Hollywood star Ben Affleck’s attempt to suppress a story about a slave-owning ancestor of his has caused something of a furore, especially in the US. The information about Benjamin Cole, a great-great-great grandparent on Affleck’s mother’s side, who was “trustee” of seven slaves in Georgia, came to light after Affleck agreed to participate in the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) genealogy programme Finding Your Roots.
Affleck, a self-defined “moderately liberal guy”, was horrified when the information about Cole was brought to his attention by researchers. So he decided to lean on the show’s producers to omit this detail before transmission last October, as he evidently felt that this information contaminated his public and private self. “The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth,” he revealed on Facebook after he was forced to apologise once his attempted cover-up was revealed by WikiLeaks.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post invoked cultural anthropologist Franz Boas’s demolition of “scientific racism” (in which character and behaviours among groups or “races” are thought to be aligned with inherited physical characteristics such as skin, hair or eye colour) to reassure Affleck that his “embarrassing” ancestor had zero input into his own character or personality. “If your grandfather was a louse that has no more bearing on you than if your neighbor is one as well,” declared political columnist Richard Cohen. “We may be our brother’s keeper, but we are not carbon copies of our ancestors.”
Cohen’s reprimand to Affleck that he was “dumb to pressure PBS” is itself interesting. That attitude fits Western-type hyper-individualist cultures, where family bonds are typically weak or restricted though not completely absent. Even, I surmise, in Hollywood or in the offices of the Washington Post. Moreover, although Cohen is undoubtedly correct about the errors of scientific racism his view that it’s possible to erase one’s family origins or standing is unlikely to gain traction amongst many contemporary groups in which kinship and perceptions of honour and shame are very closely intertwined.
For example, in 2009 I researched shopping and eating habits among British Bangladeshi families and young people in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets for a UK government agency aiming to improve the nation’s diet. As part of the research I followed a husband and wife, originally from the Sylhet region in the north-east of Bangladesh, and their three British-born daughters as they went about their “big” weekly shop on a Saturday morning.
Amongst other things I discovered that the family used both the large Sainsbury’s supermarket in Whitechapel and a smaller Bangladeshi-owned shop on Bethnal Green Road.
At Sainsbury’s they purchased a variety of everyday items such as milk, tea and toilet rolls whilst at the Bangladeshi store they bought a number of guaranteed halal products, such as meat, biscuits and other snacks, as well as frozen river fish, vegetables and spices imported from Bangladesh. I found this segmentation in shopping behaviour based on religious and ethnic affiliation rather than price highly intriguing. Also notable was that in a nuclear household without a car all family members were expected to help carry items from shops to home.
Later the same day I sat down to interview the group in the front room of their newly purchased apartment in the east of the borough. There was mum and dad (let’s call them Ayesha and Bashir) and three daughters – aged 21, 18, and 10. I immediately encountered a hitch. Instead of being happy to do a full interview the two oldest, but unmarried, daughters told me they had arranged to meet two girlfriends in the house next door to where the family used to live, a short bus ride away.
“We thought this would only take 10 minutes,” the middle daughter told me. “I explained to your father that the interview would take around an hour,” I countered quickly, more than a little concerned that my carefully planned “family” interview was about to unravel. Of course, I also knew I had an advantage because all family members were going to be paid in cash individually rather than as a group. (Note: for this type of UK government-sponsored social research it’s customary to pay respondents for their time and thoughts.)
I calculated, correctly as it turned out, that the money would be very welcome for a young woman who, I had already learned, had been unemployed for four months. However, I did not want to cause unnecessary friction in the young women’s social lives. “I tell you what, I’ll get all the background information I need about you and your sisters at the end of the interview from your mum and dad,” I said. “That way you won’t lose too much time, you’ll get your money and you can get going.”
With the interview completed and forms signed I handed over the cash. But I noticed that as the young women and their younger sibling were getting their things together Ayesha, the mum, made a call on her mobile and spoke to someone in Sylheti. The phone call completed her three daughters then left the house. The parents and I completed the interview schedule and tea was served. We chatted about how the move to their new apartment had gone – difficulties arranging the mortgage and so on – when Ayesha’s phone rang. It was the mother of her daughters’ friends calling to say the girls had arrived safely at their destination.
“You know we have to be very careful,” volunteered Bashir, the dad. “That’s why my wife rang our old neighbour to say our daughters had left because we know how long it takes to get to the house. And we also send our younger daughter along with them so that she can tell us if they don’t stick to the plan to meet their friends and meet up with boys.”
“That would be a problem?” I asked. “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it even if they did meet some boys,” replied Bashir very honestly. “But it would cause a lot of problems. What you’ve got to realise, Sean, is that it wouldn’t just be shameful for my family and the rest of our relatives in Tower Hamlets and the rest of the UK, but also for our family in Bangladesh. Everyone would be affected, not just us.” “That’s right,” added Ayesha. “People would talk.”
The lesson? It’s revealing that even in the Affleck case Washington Post journalist Richard Cohen felt obliged to make a small, but crucial, concession. “We still cling, vaguely and unspoken, to the quaint notion that the goodness or evil of our ancestor runs through our veins,” he wrote. But quaint notion or not, honour based on the moral imperatives of kinship, locally defined and defended, lies at the heart of many, often very different, social systems. Just ask Ben, Bashir and Ayesha.
A version of this article is also being published at anthropologyworks.com
Dr Sean Carey is honorary senior research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester
- Published in print edition on 17 July 2015