So actor Ben Affleck is embarrassed that his ancestors were slaveholders. I can do him one better: My ancestors didn’t own slaves (or at least not very many) yet fought to help rich slaveholders keep their human chattel.

Affleck’s ancestors were rich and evil; mine were just poor and stupid.

One of my cousins has done extensive research into the James and Bartee families—that’s my mom’s side of the family. They mostly lived in Smyth County, Virginia until some of them loaded up the wagons and moved to Madison and Antelope counties in northeast Nebraska in the 1890s.

Unlike poor,embarrassed Ben, who quashed an interview in a PBS program about his slaveholding great-great-great-grandfather in Savannah, Georgia, the James and Bartee clans were a bunch of dirt-poor farmers. They either didn’t own slaves or perhaps owned one or two. That’s still one or two too many.

During the Civil War, many of my redneck ancestors defended the Confederacy and all the evil it stood for as members of the Smyth County Dragoons, a part of the 8th Virginia Cavalry. Like many units from the North and South, it was a local militia that mustered for the war.

There were no General Robert E. Lees or Stonewall Jacksons in the bunch. The James’ were lowly privates and a sergeant slogging through the Virginia woods in support of their white aristocratic betters and their human bondage economy.

Supposedly, one of the Jameses or Bartees who made the trek to Nebraska following the Civil War was one of the oldest surviving Civil War veterans in his county and was honored as such. I think it’s like honoring a low-level Nazi SS veteran. It makes my skin crawl.

I’m not proud of my James and Bartee family members who participated on the wrong side of the Civil War. But it is an undeniable part of my family, its history and our nation’s history.

What Affleck failed to understand is that the arc of American history bends toward justice and equality for more and more Americans. That arc is not a straight line of progress or propriety.

Just like our families and family histories.

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