Thursday, October 8, 2009

Truth of Our Common Narrative: 'Michelle Obama's Family History is Far from Unique'

Recent research from Megan Smolenyak, a genealogist, and reporting by The New York Times offers previously undisclosed details of First Lady Michelle Obama’s family tree. The findings provide the first link to a white ancestor in Mrs. Obama’s past, and trace the steps her family members took as they journeyed from slavery to the White House in five generations.

Despite the enormous, long delayed strides forward, represented with the recent election of President Barack Obama, can America come to terms with our complex identity and historically mixed roots? As Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. observes in the Times today: What this means is that, in defiance of the law and social convention, an enormous amount of “race-mixing” has long been occurring in the United States, about which we, as a society, have for just as long been in deep denial.

Historian Annette Gordon Reed writes: "The family stories of black Americans and the findings of population geneticists make clear that Michelle Obama’s family history is far from unique. The vast majority of black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved in North America have some degree of mixed ancestry. What happens when you recognize that you and fellow whites share a bloodline with the people you are claiming are so different? And then there’s the fact that none of this has made much difference to black Americans. Having a white father or great-great-great grandfather didn’t mean much: they were defined as “negro” or “black” and kept their place in the racial hierarchy."

An interesting article in today's NY Times:

Geneaology and Reporting on the First lady's very American bi-racial family roots [Link here]

Analysis, meanings and interpretations [Link here ]

This includes the following comments from Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:
As we have shown in the “African American Lives” series on PBS, fully 58 percent of African Americans have at least 12.5 percent European ancestry. Only 5 percent, in spite of widespread myths to the contrary, have as much Native American ancestry. And between 30 and 35 percent of all African American males can trace their paternal lineage (their y-DNA) to a white man who impregnated a black female most probably during slavery.

Jane Gates, my great-great grandmother, born in 1818 as a slave, gave birth to several children who were fathered by a white man from Ireland. What this means is that, in defiance of the law and social convention, an enormous amount of “race-mixing” has long been occurring in the United States, about which we, as a society, have for just as long been in deep denial. I have never given an admixture DNA test of a black person who turned out to be 100 percent African, no matter how dark or “African” they appear to be.

Some of this inter-racial sexuality was voluntary, we now know, but far more was coerced, a reflection or a result of a profound imbalance of power. Because of a confluence of factors — the illegality of miscegenation, the prevalence of sexual abuse and rape as the source of these relationships, infidelity, guilt, shame, and disgrace — both black people and white people had a certain interest in keeping these relationships in the dark, as it were.

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