Friday, November 6, 2009

Freedom Rider: Michelle’s Family Tree

Posted Tue, 10/13/2009 - 00:54 by Margaret Kimberley

by BAR editor and senior columnist Margaret Kimberley

Strange things happen when members of the oppressed and despised group rise to power and fame. Their backgrounds are magnified, yet still remain one-dimensional in the larger society's eyes. In failing to respect Michelle Obama's ancestors, whose story is common to most Black lineages, the New York Times disrespects the First Lady, as well.

“If there is anything complex about Michelle Obama’s family, it is in exactly the same way that most black families are.”

Before her bomb dropping husband received a prize usually reserved for those waging peace, Michelle Robinson Obama and her family were the subject of much media scrutiny. For reasons known only to themselves, the New York Times felt compelled to study the first lady’s family tree.

The story about the Robinson family was replete with specious investigation methods and bizarre conclusions. There was nothing particularly noteworthy in its description of the genealogy of a black family with southern roots. The Times seemed caught up in a particularly powerful form of Obamamania which made them curious about the Robinsons, but not curious enough to examine how slavery effects this country to this very day.

It all seems to be a case of white people deciding that black people are ever so fascinating. The level of interest never extends to the conditions black people face on a daily basis in the 21st century, however. Those conditions stare even the most casual observer in the face, but are only investigated as opportunities to condemn and to blame black Americans as the source of any and all problems.

“The Times seemed caught up in a particularly powerful form of Obamamania.”

The Times determined that the most noteworthy Robinson ancestor was a woman named Melvinia Shields. In the year 1850, when she was six years old, Melvinia’s slave holder listed her among his property to be bequeathed to a relative upon his death. She later gave birth to four children who were listed as mulatto in the 1870 census.

Megan Smolenyak, the genealogist hired by the Times, declared that Melvinia was “screaming to be found.” I’m sure all of the enslaved, who were bought, sold and willed as property cried out for recognition, but it is the birth of Melvinia’s children that seems to spark the most curiosity, but not for the reasons it should have. Slavery demanded the constant reproduction of human beings. The rape of slaves was useful not only for pleasure, but for business too.

But these obvious facts elude the writers at the great Gray Lady, who felt comfortable stating only that Melvinia was “coerced” into bearing a white man’s children. The delicacy obscures what should have been the salient point of any telling of slave history, that women were under the constant threat of sexual violence. The Times’ writers had only some degree of curiosity, and no willingness to give any meaningful analysis to their research. The article was an opportunity to delve into America’s greatest shame, and into the ongoing legacy of that shameful and criminal behavior into the 21st century.

“The writers felt comfortable stating only that Melvinia was ‘coerced’ into bearing a white man’s children.”

The Times would probably be better off ignoring any future urge to learn any fascinating tidbits about the negro race. It is difficult to believe the Times contention that Michelle Obama didn’t know she had had at least one white ancestor.Every black person is aware of this part of their family history. The name or names are usually unknown, but their existence is never in doubt, despite what the Times says on the subject.
Melvinia’s oldest son, Dolphus Shields, is one of Michelle Obama’s direct ancestors. He and his mother are the only ones deemed worthy of such great scrutiny. To add further insult, Dolphus Shields’ life was rendered into nothing more than a simplistic “pull up by the bootstraps” story which usually does nothing more than let white people off the hook. If it can be said that an individual born into slavery ended up owning a home and a business, then America can’t be so bad after all.

It is all very “complex” so the Times says. Relationships between exploited slave women and their masters were “complex,” and so is the Robinson family tree. If there is anything complex about Michelle Obama’s family, it is in exactly the same way that most black families are. Some children survived slavery and or Jim Crow and managed to live productive lives despite the horrors of their beginnings. Some did not, but should not be judged by New York Times genealogists as wastrels who mysteriously fell by the way side.

“It is difficult to believe the Times contention that Michelle Obama didn’t know she had had at least one white ancestor.”

Unfortunately, reaction to the story was predictable and useless. We are all one race, the human race. Race is a sociological construct. Michelle Obama’s family persevered and proved that other black people can too and are at fault if they don’t.

After the Nobel peace prize dust settles, the family story will reappear. Someone like Henry Louis Gates will find a way to make money and the “we are all one people” group will hold sway in public discourse. The story of millions of people toiling without pay for more than two hundred years, and the legacy it left behind will go unnoted by the Times and their ilk in the corporate media. It will all be turned into sentimental mush and Melvinia Shields may still be crying out for the recognition she ought to have received.

Margaret Kimberley's Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)

Michelle's White Ancestry
by celestee - 10/15/2009 - 22:18
I saw it on the NYT's site and refused to read it because I knew exactly where it would lead. And based on your review, it was just as I thought. And not surprising it was one of the most emailed articles the day it appeared.
For some Whites, it is just not possible to believe that anything good and exceptional can come from Blacks unless there is some White influence. I can definitely see intellectuals rationalizing "rape" if deep down they believe that a Black person with White ancestry is better or more acceptable or more like them than a Black with no White ancestry.
Finally, in Barack Obama's famous speech on race in Philly last year he mentioned Michelle being a descendant of slaves as well as slaveholders. When I heard/read this, I assumed he meant "White" slaveholders - not "Black" slaveholders. So if the Times asserts that Michelle did not know she had White ancestors, then someone is lying.

by BBFmail - 10/19/2009 - 18:32
"In failing to respect Michelle Obama's ancestors, whose story is common to most Black lineages, the New York Times disrespects the First Lady, as well." I cannot and will not respect any First Lady (or President) who wastes an estimated $425,000 TAX PAYER'S MONEY to fly on Air Force One to Chicago for a Valentine's Day date. Then there was the NY theatre date at an estimated cost of $48,000(which was probably 2x that much), and those wasted trips trying to sell Chicago for the next Olympics (was that another 1/2 billion?)...and then there are those $600 tennis shoes wore to a Soup Kitchen photo Op! MARGARET!!! I HAVE TO LEAVE THE RESPECT UP TO YOU. I am disgusted.

Excuse you BBFMail. . .
by Seventies Soulchild - 10/21/2009 - 07:45
Let's stay on topic here. This story is about Michelle Obama's ancestry and family lineage. Not about how much money was supposedly spent on the Obamas flying Air Force One on a date or vacation. Please cite a reliable source. Until then you do, that spiel you made is nothing but propaganda, specifically what is referred to as GRAY PROPAGANDA.Finally, I don't care if you don't like the government, I'm not going to let you bad mouth or disrespect a black woman and think you can get away with it. Michelle Obama and Barack Obama worked very hard to have the life they are living right now. I'm happy that they are successful and I'm happy that Michelle Obama is able to own $600 shoes. Which in fact were given to her as a gift because she is HIGHLY FAVORED. Stop the hate, you back door neo-con. Apparently, Michelle Obama's white ancestry means absolutely nothing. . .

Excellent point,
by beverly - 10/20/2009 - 19:57
Excellent point, BBFmail!!!!!!As we the people continue to be bamboozled and screwed over by the powers that be, we need a little less reverence and respect towards said powers and more in your face confrontation and holding them accountable.

On the disappearing of women from history, with a few exceptions
by NYCartist - 10/15/2009 - 10:35
as in the NYTimes article. I avoid the NYTimes.
When DemocracyNow had an interview some months ago, on Michelle Obama's family, there was about one sentence, possibly two on the women, one woman. I wrote Dem.Now and complained that was an example of how women disappear from history. The NYTimes is not adding anything to the history, as noted, except in a skewered way.I like M. Kimberly's pointing out the "delicacy" around "force" (i.e.rape) of the woman ancestor in the story. (I also note the men, I presume they are, in comments on the story on BAR about Roman Polanski, who are defending the man's behavior in forcing ((i.e. rape)) of a 13 year old girl.)
------On the small notice "BAR needs your help" under this article/posting by Margaret Kimberly. Yesterday, I discovered the notice while looking in vain all over the site home page for the street address, and search box.I could not find the street address in my records. The street address appeared prominently in the "We Need Your Support" article that had been on the older home page until this new one. I am older, low tech skills and still use paper. Also, I was unable to send an email toMs. Kimberly to say what I said in this paragraph based on my using the form of the email listed above, although I do know to change the word "at" to @. I hope the street address somehow can be put back in a home page location for us older or low tech folks.

I think family is one of the
by diendienk - 10/19/2009 - 07:33
I think family is one of the basic basement to achieve good personal character. Good personal character influenced also by the family life. But even so there are some exception cases which someone can be good character even the family is broke. Related with first lady, i think it's not fair if we judge only from her family history. She could be like this cause her will and courage to survive.

White Presidents and First Lady's
by mosley33 - 10/14/2009 - 23:33
You know, what would be really interesting is research on white presidents and first lady's ancestors to discover african-americans in their family tree.
That's not likely, because it'll take you behind the veil of the white lie...gotta protect the lie at all cost.
M.L. Mosley

uterine fibroids
by AngelaE7508 - 10/23/2009 - 21:25
I don't think that anyone should be judged by their ancesters. Everyone has ancesters from different parts of the world. The Good Lord loves every one of us, no matter what color we are. uterine fibroids

Read. . .
by Seventies Soulchild - 10/21/2009 - 07:33
J.A. Rogers "The Five Black Presidents".

good point
by ch55x - 10/15/2009 - 21:46
It's like a lie in a room flooded with truth...

by Spike - 10/14/2009 - 13:41
As a sociologist, I have to say that you are right, Margaret. The point of the story was to excise the impact of race from people's minds. Race is sociologically real (this is why I hate "social constructionism," which makes everything sound like a mere word-game), and this story portrays it as mere "history."
Meanwhile, don't you wonder why this kind of story only appears when somebody has a humble background? They certainly aren't going to run this stuff and show people the power of class in this society...

Agree with you! :)
by Seventies Soulchild - 10/14/2009 - 12:02
Well actually, Kimberly, the family featured in the NY Times article are the Shields (Marion Shields -Robinsons line), not the Robinsons. However, the Robinson lineage was done by genealogy group Low Country Africana ( Just a minor correction there.

Being that I am currently working in great depth on my own family genealogy, this is in fact nothing spectacular as it pertains to African-American famililes. This in my view was a politcal play to make Mrs. Obama more 'acceptable' to whites. Also on a smaller scale, in the world of African-American genealogy, it promotes whites as being more knowledgable on our culture and history, which really chaffs my behind!Dr. Gates, whose op-ed appeared in the blog The Root on this topic, appears to be nothing more than an opportunist trying to make a name for himself from this story.At the end of the day, black people know and understand that Michelle Obama's ancestor being raped by a white man doesn't make her any less black than she was before this story came out. The story wasn't for US, it was for white americans. That's it , That's ALL!

by ch55x - 10/14/2009 - 14:26
"The story wasn't for US, it was for white americans. That's it , That's ALL!"You can add those CNN series, Black & Latino in America though they even stopped short of telling a balanced story...SMH!!!Heck, they covered Michelle's background on a CNN piece months ago, so it must be for others...


Black Buzz said...

Th vast majority of Afro-Americans come mixed or multi-racial backgrounds and that is nothing new.So does anyone with a modicum of intelligence think that White Americans will now accept Michele Obama more knowing that one of her great-great Grand-mothers was raped by a white man ? I suspect that a lot of Gates DNA studies are flawed and inaccurate and anything that Gates does in the area of DNA testing is full of his own personal prejudices. Professor Gates is one of the biggest frauds in Academia,and all modern day humans are descendants of the San Bushmen so why professor Gates doesn't your test reveal that Sub-Saharian DNA trait in all the human beings that you sample which is not a true represenative sample of a given population group. Henry Louis Gates Jr. should be exposed for the fraud that he is. He's just a academic pimp hustling a bunch of non-sense to an ill informed public.

Black Buzz said...

The vast majority of Afro-Americans come from mixed or multi racial backgrounds and that is nothing new. All modern day humans come by way of the San Bushmen so shouln't all of Gates bogus testing/sampling reveal that sub-Saharian DNA ?