Friday, October 9, 2009



Recently, the New York Times ran an article about Michelle Obama's ancestry. See N.Y. Times, October 7, 2008, In First Lady's Roots, A Complex Path from Slavery. Thanks to a genealogist's work, we see deeply into Mrs. Obama's family history. And in that history, we see the classic identity problems that plague all Americans, not just African-Americans.

All Americans face monumental identity questions. There are few countries on earth with populations as culturally and ethincally diverse as those in the United States. Americans living today draw on millennia of formerly disparate social, religious, linguistic and racial traditions. Some Americans are less "intermingled" than others. But over time, "intermingling" is inevitable. If a group has been in this country for a long time, it has likely "intermingled" with some other group. Even English settlers in the 17th Century intermingled with Native tribes. As the article observes, these "liaisons" simply vanish as times passes and memories fade. Family history does that. Once a relative in an older generation dies, it is unlikely that many people will remember him or her. That makes the genealogist's job much more difficult.

But in fairness, African-Americans face a much more difficult identity inquiry than European descendants. After all, every African-American (except recent African immigrants) can trace some roots to slavery. It is wrong to think that African-Americans are "purely" or even "largely" African. Quite the contrary, African-Americans are generally far more "American" than Johnny-come-lately European immigrants. And hauntingly, the evil of slavery is literally inscribed in every African-American's family tree. European slave owners routinely took sexual liberties with their African "property" over the centuries. This "forced intermingling" makes African-American genealogies both extremely perplexing and interesting at the same time. Additionally, many African-Americans intermingled with Native populations during the 18th and 19th Centuries, adding another layer of ancestral traditions to an already complicated history.

Michelle Obama's story reveals all these disparate influences at work. A slave owner raped one of her maternal ancestors, who gave birth to several "mulatto" children. One of the ancestor's forebears, in turn, was named "Powhatan Morehead." That is undeniably a Native American name. Because the family lived in Georgia at the time, we can assume he was probably a Cherokee or a Seminole. No matter his true identity, it lives on in Michelle Obama. And there is no shortage of irony in the notion that oppressed slaves and persecuted Native Americans contributed DNA that ultimately found its way into the same White House that once regarded them as subhuman.

I am glad the Times drew attention to Michelle Obama's ancestry. In recent years, I have taken a very strong interest in ancestry because I think it helps me understand who I am and why I think and feel the way I do. I also think it is important because it helps us all better understand America's immensely troubled history. The Times article also wisely notes that Michelle Obama--as an African-American--has many "white strands" in her ancestry. Perhaps the Times thinks that most readers do not know that this is virtually universal among African-Americans. The chilling truth is that "African-Americans" are really not as "black" as most European descendants believe. Even "really black" people like Chris Rock and Morgan Freeman can prove something like 30% European roots. That means that the average African-American represents the generational result of centuries of both slavery and sexual exploitation. I would have been happier if the Times noted these discomforting facts in stronger terms. But I was glad they at least hinted at them.

From an ancestral perspective, African-Americans are completely unique. Their family trees reveal European, Native American and even Hispanic influences. They have generally lived in North America longer than most European immigrant groups; most large European immigrant groups only began landing here in the 1840s. When it comes to ancestry in America, time matters. The fact is that African-Americans have had more time to intermingle--both voluntarily and involuntarily--with every other racial group in North America. That makes modern-day African-Americans unique.

That is not to say that European descendants are not unique. But most "whites" in America--as intermingled as they may be with one another--draw from similar ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds. I am a "white" American. To some degree, I am "intermingled." Yet I am remarkably "homogeneous," at least when compared to Michelle Obama's ancestry. Every one of my ancestors came from Northern Europe. They have always been Protestant, fair-skinned, fair-haired and they always spoke Germanic languages (German, English and Dutch). There was no obvious sexual exploitation along the way, nor was anyone ever "owned" in my family tree. For better or worse, my family tree shows me that my ancestors "stayed with their own." And that is typical in American history: Integration generally has only occurred in scandalous circumstances. My great-grandmother burned love letters intended to reach my grandmother. Why? Because the suitor was Catholic.

Ancestry always fascinates me. It implicates both my passion for history and for self-knowledge. When we understand ancestry, we place ourselves in a historical continuum that makes sense. It helps us understand our desires, likes, dislikes, passions and aversions. On a larger scales, it helps us orient ourselves in this country, and to see whether we've remained true to what "always mattered" to our relatives. Yes, we are all "unique individuals." But we cannot escape our family roots. They will always shape us, no matter how much we fight them or reject them. And they also help us make educated guesses about people's values. If we know someone comes from an Italian-Irish Catholic background, we can be pretty sure that they will think differently than a person with Swedish Protestant ancestry. That might be prejudice, but it is entirely reasonable.

In Michelle Obama's case, ancestry does more than help us understand values. It gives an insight into America's complex identity issues. In many ways, studying African-Americans means studying American history. Virtually every key event in American history has somehow involved African-Americans. Our soul as a Nation rises and falls depending upon how we treat them. After all, we are supposedly a Nation of principles. When our principles only apply to whites, it renders our entire national experiment an embarrassment.

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