History always has a way of catching up with us, but that does not mean that it has to repeat itself. Stacey Cumberbatch, a newly appointed New York city commissioner, informed the New York Times that Benedict Cumberbatch, the British actor famous for his role as Sherlock Holmes on the BBC, had a fifth great-grandfather who owned slaves. Stacey claims that these slaves were her relatives, thus she and Benedict “are related” by the people who called the 18th century Barbados sugar plantation home.
A relation “if not by blood, then by geography and the complicated history of the slave trade.”
Benedict does not deny his ancestors’ slave ownership. His role in the recent 12 Years a Slave asks him to relive history. In this sense, the actors and viewers are transported back in time, and forced to reflect on how they can change their present so that it does not have an adverse effect on their future.
The actor later revealed that his mother, who played the Holmes’ mother in Sherlock series three, wanted him to keep his given name out of the public eye. She thought that having his true name associated with his acting career would paint a target on his back, and draw unwanted hostility from others.
But should he have to change his name in order to be accepted by a larger audience? This is one of the many questions that stems from whether or not people in the present should apologize for the slave ownership of their ancestors. An apology cannot bear the proper weight if the person who gives it is not truly responsible. Ownership of another human being, regardless of race, religion, gender, or belief system, is wrong. But, as The Guardian mentions, there is distance to consider. Benedict is not directly related to the wrongdoings of his ancestors, so should he be expected to answer for them?
The sins of the father may fall to the son, but the sins of the fifth great-grandfather…. That’s a touchy subject.
Some believe that they should account for their families’ pasts. There are those in Germany who feel the weight of their ancestors’ actions, and allow it to influence their present. They have been called Nachgeborenen, or those who come after, and share in the grief of the loss of the past.
But it is not productive to place individual blame. Rather, it is important to remember that, together, we are stronger and leave a bigger impact. A group of people will build a house much faster than a man alone. By coming together and being “collectively accountable,” we can have “a more reflexive attitude to history to account for the structure of the present through past wrongs, and our place within that historical context.”
In other words, understand the past and learn from it. Do not let it define who you are, but let it make you want to be better.
Due to the infamy of those involved, the Cumberbatch case has caught the attention of several media services. But it is something that will, and does, effect all of us.
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