… 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).