NY Times Reporters Trace Michelle Obama's Family History

Illustration for article titled iNY Times/i Reporters Trace Michelle Obamas Family History

After reading the NY Times' just-published "In First Lady's Roots, a Complex Path From Slavery," I felt conflicted. There is a lot to absorb. A lot to sift through. Michelle Robinson Obama's ancestry is complicated, glorious, and quintessentially African-American.

Here are my initial impressions:

  • Her first known relative, Melvinia, had a tough, complicated life.
    The article opens:

    In 1850, the elderly master of a South Carolina estate took pen in hand and painstakingly divided up his possessions. Among the spinning wheels, scythes, tablecloths and cattle that he bequeathed to his far-flung heirs was a 6-year-old slave girl valued soon afterward at $475.

    It is later revealed that Melvinia had a child around age of fifteen that was categorized as "mulatto," the official term then for someone who was biracial. The reporters note:

    It is difficult to say who might have impregnated Melvinia, who gave birth to Dolphus around 1859, when she was perhaps as young as 15. At the time, Henry Shields was in his late 40s and had four sons ages 19 to 24, but other men may have spent time on the farm as well.

    "No one should be surprised anymore to hear about the number of rapes and the amount of sexual exploitation that took place under slavery; it was an everyday experience, " said Jason A. Gillmer, a law professor at Texas Wesleyan University, who has researched liaisons between slave owners and slaves. "But we do find that some of these relationships can be very complex."

    What happened with Melvinia cannot be determined. The article indicates later that another child was born post-emancipation. That could mean that the relationship continued - or it could mean that, like sharecropping, certain practices continued for lack of better options. Later on, Melvinia left the area and reunited with other people she had worked with at her original plantation. On her death certificate, it is written that her parents are unknown.

    Passing and the promise of education figure prominently in Michelle's family history.

    When discussing the path of Melvinia's offspring, it was noted:

    Dolphus Shields was in his 30s and very light skinned - some say he looked like a white man - a church-going carpenter who could read, write and advance in an industrializing town. By 1900, he owned his own home, census records show. By 1911, he had opened his own carpentry and tool sharpening business. [...]

    At a time when blacks despaired at the intransigence and violence of whites who barred them from voting, from most city jobs, from whites-only restaurants and from owning property in white neighborhoods, Dolphus Shields served as a rare link between the deeply divided communities.

    His carpentry shop stood in the white section of town, and he mixed easily and often with whites. "They would come to his shop and sit and talk," Mrs. Holt said.

    Dolphus Shields believed race relations would improve. "It's going to come together one day," he often said, Mrs. Holt recalled.

    Don't ever read the comments on these kind of things.

    I should know better by now, but I occasionally take a peek. I stopped when one of the comments listed said "I have no sympathy for the Obama's who are rich and influential...Eastern Europeans and Asians really had to struggle when they got here." Twenty-six people recommended that comment.

    It is important to remember that the Obama family did not necessarily participate in the information gathering of the article.

    Mrs. Obama and her family declined to comment for this article, aides said, in part because of the personal nature of the subject.

    Probing one's past can lead to all kinds of revelations, all of which are not necessarily for public consumption. While the story is both fascinating and complex, the Obamas have not faded away into the history books. And having a deeply personal part of one's ancestry out for the world to comment upon is a little unnerving. I don't think what the reporters did was wrong - but as a person who also only has a hazy grasp of her ancestry, I just find it unsettling.

    This article illuminates the past but, sadly, will not eradicate bigotry.

    As I read the piece, reminders of the dismissive comment about Michelle Obama's "slave blood," was bandied about by the likes of Charles Steele and Rush Limbaugh during the election cycle, kept resurfacing.

    Some people have lauded this as an American story, one of triumph and uplift. But viewed through the lens of all the racist vitriol churned up since 2008, the story also seems to function as a reminder that some of us are more American than others.


In First Lady's Roots, A Complex Path From Slavery [NY Times]
Yeah They Said It!: "Slave Blood"- SCLC and Rush Limbaugh [Michelle Obama Watch]

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I think there's another fascinating current that's running through the NYT comments: lots of people have commented "What's the big deal? A lot of black people have white ancestry. That's not newsworthy." As if her entire family tree is defined by the fact that there was at least one white person mingled in. And ignored everything else.