Attention white folks …

… some of your ancestors may have raped some of mine.  Oh, I’m sorry.  Is this is the first you’re hearing of it?

The New York Times ‘broke’ a story today: they’ve discovered the white ancestor in Michelle Obama’s family tree. SHOCKER!!  She’s not as black as we thought, not as black as she wants us all to believe.  She’s got a white relative.  Five generations ago a slave owner raped her adolescent great-great-great grandmother.

I’m sorry.  Help me understand the film-at-eleven significance here.  This is a story that is true for just about every African American.  So … how is this news? 

On The Takeaway this morning, the story was introduced with teasers about shaking up Michelle Obama’s family tree and Michelle Obama’s family tree being controversial.  Really?  I’m sorry, but I just don’t understand for whom this discovery is supposed to be a big surprise.  How can it be?  And why is anyone this interested in finding Michelle’s white ancestor?  What does this prove other than things we already know: Michelle Obama is African American, and blacks in this country have suffered abuse at the hands of whites.  Where’s the shake-up?  Where’s the controversy?

Rachel Swarns, who wrote the story with Jodi Kantor, noted that the White House had declined to comment because this was a personal matter.  Yes.  Exactly.  And about what would Swarns have wanted the White House to comment?  About the fact that she and Kantor had researched the history of a person who hadn’t asked for the favor?  Because for me that’s the only news here.

The ‘white ancestor’ story has been around for centuries, has been told in every black American household.  It isn’t usually papered over in bullshit like the Jefferson-Hemings story, but it has been told again and again.

When questioned about whether this ‘news’ was any of The Times‘ business, about whether anyone should be putting Michelle Obama’s business in the street, Swarns said this was our business because it’s ‘an American story’ that speaks to ‘this older racial intermingling.’  That sounds a bit too much like a lean toward choice, toward the Hemings whitewash.  Megan Smolenyak, the genealogist who worked on the research with Swarns says that African Americans need to decide whether or not we want to confront our history and that doing genealogical research is a choice that each individual has to make.

Right.  I mean, I guess that’s right … unless you’re Michelle Obama and someone decides to make the choice for you and publish it in The New York Times for the rest of us to pick over.

When Celeste Headlee, Takeaway co-host, talked about her own family line including a white overseer who raped her great-great grandmother, Smolenyak is quick to point out (in what to my ear was a somewhat teacher-y, almost-condescending voice) that ‘those white overseers are also your ancestors.’

Oh.  Really?  Can Smolenyak really think she has something to teach Headlee here?  Can she really think Headlee doesn’t know this, hasn’t already come to terms with it?  Does anyone truly believe any of this is news for any black person?  Look at us.  Look at all the shades and hair textures of us.  We would have to be insane to not have known and long ago accepted the existence of our ‘white ancestors.’  Please.

To whom is this news, then?  To white Americans?  Is it?  Really?  Is it whites who need to confront their histories and acknowledge that the children their great-great-great grandfather sold to other plantations are their relatives?  Is it whites who need to acknowledge that great-great-great grandpa was a rapist?  Is that the history that needs confronting?  Is that the family tree that’s controversial?

I’m offended by this story.  I know Michelle Obama is a public figure.  I just don’t see why anyone felt they had any right to go digging into Obama’s history.  For what?  Has anyone researched the geneology of our former first ladies?  Did it make the news?  Yes, Michelle Obama is a history-making first lady.  Do you know how little that excuses in terms of a story like this?  While I applaud John Hockenberry for asking why Swarns thought this story was anyone’s business, for asking why The Times felt the need to run the story, he loses points with me for insisting on talking about the story as if it’s real news, as if there’s a shocking controversy in this utterly commonplace fact.

What’s the real agenda of this story?  Are we now supposed to think Michelle Obama isn’t quite ‘authentically black’ enough?  (See, she’s been hiding her white family all this time!)  Or is this an effort to quiet the crazies who paint her as a black nationalist militant?  (See, she can’t be all bad: she has white blood!)  Or are we now supposed to see the Obamas as ‘more American,’ because we now have definitive proof that the first lady’s family came up from slavery.  (See, it’s ok that the president is half-foreign: Michelle’s ancestors were slaves!)  I’m still looking for a little clarity on what it is we’re supposed to be taking away from this (… and wondering how long it will be before descendants of that rapist slave owner show up at the front door in DC looking to cozy up to their long-lost cousin).

29 thoughts on “Attention white folks …

    1. Hey, Kendall–
      Nice to see you. Yeah, the steam is still coming out of my ears on this one. This post could have gone on about twice as long with all the things I’ve been thinking about this story.


  1. Yeah, this turned my stomach, too–esp the black women from the NYT…”this confirms what Michelle’s family had heard rumors about for years.” She didn’t ASK for confirmation, and is this somehow supposed to prove to that asshole from SC that the First Lady’s NOT descended from that ape who escaped from the local zoo? They won’t EVER say it’s rape; Miss Thang was on the Newshour last night talking about how Melvinia lived next door to her former master’s son, suggesting “she wanted it.” It was a romance, see, not rape. I get SO SICK of Americans not telling the truth. Even this Chris Rock movie about hair sounds like a load of BS, but don’t let me get started on THAT…


    1. Yeah, I read that bit in the article about what MO’s family has long suspected. Please. I actually think the more impressive geneological research would be to find the one slave owner who never raped a slave. That would be shocking news.

      And the part about Melvinia living next door to the master’s son and about one of the children being born a couple of years after the end of slavery pissed me off. Right, because abuse would stop just because slaves were freed? Yes, I’m sure that’s true. Clearly “these relationships can be very complex,” as the law prof from Wesleyan noted so delicately.

      My stomach hurts.


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    1. Thanks, Julie —
      It’s funny — just trying to respond to comments is getting me all riled up again. Maybe I should go back to my post and add back the lengthy sections I deleted. I clearly have a lot more to say on this one.


  3. Wow. Just wow. On so many points.

    “Is it whites who need to acknowledge that great-great-great grandpa was a rapist? Is that the history that needs confronting?”

    It should be.

    “I actually think the more impressive geneological research would be to find the one slave owner who never raped a slave. That would be shocking news.”


    I can’t help but think, too, that exposing Michelle Obama’s personal, private ancestry without her consent, for any agenda, constitutes a second rape. When will it end?


    1. Thanks, Erika, and for that last point you make, too. That’s what I’ve been thinking and it’s nice to hear it coming from someone else. It’s been so frustrating listening to the reporters and the geneologist talking about this ‘great work’ they’ve done and how this is such ‘an American story’ and not at all about how their decision to do this work and publish it could be affecting MO and her family.


  4. molly

    Yes, please write the further comments you have on this.
    I do think men and white people should not be surprised when people don’t trust them/us. History doesn’t go away. Evil actions leave a very, very long trail. Reminders of what has happened/is happening are appropriate. Education is an arduous task.
    The invasion of the privacy of public figures is a huge issue.
    I feel and appreciate the force of your anger.


  5. I’m sorry- but anyone who read books in the high school curriculum or watched movies like The Color Purple . . . this shouldn’t be news… At least says the woman blessed with an educated brain.

    Why didn’t they perform Bush’s genealogy or why haven’t they traced Pat Buchanon to a rapist-slave-owner?


    1. From another woman blessed with an educated brain: hear, hear! Maybe we should have done Bush’s genealogy … then we could have ‘discovered’ that he isn’t the good ol’ Texas boy he likes to seem, but is instead the New England boy born with the silver spoon in his mouth.


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  8. Have you read Octavia Butler’s Kindred? it’s been a while since I’ve read it, but as I remember, a woman accidentally goes back in time and meets her white ancestor, saves his life, and eventually ends up killing him when he tries to rape her. I could be a bit fuzzy, but it’s a good look at “coming to terms” with the white ancestor. I think it also illustrates the fact that a black person might be called to account for a white ancestor, but there was never any expectation for the white ancestor to acknowlege, or even comprehend a connection to his black descendants.


    1. Hi, Meagan, and thanks for stopping by (though I wish you hadn’t given away the story line of Kindred, which I haven’t read yet!). Your point is well taken, however. A big deal was made in that interview about Michelle Obama needing to come to terms with her past, but no one talks about finding the descendants of that white rapist and asking them to come to terms with anything.


  9. John

    I”m a Polish-American so a black man is WAY more likely to rape someone from MY family than someone from my family is likely to have EVER raped a black woman.

    Considering my people CAME HERE AS SLAVES. There is no “white race”, how come black people only ever learn the history of ENGLISH white people but they never learn about Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans?

    Prolly cuz if they read up on the plight of the Irish slaves or the plunder of France, Spain and Italy in the middle ages by African Moors, that would mean they’d no longer have everything handed to them on a “victim” platter unless the hungry Irish-American children in Appalachia got fed from that platter as well and Al Sharpton and the like don’t want that.


    1. So much to say, so little time. First: is your opening comment implying that “black men” (generic) are more likely to be rapists than Polish men? Not exactly the best way to get this conversation started.

      Second: are you blaming me and other black people like me for the fact that the textbooks we studied in school didn’t contain the information you wish it had? In fact, I learned a lot about indentured servitude (if that’s what you meant when you shouted about your family coming to this country as slaves). I think we were fed those indentured servant stories as a way to off-set the half-a-glance at slavery we glissed over each year, showing us that it wasn’t just Africans that had it bad. I acknowledge that indentured servants had a hard way to go, but there is a world of difference between being an indentured servant and being a slave … up to and including the fact of being much more able to ‘pass’ after running away. But all that notwithstanding, how it is the fault of black people that American textbooks don’t tell a broader story? We barely get to see ourselves represented in text books. I’ll leave it to the Polish-Americans to fight for greater, more accurate inclusion of their history in the text books. To blame the students is way off base, don’t you think?

      Third: the plunder of western Europe … that was just the moors, eh? Because that’s not what the history books I’ve read tell me. Perhaps they were just as ‘blackwashed’ as my school books were whitewashed? And even if the moors worked a scorched earth policy over the whole of Europe, how would that make it ok for Africans to have been enslaved in this country and treated the ways they were? Apples and oranges, sounds like.

      Fourth: what’s this magical, mystical ‘victim platter’ you talk of? It seems to have passed me and my black self by. What exactly was I supposed to have been handed on that platter, and how was it supposed to have helped me?

      I hear your anger. I accept your right to your anger. I guess I just wish you’d come at me with firmer ground to stand on. I don’t see what your anger about what black people were taught in school has to do with my anger over the invasion of the First Lady’s privacy. I don’t see what your anger has to do with my assertion that the discovery of a white ancestor is pretty much never news to a black person. I don’t see what your anger has to do with my taking offense at the tone of the researcher who contributed to the Times article. From where I’m standing, your comment sounds like an angry person who just wanted to yell and used my post as a jump-off point.


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