A descendant of slavery, in a House it helped build

Perhaps because it wasn’t much of a shock, or because Michelle Obama herself hadn’t made any public effort to shed light on her distant past, but the revelation that Mrs. Obama is descendant of African-American slaves comes as a simple underscore to the history of a nation that has struggled to deal with race issues.

If there was a surprise after genealogist Megan Smolenyak and The New York Times examined the records and determined Mrs. Obama’s ancestry, it was that Obama’s great-great-great-grandfather was white; he fathered a child with enslaved and illiterate Melvinia Shields.

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.

In his will, she is described simply as the “negro girl Melvinia.” After his death, she was torn away from the people and places she knew and shipped to Georgia. While she was still a teenager, a white man would father her first-born son under circumstances lost in the passage of time.

As complex a path as Michelle Obama’s to the White House may be, the story resonates with a little bit of that “yea, well…” feeling. That feeling where you’re not quite sure what something means, and you’re already late for your 10:30 meeting.

That Michelle Obama now lives in the White House — a house that slaves helped build — is surely a sign of progress in American society. That, before her husband became president, eight presidents owned slaves while in office leaves a sour tinge on the praise we casually heap on the country’s forefathers.

While President Obama’s biracial background has drawn considerable attention, his wife’s pedigree, which includes American Indian strands, highlights the complicated history of racial intermingling, sometimes born of violence or coercion, that lingers in the bloodlines of many African-Americans.

Admittedly, my background as a young, white male from Minnesota limits my ability to put this in proper context. Does this mean anything to you, dear readers? Is this one more step towards a realized, post-racial society, or just fodder for presidential trivia?

Comments are closed.