Paula Deen, Who Do You Think You Are?

This is the review that will get me into trouble, so read it at your own peril.  Feel free to disagree with me, but be warned that I am not publishing abusive comments. 

This is the final episode of Who Do You Think You Are.  Paula Deen is the perfect celebrity end the series because she more than anyone else encapsulates the essence of the show.  Who Do You Think You Are is often a deeply cynical show that masks that cynicism with melodrama, emotion, and a veneer of Americanism.  My distaste for the show goes well beyond the “mistake” from last week’s show.  In this third season, even the most genuine stories seemed a little more fake, a little more over-the-top, and a lot more manipulative in a way that the UK progenitor is not.  Worse, I often felt like I was watching an extended infomercial for Ancestry.com rather than a quality television program.

For her part, Paula Deen masks a deep cynicism with a similar geniality, melodrama, and folksy Americanism.  Her simple persona disguises a much more complicated person.  This is a woman who created a cooking empire out of nothing, but completely manages to hide her business savvy behind a veneer of ignorance and homespun humility.  But don’t be fooled; when Paula Deen faces adversity, she claws her way to the top–and it ain’t pretty.  Two examples.  First, when Deen was attacked by Anthony Bourdain about how unhealthy the food pushes actually is (hypocritical for Bourdain to lament), she turned it into a class war of attrition and following tornado-like levels of blow back, Bourdain felt sheer terror.  Second, is a little bit more complicated, because it is about her diabetes, which is a touchy subject.  I’m not one of those who (like Bourdain) blames Paula Deen for the obesity epidemic in America; she was entirely correct that she is a chef not a doctor.  Nor do I think she was under any obligation to reveal that she suffers from Type 2 Diabetes.  However, I do find it extremely cynical that she revealed she had diabetes solely so that she could be the (well-paid) celebrity spokeswoman on behalf of a diabetes drug.  Perhaps she was doing research about diabetes as she claimed, but more likely it seems like she was trying to find the right pharmaceutical company.

None of this has anything to with this week’s show per se, but the combination of show and celebrity made it hard for me to believe that anything was genuine.

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The show began in Savannah, Georgia where Paula Deen is introduced (naturally) cooking for her family because we need reminding that she is a chef.  And also she loves her family.  Deen lost her parents in her late teens/early twenties, so she never knew much about her family.  Her mother, Corrie Paul Deen (Paula’s name derives from her mother’s maiden name), came from Albany, Georgia, where Deen was also from.  One of Corrie’s sisters still lives there.  That is where Paula began her journey–a visit to her aunt Peggy Ort.  Aunt Peggy told Paula the name of her father (John Larkin Paul) and his father (John Little Paul), and lo and behold she had a photocopy of the latter’s death certificate.  Throughout the season, the opening family scenes have felt staged, but this one is perhaps the most disingenuous.  We all begin our searches by talking to our relatives, but it is beyond belief that Deen’s aunt just happened to have a copy of the death certificate lying around.  She might as well have just said, “Here’s your first clue; enjoy the scavenger hunt.”

John Little Paul’s death certificate told Deen that he was born in Georgia in 1860 and his parents were named W.B. Paul and Eliza (Batts) Paul.  With this document, Paula traveled to the State Archives at Morrow, Georgia to find out more.  Looking at the 1870 Census (Ancestry plug 7 minutes in), she discovered that John Little Paul (was it Little or Liddle?) was living with a John Batts rather than his parents.  My first guess was that this was his grandfather, and of course that was correct.  (Interestingly enough, it also looks like there was a sister who was there with him and a 14-year-old black servant named Margaret Batts who was never mentioned once.)  Because the researcher was able to find W.B. (William B.) and Eliza alive in 1870, he surmises that young John was sent to live with her relatives so that he could go to school, which doesn’t make all that much sense as W.B. and Eliza lived in the same town as John Batts.  A quick trip to the 1850 Census reveals that John Batts was indeed the father of Eliza Batts, which makes him Deen’s 3rd great-grandfather.

Now at this point given that John Batts was listed as a planter and he was wealthy, it was pretty obvious to me that he was a slave owner prior to the Civil War.  But the show does not address that yet.  Rather we learn that John Batts was a judge and a legislator in both houses of the Georgia Legislature just prior to the Civil War and was named a delegate to support John C. Breckinridge who was ardently pro-South (and pro-slavery) in the 1860 election.  You know the election that brought us Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.  In other words, all the evidence pointed to the fact that Batts was ardently pro-slavery and a proponent of secession.  Every once in a while it looked like Deen had a clue about it, but then she went back to playing dumb.  It was not until a researcher showed her an actual document (in this case the 1860 Census) that proved that Batts owned slaves that she finally recognized that her ancestor was less than sterling.  In fact, he owned 35 slaves.

I want to state here and now that I do not believe Paula Deen is a racist, nor do I think she is pro-slavery.  I believe that she is genuinely upset by the idea that one of her ancestors owned slaves.  I could even grudgingly admit that perhaps she, a many-generation Georgian, could delude herself into believe that nowhere did she have slave-owning ancestors (although I do believe that it is disingenuous that the thought never crossed her mind).  But I could not believe for one instant that little speech she gave about how if she could go back in time she would try her very hardest to convince John Batts to renounce slavery.  Does this woman possess absolutely no sense of history?  John Batts’s entire wealth depended on his exploitation of human labor, and it took a terrible war and hundreds of thousands of deaths to end America’s original sin, which John Batts very eagerly committed.  I don’t think for a moment she really believed that she could talk anyone out of anything, but was rather trying to assuage her own guilt, a guilt that is perhaps understandable, but really undeserved given that she was born over eight decades after the Civil War ended.

Possibly because going farther back on the Batts family tree would not be very interesting to Who Do You Think You Are (the information is there, I checked), Deen focused on how the Civil War impacted Batts’s family.  There is a little voice over about how she wanted to find this out, but I suspect that this is where the research led the show and Deen’s desire to find out about the Batts family was directed by the researchers.

John Batts was too old to fight in the war, but his son William was just the right age, and sure enough William enlisted as part of the Twelfth Georgia Regiment.  Deen was fortunate to come across extremely well-written letters (that sadly Ken Burns did not have enough time to fit in his wonderful documentary) from William to his family.  First a letter to his father in June 1861 posted from Richmond.  William had not seen the front, and he hoped the war to end in two months.  Five months later, in a letter dated November 28, 1861 and written from the battlefront, William had a much more jaundiced view while adjusting to the harsh conditions of the battle (and sounding a bit like a poor little rich boy).  The final letter came from May 1862 from a hospital in Virginia.  William had been injured badly, but not badly enough that he could not return to the battle.  That was the last letter from William.

On August 9, 1862, William’s commanding officer S.G. Pryor wrote to his wife and mentioned that William Batts was killed in combat and buried as a soldier.  Without a coffin.  Pryor referred to him Batts as “Billy” and from that moment on, Deen also referred to him as Billy, as though she were an intimate rather than someone she had just found out about.  And indeed she seemed to feel that he knew him all her life, emoting like a bad actor about the tragic loss of such a young boy.  Her overreaction only increased after reading a letter from Pryor’s wife who wrote about how the Batts family coped, and particularly about John Batts who took the loss very badly.

After the Civil War ended and Reconstruction began, Batts formally requested a pardon from then-President Andrew Johnson, as did all the wealthiest (and most politically active) Southerners.  (This is where we got our second Ancestry plug.  Deen went to Fold3, which had been Footnote.com before the Ancestry juggernaut swallowed it up and turned it into a military records only site.)  Batts swore he freed all his slaves and employed them at a fair and proper wage.  This assertion went unchallenged by Deen and her researcher, but I wonder if it is true.  White Southerners may have been forced to free their slaves, but that did not mean they did not exploit them, all the more after Reconstruction ended Union soldiers were not there to prevent the creation of Jim Crow.

Following the war Batts did okay financially, but he appeared to have been hit hard by the Depression of 1873 that affected the cotton planters.  By 1875 Batts had nothing left, and on May 18, 1878 he shot himself in the head with a pistol.  His family had worried that he might attempt suicide because he had been depressed for some time.  Deen was absolutely shocked, and put on a show that suggested that she was terribly upset by his suicide. She claimed that her heart broke for John Batts and bet that had “Billy” survived, he could have prevented his father from committing suicide.  Ladies and gentlemen, meet Paula Deen, Historical Psychologist.

Now granted John Batts is not my ancestor, but I was far more ambivalent when I learned about his suicide.  Far be it from me to wish death upon anyone, but this man is no hero.  He eagerly exploited the labor other human beings, and he no doubt felt he had the right to mistreat them in any way he saw fit.  As a judge and a legislator he enable, abetted, encouraged, participated in, defended, and protected a system designed to keep men and women enslaved simply because of their color.  He was responsible for the destruction of families, if not on his own plantation than on the ones that he protected in his official capacity.  He helped to create a war that tore his country apart, destroyed his state, and took the lives of so many–including his own son.  And why?  To protect slavery.  Because at its essence, the Civil War is about slavery, full stop.  This whole Lost Cause/states’ rights argument came from the post-Civil War writings of the guilty who wanted to justify their racism by turning themselves into tragic heroes.  Any other explanation is pure hokum.  So no, my heart does not break for John Batts.

Deen made one final stop, to the land where the Batts plantation once existed.  In a voice over she told the camera that she hoped to find some remnant that the Batts family once lived there (as her car drove alone Batts Road).  Sure enough she found some bricks, and came to the conclusion that it was a kitchen.  What a coincidence that a celebrity chef should find a pile of bricks and believe it to be a remnant of her ancestor’s ancient kitchen.  Where slaves cooked the family’s meals.  Let’s not delude ourselves.

Back in Savannah, Deen met up with her sons, and greeted them as though she had been in another country for months rather than in a different part of the state for a few days.  She tells them that they are “deeply, deeply vested in this beautiful state.”  One of her sons (I don’t know which one) asked her if she would cook them dinner, and she said she would as they walked into the sunset.  Because she’s a celebrity chef.  In case you forgot.

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I feel like I should say something about the demise of this show even though I have already written about it.  But I come to bury Who Do You Think You Are not to praise it.  This show stopped telling history and started selling it like a product.  That approach is something I deeply resent, which is why my reviews, which were intended to be an attempt a literary deconstruction ended up being largely savage diatribes.

Ancestry has hinted that this show will continue in another form.  For my own part, I cannot imagine watching anymore of this show so long as Ancestry is in charge.  Most likely I will not be reviewing them any more either, although I will miss the hits I have gotten on this blog whenever I posted a new review.

So thank you for sticking with me.  Perhaps one day we will get the genealogy show we deserve.  Until then, British and Australian episodes of the show are available on YouTube.  And for any newbies, researching your family tree, your own personal history, is entirely worth it.  It’s a rewarding experience that will give you countless hours of frustration and pleasure.

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8 responses to “Paula Deen, Who Do You Think You Are?

  1. Just stumbled upon your post. Refreshing to see your “take” on the show. You’re absolutely spot-on in noting the ridiculous “gee, I would’ve sworn I didn’t have ties to slave owners” nonsense, which to me suggests at she’s either hopelessly stupid (please, if you’re white with roots 150 yrs in the South…DUH) or lying. Even if the latter is just for purposes of “good television” it’s insulting to the viewer. The ham-handed melodrama and obvious product placement for ancestry dot com have produced a show that’s been cringe worthy. Enough already.

    • Given the importance of family, history and position in the South, I find it difficult to believe that Deen was completely unaware of her ancestor’s transgressions. That information would have been passed along from generation to generation. Even if it had become confused and convoluted along the way, she should have some inkling. (BTW, the show did further convince me that Deen’s drawl is exaggerated. Given her background, her accent should be similar to Jimmy Carter’s. )

      I also agree with this blog’s overall opinion of the show. As a dedicated amateur genealogist, I cringe whenever I watch it.

  2. yeah, it’s true that Paula does overdo the disingenuous southern belle persona, but it’s not inconceivable that she felt true emotion to learn of Billy’s death and his father’s suicide. It is different when it is your own ancestors. When my daughter and I went through the records of our French-Canadian ancestors, we felt very bad for all the children who died in infancy, even many before age 10. It was a fact of life back then, sure, and we didn’t know those people at all, but you know it’s your blood relatives when you’re learning it and it’s different somehow. In fact, when I was in Notre Dame Cathedral in Montreal once, I felt a really strong connection to it and I thought it was just because I had French blood and was Catholic. I later learned that my first ancestor that came to Canada from France was actually married there.

    It’s also not inconceivable that Aunt Peggy “just happened” to have death certificates lying around. My grandmother’s nephew sent me all the death certificates for everyone in their very large family that he had. I had them “lying around” until very recently when I decided to pdf a lot of paperwork.

    One more observation – In order for Paula to go back and try to persuade her ggg-grandfather of the evils of slavery, she would have to take her present day beliefs with her. If she lived in that time period, she would probably have been pro-slavery along with the rest of her family.

  3. I don’t think a commercial enterprise like ancestry.com could produce a show like this in any other but the most emotionally manipulative. They see everyone’s family history as potential profit and want to wring that profit out of people by any means available. I find I’m always interested in a family history though, even when I have objections to the way in which it’s presented. I think it’s a great shame that ancestry.com is relentlessly gathering up all the previously free information on the web and charging for it. And then there’s the other issue, which is a very big one to me: their transcriptions are riddled with an immense amount of errors, none of which they ever correct, and it just gets worse and worse. These errors are incorporated into family trees without question, and get copied over and over again until it becomes impossible to obliterate them.

  4. I think a subtle but in my view a particularly insidious effect of the entire series–and a dangerous motivation behind many “regular” folks’ interest in genealogy is the thread of genetic determinism running throughout. Reba M suggesting her genes are the reason she’s not comfortable in London, or the implication that Rob L’s love for politics is because of an 18th century patriot about whom no one in his family ever knew, and on and on…. There is NO evidence that what are clearly socially constructed values and preferences are linked genetic influences. Henry Louis Gates’ PBS series is a far better example of how to produce a genealogy show.

  5. I had similar responses to the show. As an archaeologist, I was not impressed with the bricks as evidence for a kitchen at the Batts Plantation site. Someone should be recording and investigating that as an archaeological site!

  6. Pingback: Kelly Clarkson, Who Do You Think You Are? | tracingthetree

  7. Hello! I believe that I am a Black relative of Paula Deen’s. After viewing this show a couple of years back, I did some research from on own ancestors. I knew my family was from the South, and I thought could this be a coincidence? As it turns out, my father’s great grandmother was an ex-slave from Georgia and had lived on a plantation with her ex-owner until the Great Depression. After her ex-owner/rapist could not afford to pay minimum wages to maintain what little he had left after the war, she was able to escape and move to Alabama, where many of my current ancestors remain. It is my belief that John Batts committed suicide after all of his ex-slave/rape victims left him. What do you think? And, is there any other information that was given regarding what happened to the slave descendants?

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