By Isidra Person-Lynn, Black Books and Reviews.com
When America’s current First Family moved in to the White House, researchers, reporters and gossip bloggers dug and dug deep for any shred of information about them, especially the multiracial family of President Barack Obama. Despite numerous items of proof to the contrary, there is still a growing birther movement that as recently as Dec. 1 has filed a challenge to the president’s “birthright” to hold the highest office in the land. Until now, First Lady Michelle Obama was taken at face value. Until now, the first lady and the American melting pot (or tapestry) that she represents rendered her as a monolithic black person. The sum total of her rich brown melanin and genes of helix hair rendered her simply African American.
Until, that is, New York Times reporter-turned-genealogist Rachel L. Swarns, armed with research by a number of sources, dug deep into the roots of Mrs. Obama’s family tree and confirmed –through DNA–branches that “The First Lady is the descendant of both Irish Immigrants who nurtured their dreams in a new land and of African Americans who triumphed over servitude and segregation. Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama is the inheritor of our nation’s complex, often unspoken lineage,” wrote Swarns on page 299 in American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama, (Amistad) published this year.
Swarns, whose reporting on Washington politics led her to this topic, does an admirable job with American Tapestry. Her research was exhaustive and is included in a carefully noted bibliography. But what makes this book (which Swarns admits the First Lady still has not read) intriguing also makes it infuriating. It is intriguing because of Swarns’ tireless efforts to tell the story which must go beyond journalistic interviews and delves into the tedium of genealogy. The infuriating (albeit clever) part is this: It is one thing to trace a person’s family tree, when the records are admittedly scarce. It is quite another to put thoughts, feelings, ideas and temperaments to these same people by culling events from the headlines of the newspapers art the time and offering a myriad scenarios no one can confirm or deny happened.
Liberally using words such as “perhaps”, “it is possible”, and “must have” Swarns sets out to put familial relationships in the context of the times. But the context of a sexual relationship between her great, great, great grandmother Melvinia and a white slave-owner are problematic at best when speculating about whether it was rape or “… appear to have involved real affection, on both sides, and sometimes even love” when the girl was as young as 14. 14! Can there even be consent at 14?
Melvinia is the star of this book because it was Melvinia who gave birth to the white looking boy who no one seemed to claim paternity to. Dolphus, who is Mrs. Obama’s maternal great, great grandfather, did return to his black roots to continue Mrs. Obama’s family line.
While the book reads well, thanks to Swarns’ excellent story telling, it is somewhat of a chore to connect with these hapless ancestors who are included only because of their genetic material.
The good news is American Tapestry confirms the genealogical stew that simmers inside many African Americans, African descendants Native Americans and Europeans Descendants, but mainly focuses on the black and white relatives. One wonders whether the book would have been published had there not been white ancestors. What is interesting to learn is that while races mixed, cultures did not trickle down. Dolphus may have been mixed but he was deeply rooted in African American culture.
Those who read the book because of adoration of all things First Lady will get an unexpected American history course, as Swarns ties each find on Michelle’s Family tree to the news corresponding to that person’s life span.
In so doing she uncovered that truth about many American black families, we pass down the good news but often leave out the bad, the lynchings, the enslavement, the beating, etc. And white families, like many of those in Mrs. Obama’s family tree, have the tendency to not mention publicly former slave-owners in the family tree, or other white supremacists.
For sure, the American family photo is changing. Folks of all hues are liable to show up in today’s wedding party pictures, and increasingly as the bride or groom. Even national TV commercials or TV series now depict white families raising black children, which is the beginning of a whole new era for genealogists.
About the Book Review Author
Isidra Person-Lynn, a veteran broadcaster, owns House of the Rising Sons Media, based in Los Angeles, CA. She produces and hosts numerous radio and video projects, including Sunday Morning Live (www.SundayMorningLive.net) as well as a documentary with one on the way. The New Jersey native and college instructor is married with five grown sons. The daughter of a librarian, she often has her nose stuck in her iPhone’s Kindle app. Comments: Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.