurmountable emotional, social, economical and mental damage to the slave family and their descendents. I can not imagine the horror and indignities they suffered just to stay alive, so that I could one day be born with the rights that they were denied. I continue my genealogy research, because it makes me stronger and more determined to tell their stories. I believe people of African descent are inherently forged with iron and steel. How else would we have survived. Ben Affleck will have to come to terms with his ancestor and slavery – which is a major component if not “the” component of which the development of the United States was founded.

  19. Tom says:

    Having an overseer of a South Carolina plantation and two ancestors who fought for the confederacy, yet another ancestor who wore blue in the war, makes this real to me. Thank you Mr. Twiggy for these important and timely words.

    • Tom says:

      I am very sorry for the typo Mr. Twitty, I commented on my phone and thus…
      I will be referring many others to this post. Thank you again for challenging us all.

  20. Linda Carr-Kraft says:

    I am a Virginian — my family goes back to the 1600’s. My father has told me my history since birth and he has always reminded me that our ancestors enslaved others. I’m the current “resident” in my family line and so, in that respect, I speak for my ancestors. Those after me will speak for my generation. My father taught me that if I were to claim my history, that I must embrace ALL of my history. To do otherwise, dishonors the memory of those my ancestors enslaved. And, as I told my cousin, Susan, I will humbly and openly and loudly keep saying .. I will remember. I will remember. You are not forgotten. We will always remember

  21. trying my best not to sob uncontrollably right now…this post is really bringing up some emotions. Mr. Twitty, THANK YOU SO MUCH for writing this.

    i’m currently trying to piece together the family of my 6th great-grandmother, Saline Davidson. during Saline’s lifetime, over the course of many moves with the William & Jane (Fleming) Davidson family (from South Carolina to Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, to Pontotoc County, Mississippi, to Brazos County, Texas, and finally to Eureka, Navarro, Texas), two female members of her family — first, i suspect, a sister of Saline, then later one of Saline’s daughters — were given away as “wedding presents” to two of William & Jane’s daughters upon their marriages (Caroline Rachel Davidson Allen and Elizabeth Ann Davidson Jones). i’m trying to find evidence of these gifts/transactions so i can bring these two relatives home. it’s been as many as 200 years since the first separation, and they deserve to be reunited with their families. it would be helpful if i could make contact with white Davidson descendants in these areas; however, because of the “blind spot” that exists in regards to acknowledging & discussing slave-owning ancestors, i don’t have much faith that such contacts will happen. but i will keep trying, because tracing African-American ancestors is courageous-as-hell work.

  22. Velore says:

    Well said, Mr. Twitty.

  23. Kimberley says:

    I want to sincerely thank Michael Twitty for this beautiful and empathetic piece. I am the descendant of people who held other people in slavery. I refuse to refer to “slaves” and “slave owners;” “slave” is not who those peolpe were – it was a circumstance forced upon them. “Slave owner” is equally offensive as the perpetrators simply stole what they had no right to no matter how much they paid.
    Being descended from people who enslaved other people is like being descended from Nazis – while you yourself didn’t do it, you live with the shame, anger and disgust you feel for your ancestors actions, and the long-term consequences, and I deeply appreciate Mr. Twitty understanding that.
    My personal reaction has been to attempt to remain mindful in my attitudes, assumptions and dealings with people and live my life in such a way to try to heal the evil my ancestors perpetrated by standing against the racism that still poisons our national psyche.
    And I made the decision that though I would not deny my ancestors’ actions and own up to my familial connection, I would let them as individuals be forgotten. I figure they had brought dishonor to themselves, and since one of the main fears we have as humans is having our personal existence forgotten, letting that be their fate would serve them right.
    Yes I’m familiar with the ancestor worship Mr. Twitty refers to. My mother has traced our family to the earliest days of the founding of this nation and back several hundred years before that in Europe. These generations of people were not all involved in bringing shame upon their family by enslaving other people. That was a very small number of individuals in a long lineage. Mr. Twitty has caused me to rethink my approach; perhaps those individuals who participated in our country’s shameful slavery past should be remembered, everything that can be found out about them should be found out and shared so that others may find links to their own ancestry. I will do that Mr. Twitty – I will look at those southern ancestors I slammed the book on, the ones about whom I’ve said “let them be forgotten and rot.” I’ll ask my mother to point me towards the ones who held slaves, I’ll look for census records, see if I can learn the names of the people they enslaved. For it never occurred to me until just now that by slamming the book on those ancestors, I might also be slamming the book on the ancestors of many other people – the descendants of the people my ancestors enslaved. If I really want to heal my ancestral karma, that is probably a far more useful strategy. Thank you Mr. Twitty

  24. Pingback: Ben Affleck Doesn't Get Family History - Ancestors in Aprons

  25. Hmm, this is an interesting topic. Slavery has been around in many forms since the dawn of all of us, on many sides. Blacks have been enslaved, asians have been enslaved, whites have been enslaved, i.e, many people have been enslaved throughout our history on this planet. I think most of us have, in one way or other, slavery entangled within our own lineages. You just have to look far enough back in your bloodline and you’ll find evidence of this. But what I don’t get is why anyone would be proud of the fact that they come from a long line of slave owners and I have equally little understanding of why some one would be ashamed of what their great great great granddad did a hundred years ago. I daresay most of us have murderers tucked away somewhere within our own respective ancestries. Look at todays younger generations of germans for instance, should they be held accountable for the horrors performed by their kin in the past? Should they hold themselves responsible for what took place before they were born? Should I, for instance, hold myself responsible and feel shame for what my father did to my mother when I was a young boy? I didn’t do those things, he did. I hold him responsible for that, no other.

    With the kind of thinking that we are somehow participating in what generations past has done to other people around them, we are all to blame for everything that has ever happened since the dawn of man.

    • Kimberley says:

      Michael Gullbrandson, it is true that slavery has existed pretty much forever. Horribly, it still exists today. Prior to enslaving Africans, Europeans regularly enslaved Europeans from other tribes or kingdoms.
      But what we’re talking about here is a crime against humanity within relatively modern times – a time when census records were kept, bills of sale, birth, death and marriage records – a time close enough to our own that the wounds still reverberate. The fallout is still evident in our society.
      No, the descendants of the people who held other people in slavery in this country a few generations ago are not responsible for the actions of their ancestors, but they are responsible for the world in which they live; a world in which the descendants of the enslaved and the descendants of those who enslaved them share, sometimes harmoniously, symbiotically and cooperatively, but just as often still tainted with fresh wounds emerging from an unhealed dynamic. As Mr. Twitty said, we ARE family. We share names, DNA, a history, a unique and vibrant mutually dependant culture that has influenced the world, and a future. Like all family dynamics, there are issues we’d rather not face but must if we’re to be free from their influence.
      What the descendants of those who did the enslaving may well have access to are valuable pieces of a family puzzle that we can provide to people who have had their past stolen from them. Rather than feeling ashamed, it may just be possible to give back some missing pieces if we look into our own family history. That may involve looking long-lost relatives in the eye and knowing, not just guessing at the connection. After watching my mother do 30+ years of genealogical research, I know the value of finding the name of a great great grandfather or mother after hitting dead ends and false leads. Handing over the history to another part of the family so they can know their own family history is powerful medicine. And it’s far more productive to do something positive than it is to say I didn’t do it so it’s not my problem, or ferling a level of shame that is totalk y vounterproductive but real for many people, whether that makes sense to you or not.

  26. Michelle Mosley says:

    Michael…I am Twitty descendant. Traced mine back to early 1800’s in NC. Let me know if possibly related.

  27. Kimberley says:

    Perhaps what can come of this discussion is a networking site, like Ancestry.com, or perhaps just a new feature on Ancestry.com itself, where people searching for this kind of information and peopke who have it to connect. Or perhaps it already exists? If anybody knows, can you please inform? I’m actually eager to look into this, to dig up that information that exists in my own family and share it. If there are relatives I don’t know about, I would be incredibly happy to connect with them if it was agreeable to them.

  28. Kimberley says:

    BTW, a few years ago I purchased a DNA testing kit for my mother from National Geographic, to participate in their study of mitochondrial DNA and human migration. Of course we know we are all ultimately African in origin, but this test pinpoints the origin and dispersal of your own mitochondrial DNA tracing your ancestors’ footsteps around the globe. My 90 year old white Anglo Saxon mother is incredibly proud of her African ancestry. She has it documented, she can prove it, she knows exactly where they came from in Africa and the path they took into western Europe. She’s as excited to show that off as she is about her ancestors who fought in the American Revolution.

  29. Charles says:

    My family owned slaves up to the 1860’s and in 1900 or so my grandfather and his brother both in their teens or 20’s, had at least one child each with African American young women, all living on a central Alabama farm. Then they were sons of a planter, not sons of a slave owner. Because it was 1900, not 1860. Having had, in the language of the day, a negro child, my grandfather ‘went’ or was sent?? to Texas where he lived unmarried until he was 40. My grandfather returned to Alabama and married my grandmother. My grandmother was unaware of my grandfather’s having had an African American child. It became a family ‘secret’: everyone knew except grandma, presumably, where everyone assumed she didn’t know. My grandfather died in 1939, my grandmother died in the 1980’s. The fact that my grandfather had already had a child was never discussed around her. The secret was kept out of respect for the feelings of my grandmother. It was the thing that could never be said to her or near her.

    My father never directly discussed this matter with me. I’m in my 60’s and he would be getting close to 100 years old were he alive. When I asked him directly if his father had sex with African American women he replied “In my father’s generation you weren’t a man unless you had had sex with an African American woman. In my own generation you weren’t a man if you had had sex with an African American woman.” I interpret my father’s answer to mean that things were changing in his generation. That planter rapes of African American women may have been beginning to die out in my father’s generation (1919 – 1996).

    I mentioned that my great uncle had also had an African American child. He raped a young woman who worked in his parents home as a house keeper. The mother and her baby were sent to live and be raised in the household of another well off relative in another county. I suspect that these arrangements were made by the women, the white and black women who had babies and loving babies in common.

    In short, at about the time of Dr. King’s I have a dream speech, at the time me being about 10 years old, I was unaware of the fact that my father had an African American brother, unaware that I had glimpsed my African American uncle though I was never introduced to him, unaware that I had seen my African American uncle’s children and was never introduced to them nor taken to play with them as I had been taken to play with all my other white cousins; and I was unaware that such had been going on for generations in my and other planter families. It was so deeply wrong. I am not ashamed of my grief over these facts.

    From Dr. King’s speech: “I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” Because we are literally sisters, we are literally brothers. And Dr. King knew that. Everyone knew it. They just didn’t talk about it directly.

    My father would not, could not publically acknowledge the sins of his father. I can and do.

    • Kimberley says:

      Wow Charles – that’s a powerful family story.

    • MichelleVista says:

      Very powerful story. Mr. Twitty, I read your tweet & yes, these comments are amazing.

    • Carol J. Calvin says:

      Charles, this is the first time I have heard/seen that kind of admission. Bravo! I am an African American family historian, and genealogy educator. I agree with Michael, that we African Americans who are genealogists are desperate to find out who owned our slave ancestors, and what the relationships were like. Some of my ancestors were mulattos, so I know they have mixed heritage, but I don’t know with whom. We also want to know what characteristics, genetic tendencies, etc. we inherited from all of our ancestors black and white. Finally, I think it would be good for America to stop feeling so guilty and angry about the past, and concentrate on the present and future for our children. We need to re-direct our energies to building a better America for all to enjoy. We can’t change the past, but we can understand it and how it has shaped our country and lives. Then we can examine all of our institutions, for the remnants of racism, prejudice, and discrimination which still remain, and replace them with behaviors which promote the well-being of people of color, just as is being done for white people. Ben Affleck can be effective in leading this effort if he is not already doing so.

  30. Anne McWilliams says:

    About six years ago, 2009, an African American Muslim imam, Mikal Sahir, visited my United Church of Christ to lead us in a discussion about the Abrahamic religions. After his presentation, I went to meet him and his wife. At my church, we wore name tags, for hospitality toward guests. He saw my surname and we began to talk about our ancestors. In fact, my surname was the surname also of several families in the town in which my father was born.

    Mikal shared that his great grandfather was a slave in the cotton plantation of a man named Fate McWilliams. His great grandfather was freed from slavery by the Emancipation Proclamation, when he was nine years old.

    I recalled a conversation many years ago about Jim Fate McWilliams. Fate was the colloquial pronoun citation of LaFayette. James LaFayette McWilliams was my great great grandfather.

    As Mikal and I pulled at all the loose strands of our ancestors and our current families, I became overwhelmed by a sense of shame. I felt I had been punched in my gut, blindsided with the unfolding story. This stranger told me stories about my family I had never heard.

    I grew up not 20 miles from my Dad’s hometown, but I never knew I was descended from a slaveowner. I realized that in summers of most of my childhood life, a young person near my age had gone to movies in the same theater as I, but he would have sat in the upper balcony, away from white kids. That is about as close as we would have come to each other, I’m sure, because my father was estranged from his McWilliams family, due to tragic circumstances in his childhood.

    Trying as hard as I could to get information from my father about his father’s ancestors, I could pull only a few vignettes of Dad’s contact with the descendants of the enslaved McWilliams. But, Mikal had many years of research into his ancestors’ stories, and their ties to my ancestors. Mikal knew more about my white slaveowner forebears than I did. He interviewed my father’s aunt, whom I met only once, when my estranged grandfather died, and my family visited her (source of familiarity with her grandfather’s name, Fate). Mikal’s recordings I heard some forty years later called to mind more stories I did not know.

    I was invited to the African American McWilliams family reunion that year. Many of the elders remembered my father’s birth. They remembered my grandfather’s abandonment of or banishment from my grandmother and my father. They told me I bore resemblance to my father’s aunt. They had so many stories!

    Mikal and I gave presentations of the story of our meeting to some groups. The most memorable one, besides the family reunion, was the Indianapolis African American Genealogy Society. I learned from that group that many individuals had grown up alongside their slaveowner descendants. Eventually, when schools were integrated, great great grand children of the slaveowner and the enslaved played together and learned together. I went to school with and was in Girl Scouts with kids from Mikal’s family, but married names changed, and Mikal Saahir was a Muslim name given to him in his twenties. I came away from the genealogy society realizing that African Americans are acutely aware of being descended from slaves. Only white descendants of slave owners can choose to hide their history. Like Ben Affleck, a white person can avoid discussion of “How did you come to be here?” White people, like me, like Mr. Affleck, need to acknowledge the past, and admit that we benefitted from the horrific institution of slavery. “We” like to say, “Well, my ancestors were Irish, and they were enslaved and terrorized by the English.” Fine, that might be true, but the truth is, hundreds of years of killing, beating, and withholding opportunity are a story white Americans descended from slaveowners must claim as our story. If the Old South aristocrats want to live in that glorious history, they must also embrace the whole story. I almost want to say, “Repent!” That’s what I felt on that Sunday morning in the First Congregational United Church of Christ of Indianapolis.

    What continues to amaze me about this story is that Mikal’s parents moved north to Indianapolis for better opportunity. I had moved to Indianapolis only three or four years before this meeting. I almost slept in that Sunday morning, having returned from a vacation in the wee hours that morning. I cannot imagine other circumstances that would have brought us together to have what was to me a life-changing encounter.

    I learned of two men, Edward Ball, author, and Macky Alston, filmmaker, who had similar awakenings to their descending from slaveowners. I recommend their works for more about their experiences: Edward Ball, “Slaves in the Family” http://www.amazon.com/Slaves-Family-Edward-Ball/dp/0374534454 and Macky Alston, “Family Name” http://www.pbs.org/pov/familyname/video_interview.php#.VTmJ_lI8KJI

    • Julie Adair says:

      I already recommended the Edward Ball book. And the first part of your story makes me realize something I’d never thought of before: any of us who are descendants of white slave owners share that blood (some may call it guilt, or shame, but I disagree), whether we are children of the master/mistress side of the family or children of the master/slave side. It’s weird to think about the black descendants being responsible of the “shame” of a slave owner, but if blood makes you guilty, we both hold that guilt.

    • Ann I came across your deep heart-felt comment above in our most unusual manner — I was just Googling my name out of couriosity. Once again we meet in ways that we could never plan. BTW it is 2:49 a.m. as I am typing.
      Our Creator let our paths cross according to His divine plan. Yes, it still gives me shrill and moments of “WOW!” Did you mention that both our mothers were born the same month and year in 1933 and that our fathers were born the same month in 1929. Also that we both spelled God, “G-d”?
      Regarding feeling “shame”, well, I’d rather call it “consciousness”. The kind of consciousness that cures and heals the human heart. Whenever we put this to book form, hopefully that compilation with allow other hearts to cure and heal as well.
      Thank you my friend for sharing our story! I too share it very often.

  31. Thats pretty great! We must all see that without this past, the present and the future wont become what its meant to be.

  32. Sir because of you and ppl like you as a young girl taken to Mississippi during summer months to live with my grand and great grand parents to receiving rich history of the past was amazing ,whether maternal or paternal I received information that has awake the passion to incite a calm that no person can erase ,at first anger stood in the way of understanding who I was as and individual ,because of the inhumane treatment of my ppl as a whole , my history was not taught in the city of my birth but as a child with a inquisitive mind I know something was not in place , my grandma would take my hand and lead me with the pain of the past in her beautiful grey eyes to the grove of pine trees on ancestral grounds to show me a glimpse of her past in our grave yard of my ancestors,oh the stories that amassed on those little journeys,so yes we need knowledge from past slave and slaveholders alike to complete these passages of history to help heal the deep atrocities of an institution that has left ppl of color without knowledge of themseleves or their root, and we all know without root nothing truly grows….

  33. tessasouter says:

    This was just such a phenomenal post! I am sure there were no slave owners on my (British white) mum’s side. But I reckon there must have been some on my (black) dad’s or I wouldn’t look so white. An amazing and thought-provoking read! Thank you for writing.

  34. Charles says:

    I wanted to add another comment. When I was about 12 or so in the ’60’s I was with my father when he was doing family research in the Alabama State Capitol building in Montgomery. As my father and I were meeting up I noticed he was talking to an African American janitor. I had seen the man had approached my father and they were finishing a conversation. I saw my father smile, I saw them both smile. They both looked like they were tickled by something. After the man left I asked my father what they had been talking about. Dad said that the man had come up to him and said “I hear that you and I are related.” I didn’t understand. I asked my Dad what he told the man. He smiled broadly and said “I told him that I had heard the same thing!” I asked my Dad how that could be possible, being that I was a pretty young 12 year old. He named yet another white male relative, one I didn’t know, but who wasn’t one of my father’s uncles.

    If I look back at the census from 1790 in Maryland I see that right next to where my great great great grandfather lived was a household that was comprised of a free African American woman with several children. There is only one explanation for that which seems at all likely to me: those were mixed children and they too were my relatives. Why else would the woman be a free woman, right next door, living in a separate household with a bunch of kids? In any case, I do not think it is possible to discuss slavery without also discussing the probability that at some point in time, slaves were to some degree enslaved extended family members, however distant that connection had become over time. And like with my father and his relative in the capitol building, everyone involved had heard something or other specific like that from somewhere.

  35. moxiebee says:

    Excellent piece, on so many levels. Thank you! Where do I subscribe? Can’t seem to find the link.

  36. susantichy says:

    Reblogged this on Magruder's Landing and commented:
    By now (courtesy of Wikileaks) most of the world has heard that when actor Ben Affleck appeared on Finding Your Roots, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., he persuaded Gates and the other producers to omit the revelation that his third great-grandfather, Benjamin Cole, owned slaves in Savannah Georgia. For the show, it was a missed opportunity not only to illustrate the true complexity of our history but also to demonstrate that each of us has a choice in our own actions. Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor is on his mother’s side, while his mother herself was an activist who traveled Mississippi during one of the most dangerous phases of the Civil Rights movement.

    Among the hundreds of responses to the outing of Affleck’s secret, here is one of the best, by Michael W. Twitty at Afroculinaria. Even more amazing are the personal stories posted in the comments that follow. Really, it’s like poking an anthill: just one good jab and the truth of our history comes flooding out.

  37. Jen Schmied says:

    Michael-Thank you for posting this. Well said.

  38. Raymond Sean Walters says:

    A great response that carries validity. I commented as a researcher via one of my own personal blogs about this topic:


  39. Kate says:

    Thank you, Mr. Twitty for approaching this issue with understanding and knowledge sprinkled with humor and kindness.

  40. Reblogged this on Welcome to My Breakdown and commented:
    I’ve been wanting to weigh in on the Ben Affleck/Henry Louis Gates stuff but didn’t have the energy to devote to it. This writer/chef sums up much of what I’d say about it. Affleck asked Gates not to reveal what Gayes had uncovered in Affleck’s past: slave owners. Clutch the pearls. This news is hardly shocking to Black folks & while I get he’s “embarrassed” we all have to face & own our past if we’re ever going to become “one country.” I used to have a friend, a very close friend, my first white friend. After about a decade of friendship we discovered that our mothers had the same unusual last name & came from the same tiny South Carolina town. This news initially elated her. It immediately made feel sick. She said, “this is amazing. We’re so connected, now it makes sense that we’re related.” I said: yes, perhaps we are but I can promise you that it’s not because of some kind of consensual relations. Details for another post and/or story but in the end our friendship didn’t survive her refusal to acknowledge that chances were that her family had owned mine. (This was typed on my phone so pls forgive typos, etc. I just needed to get this out right now). #welcometomybreakdown#edwardball #slavesinthefamily

  41. Charles says:

    Mr. Walters wrote in his personal blog, linked to in his post here on April 24, 2015 at 3:34 pm

    “In a parallel to Dr. Watkins comments in this video about Ben Affleck, it is the continuation of lies through cover-ups that hinders people and their relationships with others from being the most fulfilling and truthful they can be.”

    Mr. Walters’ comment strikes a chord with me. I have a cousin my age living in the community in Alabama where my father was born in 1919 and raised in until 1940. (I was not born or raised in that community.) My cousin several years ago was approached by some older African Americans doing family research. They wanted information from him that would confirm what must have been the rumors that they had heard about their own ancestry.

    My cousin told them that it was “too bad that they hadn’t come asking sooner because all the old folks who would have known that information were now dead.” My cousin who had quite early in his life seemed to get some satisfaction from whispering family secrets instead had now lied when asked to talk about such matters with those ‘outside’ the family. Excuse me? Outside the family??!!!

    Why had he lied to those truth seekers? In trying to decide why, I consider that my cousin had also told me that his own father had on his death bed told him everything about those old folks, his dying father had unburdened himself to my cousin on his deathbed and sworn his son, my cousin, to secrecy. So my cousin claims to have much information, but assets that he himself has taken some sort of death bed oath to not reveal that information, even with me that topic now closed by my cousin’s ‘maturity’. Could there be a more ridiculous rationalization?

    My father’s white brother, my aged uncle, had help, some living on his property in what can only be called shacks. Were they ‘help’? The most visible shack was across the road from the beginning of my uncles driveway. I remember it clearly. Sometime during the long times between my visits, that shack had disappeared. Once I realized it was no longer there I asked my uncle what happened to it. He replied that there had never been a structure there, that my memories weren’t factual, were from too long ago when I was but a child. LIAR! His African American half brother lived there up to when I was about 15, I gather that because why else would my uncle outright lie to me except to further conceal from my mind that family fact. The African American man’s name was John, my half uncle John. John was also the given name of my slave owning great great grandfather.

    As Mr. Walters puts it, lies and cover ups. All helped by certain peripheral activities such as untoward ancestor worship where my cousin writes poems as odes to our great great grandfather who owned 160 slaves in both Autauga and Lowndes county. There is a disconnect comes from false narratives, a disconnect for everyone. Truth will set you free, and what you lose in the telling is more than compensated for by the blessing that however hard the telling, truth contains.

    So thank you Mr. Walters for your blogged remarks. Ben Affleck looks to me to be just as big a damn liar as some are in my family.

  42. Jennifer R. Pournelle says:

    This brings tears to my eyes. Because that’s how I feel, and I don’t want to share a survivor-guilt-trip with other white folk. I want to know how to talk about it, and what do do about it, with those who inherited the other side of the blanket.

  43. Charles says:

    “Many formerly slaveholding families have papers and details vital to the process of climbing African American family trees. We need formerly slaveholding families to come to the fore, not hide.”


    There’s John! Eliza was a Bishop. John’s mother was a Morton. John’s father was Henry, born in Maryland and died in Georgia. Henry’s will: top of the list of property was a still, followed by what seemed to be implements connected to that activity. John’s occupation is listed as Planter, but he also had an MD from Penn. John used his medical knowledge to buy seemly sick slaves at a discount in auctions. Nice. I put what I had up on Ancestry.com that links Henry to a man that came to the Maryland in 1677. Given that Henry’s principal property was a still, my guess is that his son John MD had benefitted greatly from his connection to the Mortons.

    So I don’t see justification for ancestor mythology, view ancestor mythology as hiding. The arrowheads I have from my father, collected from behind a mule and a plow, are from a way of life whose destruction is our history. False narratives are fools in a house of mirth. Our ancestors are among us, are us and for them and for ourselves, we best be in mourning.

  44. Genevieve Bantle says:

    Thank you.

  45. Komonda says:

    thank you

  46. Craig L. Cowing says:

    Good post, Michael. I am descended from a slave holder, but not in the south. There was plenty of slavery in the northern colonies as well. My slave-holding ancestor was the Rev. Samuel Hooker (1633-1697), pastor of the Farmington Ct Congregational Church. I am not proud of that fact, but it is a fact nevertheless. We’ve got to be able to talk about this openly or, as you said, we won’t truly know who we are.

  47. Charles says:

    As to the legacy of slavery. My mother told me of a bus ride she took from Alabama to Florida in the late ’40’s or early ’50s. There was a whites only toilet on the bus that she could use freely. The African American women were not allowed to use that toilet. When African American women had to go to the bathroom the driver stopped the bus and the women had to go visibly squat in a field near the road. Everyone could see them. That was one of my mother’s introduction to the legacy of slavery, having grown up in Chicago and out west. That was about 100 years after the civil war. That was the kind of segregation that some of my relatives felt at the time that they just couldn’t live without. Some didn’t see anything wrong with it. Some instead were almost mortally offended by it. Mortified, shocked, troubled and saddened. That is in my lifetime.

    Another legacy of slavery is that in my family there were secrets about the legacy of slavery. Secrets are damaging. I’m not over that. Who on earth would rightly ask that a descendant of a slave just be over it when psychologically, the descendants of slave owners clearly aren’t?

  48. Charles says:

    Added thought: I say clearly aren’t, but there is an important difference: white slave owner descendants can hide like Ben did because by skin color alone we can’t tell who they we are.

  49. clarkebreena says:

    Reblogged this on breenaclarkebooks and commented:
    “The People of Russell’s Knob were a blended soup of colors after a couple of generations and made their own circumstance.”

    from “Angels Make Their Hope Here”

  50. akellmurr72 says:

    Thanks for sharing this. So very well said!

  51. veronica cokeman says:

    Tenderly, truthfully, honestly written….and he cooks too. It has always bothered me, not THAT we discuss American history, but HOW we discuss it. No one can be held responsible for things they had nothing to do with. That includes both good and bad things. But we can accept the fact that we all have the responsibility of leaving this world a little better than the day we were born.

  52. Marcus Davis says:

    Wow and thank you! As you say, we all need to own this part of our shared history. I am a white man with a mostly southern ancestry. I do not know if any of my ancestors owned slaves, but my family has its roots in the Richmond Va. area going back to the 18th century. My Great Grandfather fought around Richmond Va. first as a drummer boy and later as a Confederate infantryman to uphold that way of life. His drum is still in the family. Be it right or wrong it is our history, and to deny that history is to deny ourselves the understanding of the culture we come from and the understanding of each other, and the understanding that yes, we are family. Hopefully someday we can look upon each other with nothing but love.

    • Craig L. Cowing says:

      Marcus: As someone with no southern ancestry at all, and almost 400 years of New England ancestry, I can truthfully say that the North was just as culpable. The traders were often registered in Boston or another northern port, and cotton produced by slave labor provided cheap raw material to keep the mills in New England going. Nobody gets off easy.

  53. While people are enjoying the comments, I should probably take a moment to encourage everyone who is enjoying this dialogue to spare 5$ to help support this blog. We need it. Nobody gets rich doing this…and it’s not about that…but getting good content means travel and research. Please help us however you can, please use the links in the Spring Drive post or the DONATE button to support this important work. Thank you!

  54. victori7 says:

    I sure hope BEN reads this. One of my favorite producer/ actor/ directors reads this. This is a poignant message for us all. If you ever wondered what you can do to help, keeping silent is not the answer. “A closed mouth never gets fed,” neither can a closed hand provide sustenance. If we are open the truth is like a pinch it only hurts for a minute, and only once we direct our attention to that sore spot can assuage the pain, and rub it out.

  55. Dreamicee says:

    This is amazing!

  56. Ann Twitty Caughran says:

    Thank you for writing and sharing this great piece. Growing up a Twitty in TX I never heard that my ancestors were slave owners. I discovered this sometime in the late 70’s after my Grandmother purchased several copies of The Twitty Family in America 1671-1976. After moving to the Carolinas in the 80’s I did hear of a number of black Twitty families. I have been thinking a lot about these issues, but was not sure whether any of them would find any interest or value in acquaintance, but this makes me think differently.

  57. Sharon says:

    I’ve felt guilt for many years for being descended from the very person who started the American slave trade to begin with. I always wondered if I should…because it’s over 450 years since that fateful voyage of “The Good Ship Jesus”. Should I be? The older I got, the more I learned, the worse I felt for something I did not do, but still lingers in my blood.

    I remember reading about the descendants of Nazi war criminals sterilizing themselves so their lines die out. They did it out of shame.

    It would be pointless of me to do that. That man has thousands of descendants.

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