Photoshopping Primary Source Documents
There’s been a good bit attention recently to the revelation that Ben Affleck, participating in the historical/genealogy show Finding Your Roots, asked the show’s host, Henry Louis Gates, to conceal the fact that one of Affleck’s ancestors was a slaveholder. That segment was subsequently edited out, although Gates has said that decision was made on factors other than Affleck’s request. The credibility of Gates took another hit with his assertion that Ben Affleck’s mother, Chris, had been a Freedom Rider. Chris Affleck has explicitly denied that, saying she had done civil rights work in Mississippi in 1965, but not during the freedom Summer of 1964 when three civil rights workers were murdered (as Gates also claimed), nor during the Freedom Rides of 1961. It’s all extremely shoddy, and does not reflect well at all on Gates, who ‘s made a very successful career as a public historian by telling uncomfortable truths about how issues of race are inextricably interleaved in American history. Kevin Levin has a more apt description for what Gates, who is billed as the show’s Executive Producer, Writer and Presenter, is up to : “we are doing history on Oprah Winfrey’s couch.”
Many of you will recall Anderson Cooper’s response on another episode of the same show, when confronted with the news that one of his slaveholding ancestors, Burel Boykin, had been killed by one of his bondsmen: “I don’t feel sorry for him.” Whether you agree with that sentiment or not, Cooper at least gets props for dealing with that revelation directly, rather than trying to keep it from becoming public knowledge.
Cooper’s response got some attention at the time, but there was something else about that segment that was mostly overlooked, something that (to me) further undermines Gates’ scholarship. In the video segment of Cooper’s interview (above, in a video clip uploaded by PBS itself), Gates shows Cooper the 1860 U.S. Census form that records his ancestor’s death. Beginning at about the 20-second mark, the video shows a closeup of the document, starting with the ancestor’s name, and panning to the right to the dramatic notation, “Killed By Negro.” It makes for great teevee, but it’s faked. Here is the original document, and you can see that “Killed By Negro” appears not adjacent to Boykin’s name, but over on the opposite edge of the page. The producers of Finding Your Roots apparently used Photoshop or something similar to move the notation of Boykin’s death across the page, next to his name, as can be seen in these screen caps:
This makes for great viewing, but it’s a dishonest depiction of the actual (and critical) document, and that’s a problem. Although in this case Gates is not misrepresenting the information, he’s absolutely misrepresenting the original document. Doing that calls into question anything he and his producers do with primary source materials, and reflects very poorly on his commitment to accuracy.
Makes you wonder what else he’s shown on that series that’s not entirely real.