Um….is that really news?

So it seems genealogists have unearthed the fact that Michelle Obama better known these days as the First Lady of the United States does indeed have a direct family link to slavery. In case you missed the NY Times piece, her great great great Grandma was in fact a slave. Now as I read the piece, I thought it was pretty cool that Michelle’s lineage was able to be traced but I was stunned at how stunned commenters were about the fact that not only was there a direct slave connection in her family but also interracial mingling since her great  great great great Grandma bore at that time what was called a mulatto child which today would be a biracial child.

Um…is this really news? In fact the more I thought about this piece in fact as I write this piece right now I am listening to NPR cover this story and once again hearing how amazing it is that someone whose ancestors were slaves is now the First Lady, the more I wonder maybe there is a reason we don’t have great race relations in this country.

For starters, why is this news? Um…most Black folks who are American born with American born relatives, if given the chance to trace our lineage, could almost certainly trace our roots to ancestors who had been slaves. No, I am not saying all American Blacks had relatives who were slaves. In fact living in Maine, I have come to learn that for many Maine Blacks who have roots over several generations in Maine, that their paths were often different. But for many Blacks who currently live in large urban areas like oh Chicago, if we had relatives who came to the city during the great migration which started around 1910, well as you can see it wouldn’t be hard to not have had a great great great grandparent who had been a slave.

This is not news to most Black folks, hell we are shaking our hands wondering why is this news to White folks. Hell, I know there is a good chance that my ancestors at least on my Dad’s side had involvement in slavery and that is without doing a complete check of my background, after all my grandparents were sharecroppers in rural Arkansas. It’s not a great stretch in my mind to figure out that my great great great Grandparents were most likely slaves since my own grandparents were sharecroppers and my own Dad has told me enough stories that the world he grew up in was only a step or two removed from the days of slavery in Arkansas.

No, its great that this information is being discovered though it sounds like Michelle Obama didn’t quite give her blessing on this project since she had no comment when questioned by the NY Times. Though that’s a whole other post, I mean maybe one might want to be sensitive when digging around in someone’s personal history. Of course in our society it seems the lives of Black women are considered to be an open book, but that really is another post.

The fact that this is even newsworthy actually bugs me on one level because it’s once again a reminder that perhaps we as a society really don’t get each other and on some level we don’t try to get each other. To hear amazement that there was a white ancestor in her bloodline is also stunning…um, many hundreds of thousands of Black women during slavery were put into situations where they had relationships with white men. I will stop short at saying all were raped but my guess is the great majority of Black women who bore biracial children during slavery were not involved in mutually consensual relationships with the slave master. I mean lets keep it real, if my choice was getting fucked or getting killed or beaten or having my existing children sold off…what choice do I really have? Yeah, not really a choice.

In order for us to have real race relations in this country, it might help if we had a basic understanding of where we come from and our collective shared history. Maybe if Black History was not relegated to the shortest month of the year where we focus too much of on a few individuals instead we might not be amazed at the fact that the First Lady is descended from slaves because we would already know that. The longer we continue to not have open honest dialogues on the history and issues of race in this country, the more we continue to never advance as a people and as a society.

6 thoughts on “Um….is that really news?”

  1. I saw this on msnbc I think and they were speaking as though it was shocking news so I stopped, listened for a few minutes, thought it was cool they had traced all that, but was baffled by the reactions….like you said, things we pretty much already knew. I thought the news staff had lost their minds! Maybe it gives validity to it since she’s in the White House but that amazement at how Michelle is 5 generations from slavery to the White House is funny in a sick way. As if this has surpassed all expectations and possibilities for her or someone like her cuz, you know, she was a slave and all just 5 generations ago.

  2. Danielle (on her blog The Black Snob) wrote, “… the article is a fascinating portrait of what is a reality for most Americans, black and white. That many of us our bound by the commonality of the Peculiar Institution. It was so pervasive. So ordinary. So much part of the everyday reality to have people as property that it literally touches all Americans within its reach.”

    And she has asked, “What is your family’s story?”

    My ancestry is well documented, and either the African diaspora is not there, or edited out. 97% euro with no slaveholder ancestry, or any white roots deeper than early-mid 19th century, but as Danielle says about the peculiar institution, it touches all Americans within its reach. Even new immigrants in my opinion.

    It’s the long ragged unhealed scar that permeates and defines American history and character. An obscene elephant in the room that invalidates our pretensions of liberty-sourced moral specialness, American exceptionalism, God’s chosen country. PUH-LEEZE!

    I am doing what I can to nudge my fellow white citizens to understand this context, but most of them aren’t very reflective. They like to think blacks “had a hard time but its over” when really we are talking about generations of absolute soul-destroying family-crushing hell that’s still sloshing its evil energy through lives of blacks. They can’t seem to wrap their minds around that. But I do not confront; it doesn’t work.

    The NYT article, with it’s “we’re OK” vibe, can be unsatisfying to the historically literate. But, as I have learned painfully, enlightening your typical majority citizen, who has no inclination for examining their assumptions, is only possibly accomplished by presenting nonthreatening baby steps of perceptual adjustment for them to consider, rinse and repeat, until they have their delicate aha moment so they can achieve a minor bit of enlightenment. Then laborously build towards the next bit. I’ve been working on my parents for years, and they have slowly come quite far.

    The NYT article, solicitous as it is, is just another of the hundreds of perceptual adjustment pieces that will be needed to move some majority citizens toward an enlightened state. As much as they deserve to be confronted with the real deal, it doesn’t work. It just causes them to throw up their mental defenses. They quite literally can’t handle the truth, all at once.

    Have patience, not because they deserve it, but because that is what can potentially work.

    Wishing you all progress.

  3. I was listening to this story on NPR on my way home, and I thought it was a neat story–her family history resembles my own; minus North Carolina, add Mississippi. But I didn’t realize it was ground-breaking news! The lady interviewed that had dug around in Michelle’s family history described her grandfather as a family man, the people in the neighborhood all loved him, he was a church-goer and even a church founder, and I couldn’t understand how finding a good black man made the news, NPR no less.

  4. I read a thick book written by Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) when I was in my early 20s, and one of the things he noted was that “the complexion of Negroes had lightened during his lifetime” due to rape of slave women. He was a fabulous and brilliant man, and his social commentaries and autobiography are worth the time reading it, and ironically, his advice on everything from running a sane society to black folks needing to own property is still good advice.

    I read the NYT article but not the comments, but here and couple other blogs, it’s apparent that a lot of white folks are surprised.

    Just who are these folks? Must be conservatives, who generally live in a fixed news bubble and have no black friends or coworkers. Many black Americans clearly don’t look like most Africans, so I guess the shocked ones either lying or haven’t been paying attention…

  5. I don’t get it either, Shay. I mean, I find geneaology fascinating, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if I discovered that my white ancestors were 1) not white and/or 2) owned people. If I found that #2 was true, I’d barf, but I wouldn’t be shocked. Just like I wouldn’t be surprised to find that I’m not 100% of European white descent, either. I’m shocked that others are shocked, I guess.

  6. Yes! I work with a grassroots group that addresses issues of institutional racism in our school district, and one of the things we’re constantly on about is how everyone’s history is not taught. As you said, Black History Month doesn’t cut it — especially in our school district where the people in front of the classrooms are almost all white! They don’t even know how to make that one month work well.

    My eldest had one teacher who taught from Howard Zinn’s text, which was great, but that was one teacher. (And she often caught flak from the administrators for being a suspected communist. Sheesh.) ALL kids need to learn the REAL history of this country. Then maybe people’s mouths wouldn’t be hanging open over something that should be obvious. But hey, denial is easier for part of the population, I guess …

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