Friday, November 6, 2009

One Family’s Roots, a Nation’s History

By The Editors

Updated, Oct. 9, 1:30 p.m. Ishmael Reed, author and poet, joins the discussion.

In an article published on Wednesday, The Times reported on Michelle Obama’s ancestry, tracing her maternal line back to her great-great-great-grandparents, a slave girl and a white man, and their son, Dolphus T. Shields, who was born in the 1850s.

While these findings tell of Michelle Obama’s roots, for many Americans her family’s story will also bring into focus a common narrative, which runs through the history of this nation. We asked some historians and writers, why has it taken so long for Americans to appreciate these deep multiethnic connections?
Henry Louis Gates Jr., professor of humanities, Harvard University
Annette Gordon-Reed, historian and author, “The Hemingses of Monticello”
John McWhorter, author, “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue”
Martha Hodes, professor of history, New York University
Mark D. Shriver, professor of anthropology and biology
Mary Frances Berry, professor of social thought, University of Pennsylvania
Ira Berlin, professor of history, University of Maryland
Ishmael Reed, author

Shared Ancestries Revealed

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard and the executive producer and host of “African American Lives” and “Faces of America,” to be broadcast in February on PBS, which will explore the ancestry of Stephen Colbert, Meryl Streep, Eva Longoria, Yo Yo Ma, Mike Nichols, Malcolm Gladwell, and six others.

As we have shown in the “African American Lives” series on PBS, fully 58 percent of African Americans have at least 12.5 percent European ancestry. Only 5 percent, in spite of widespread myths to the contrary, have as much Native American ancestry. And between 30 and 35 percent of all African American males can trace their paternal lineage (their y-DNA) to a white man who impregnated a black female most probably during slavery.

The illegality of miscegenation, the prevalence of sexual abuse and rape, guilt, shame, and disgrace kept these relationships hidden.

What this means is that, in defiance of the law and social convention, an enormous amount of “race-mixing” has long been occurring in the United States, about which we, as a society, have for just as long been in deep denial. I have never given an admixture DNA test of a black person who turned out to be 100 percent African, no matter how dark or “African” they appear to be.

Some of this inter-racial sexuality was voluntary, we now know, but far more was coerced, a reflection or a result of a profound imbalance of power. Because of a confluence of factors — the illegality of miscegenation, the prevalence of sexual abuse and rape as the source of these relationships, infidelity, guilt, shame, and disgrace — both black people and white people had a certain interest in keeping these relationships in the dark, as it were.

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In my own family, Jane Gates–my great-great grandmother, born in 1818 as a slave — gave birth to several children who were fathered by one white man, including my great grandfather, Edward Gates. We know that he was an Irishman because of my father’s DNA. Because of shame, most probably, she took his identity with her to the grave. But using DNA tests, we have the chance of finding his identity, which we are pursuing in our next “African American Lives” program.
The first lady’s family tree — and the social and sexual complexity it reflects — is quite typical for a majority of African Americans. I am happy for her that her ancestors — long lost — have now been found by Megan Smolenyak. There is a certain inexpressible joy in knowing from whom you have descended, knowing where you come from. I have two missions: first, to help African Americans to uncover the roots and discover the branches on their family trees, and to help all Americans to learn to marvel at — and accept — the complexity of race relations in the nation’s history, a complexity registered in their DNA, a complexity writ large on the very face of Black America.

Histories Distorted

Annette Gordon-Reed is the author of “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. She is currently the Charles Warren Visiting Professor of Legal History at Harvard Law School.

The family stories of black Americans and the findings of population geneticists make clear that Michelle Obama’s family history is far from unique. The vast majority of black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved in North America have some degree of mixed ancestry.

Appearances deceive. People get thrown off merely looking at the surface. Do you have dark skin? Only people who are fair-skinned are thought to have white ancestry. And anyone who “looks” white can’t have any African ancestry. Those presumptions go nicely with the country’s historic racial program: to fit everyone into their racial “place” to determine how they should be treated.

Certain presumptions go nicely with the country’s historic racial program: to fit everyone into their racial “place.”

That a person who looks like Mrs. Obama is not “all” black destabilizes things, especially when one considers the implications. Are people who look “all” white really that? I remember speaking with one white Virginian who insisted that the white Virginians’ fetish for genealogy stems from a desire “to prove who is white.”

That we’ve just started speaking openly about the complexity of black ancestry doesn’t surprise. After all, white Americans, through law and social customs, invested heavily in promoting the idea that people of African descent were fundamentally different (inferior) types of human beings than whites. Slavery enforced that notion, and that’s what segregation was all about.

What happens when you recognize that you and fellow whites share a bloodline with the people you are claiming are so different? And then there’s the fact that none of this has made much difference to black Americans. Having a white father or great-great-great grandfather didn’t mean much: they were defined as “negro” or “black” and kept their place in the racial hierarchy.

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There’s also a lot of white Southern anxiety in denials of these tangled blood lines. Acknowledging them requires admitting what went on in the South; both the prevalence of the rape of black women and, in some instances, long-term connections between white men and black women in slavery and outside of it.
The evidence indicates that Southern white men of the 18th and 19th centuries were more used to sleeping with black women than white men today in all regions of the country; despite the popular notion that we’re living in a brand new age of interracial mixing. Some of those planters really were living like polygamous patriarchs of old with wives and concubines and bunches of kids. That’s the truth of early American history.

Our Non-Post Racial Climate

John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the author of “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English.”

If America now appreciates the mixing of races in our history, it isn’t clear to me just what the appreciation consists of.

Appreciating the mixing of races in our history does not eradicate racist feelings in the present.

One idea might be that if we appreciate, or acknowledge, the racial mixture in the past, then it will help eradicate racist feelings in the present. Surely, however, no one truly believes this could happen to any significant degree. The notion has a noble ring to it, but who supposes that a white person who harbors anti-black sentiment would change his mind upon being informed that slave masters often impregnated their female slaves? Or that genetically he probably has a bit of “black” in him from such interactions in the past?

Another thing that keeps us from appreciating such stories is that they are so often painful or embarrassing, involving coercion and illegitimacy. There is a story of this kind in my own family background, which my older relatives were reluctant to dwell on in conversation. To us now, it would seem like a complex tale of interaction between the races in the old South. To my grandfather, however, it was not a New Yorker think-piece story, but the beginning of a tough childhood he was happy to have escaped.

Of course there were less unsavory kinds of racial mixture in the past. I just finished reading Marcus LiBrizzi’s new book “Lost Atusville” about a small town in Maine founded in the 18th century, where black-white couples were hardly uncommon and occasioned little remark. But ironically, what keeps us from appreciating things like that as relevant to us is that we are as hung up on race in some ways as the people in Michelle Obama’s great-great-great-grandmother’s day were.

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That is, we still have a kind of one-drop rule. Of late, the category “biracial” is gaining ever more of a foothold in the national conversation, but not so long ago (i.e. when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s) people with one white parent and one black one were considered “black” — and black people were as stringent about that as whites, often suspicious of mixed people who stressed that they truly were half-black.
A reader comment I get often these days is a white person asking why I refer to Michelle Obama’s husband as black rather than as half-black and half-white. The reason is because he presents himself as black. He talks about the white part of his heritage, of course, but if he had gone out campaigning explicitly talking himself up as “half-white” (a la Tiger Woods’ “Cablinasian” notion) a great many black Americans would have felt him as primly distancing himself from black culture, and would never have taken him to heart. The typical comment about blacks disavowing full membership is “Wait till he gets pulled over by the cops — then see how white he feels.”
In our decidedly non-post-racial climate, I doubt we’ll be seeing the fact that white and black people were making babies in the 19th century as something to appreciate — or even acknowledge.

What Remains Buried

Martha Hodes, a professor of history at New York University, is the author of “The Sea Captain’s Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century” and “White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South.”

Why have these multiethnic connections been so long buried? The answer can be found quite readily within the story of Michelle Obama’s genealogy. We learn, first, that one man listed a 6-year-old child among his legal possessions, right alongside livestock and farming tools. We learn next that the child was shipped, like freight, away from her loved ones, and then that another white man had sex with her when she was a teenager. Why should we wonder at the impulse to bury such pain?

The often violent encounter of European and African ancestry is found in the family trees of white Americans, as well as black Americans.

Nor did the descendants of slavemasters break the silence within their own families. Mary Chestnut of South Carolina famously wrote in her 1861 diary that “every lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds.” As Helen Heath, the 88-year-old woman who attended church with Michelle Obama’s great-great-grandfather, said so plainly: “people didn’t want to talk about that.”

Even the way we talk about these “connections” doesn’t nearly capture the trauma of such lives, and the idea of “racial intermingling” that “lingers in the bloodlines of many African-Americans” seems rather gently worded in the article. The often violent encounter of European and African ancestry linger in the family trees of white Americans, not just black Americans. In fact, these histories ought to make us pause over the very categories of “black” and “white.”

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By the way, silence surrounds the history of sex between white women and black men, too. Such liaisons were often loving ones, and shameful for that very fact. When I uncovered the story of Eunice Connolly, a white woman from Massachusetts who married a black sea captain from the West Indies in 1869, I eventually found her great-grandniece, Jane Cushman. Jane treasured her family’s past, and shared many documents with me, but she didn’t know that her great-great aunt had married across the color line.
In fact, she didn’t know that Eunice existed at all — she and the sea captain had been erased from family history. Jane was thrilled to learn of Eunice, but that sentiment was new. For generations, people just didn’t want to talk about that either.

In Some Ways, Race Really Is Skin Deep

Mark D. Shriver is associate professor of biology at Morehouse College and associate professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University. He and his wife Katrina Voss are working on a short online educational video series, “Reading Between the Genes: Genetics Evolution and Public Health.”

We face a number of difficulties in talking and even thinking clearly about population differences. We face a history that is marred by forced emigration, slavery and dehumanization. To make matters more complicated, some conceptual blocks result from an incomplete appreciation of what we have learned from the study of evolution.

85 percent to 95 percent of human genetic variation is shared across all populations.

In the early 1970s new methods for assessing genetic variation on the molecular level demonstrated that 85 percent to 95 percent of human genetic variation is shared across all populations. Contemporary society has taken this as scientific evidence that there is no “biological foundation for race.” How do we reconcile this cognitive dissonance? Is science telling us that our perceptions are wrong — that we can’t see “race”?

The resolution to this dilemma is not the mantra, “differences don’t exist.” Nor is the lesson, differences are not essential and easily distinguished. The genome is not singular and different genes have independent evolutionary histories. We humans evolved upright walking before evolving modern brain size.

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This same principle holds for the evolution of traits and characteristics across populations with superficial traits changing rapidly. For instance, the light skin color of Europeans and East Asians evolved recently (less than 20,000 year ago) and only after the ancestors of these populations separated. Traits on the surface of an organism (for example, skin) are in direct contact with the environment, exposed to greater levels of natural selection. These traits are also exposed to the eyes of others; that is, to the force we call sexual selection. It is not at all surprising that visible differences exist from one population to the next nor should it be surprising that these differences might be mistaken as evidence for an essential divide.

Grappling With the Meaning of Race

Mary Frances Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania and former chairwoman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

The wide dissemination of the story of Michelle Obama’s white, black and Native American roots informs the public of a rather common occurrence among African-Americans. Surely, however, white Americans must have noticed that few African-American descendants of slaves are anything other than of mixed race. This is true though the one-drop rule made us all black, however fair of complexion.

Perhaps telling Michelle Obama’s story will lead to more admissions and discoveries of white families who have black ancestry.

Many historians and descendants have written about the subject and I have discussed many such stories in my writings on race and the law. In my own family on my father’s side, one grandfather was descended from a white slave owner and an African-American slave and the other from a Creek and freedwoman.

Historically, race-mixture stories have attracted sustained public interest only when some celebrity or a president, as in Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, is involved. Perhaps telling Michelle Obama’s story will lead to more admissions and discoveries of families even those thought to be white who have black ancestry.

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So far, however, race-mixture stories have not led to grappling with the difficult subject of the meaning of race. It will be interesting to see the result this time.

A Jumbled History

Ira Berlin, a professor of history at the University of Maryland, is the author of the forthcoming ”The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations.”

Historian-geneologist Megan Smolenyak’s extraordinary detective work featured in The Times article is a great gift to the First Family and to all Americans. It reminds us of who we are and how we became who we are. We are a jumbled people, a product of violent and occasionally loving relations that we are only beginning to unravel.

There is much to be learned from Melvinia’s tale, and not just for the First Family.

The story of Melvinia and her descendants is a common one in the long history of American slavery. It speaks to the violence of slavery, an institution that necessarily rested upon — indeed, could not exist without — slave masters enjoying a monopoly of violence and being willing to use it in unconscionable ways. In this case, as in others, Melvinia’s fate reveals the presumption that white men believed it was their prerogative to have sexual access to black women.

However, it tells us nothing about the nature of the relationship that emerged from such unions — relations that begin in force sometimes turn in strange ways and can even conclude with respect and love. As Professor James Gillmer noted in the article, “these relationships can be complex.” Melvinia’s story also reminds us of how close slavery is, how few generational jumps it takes to get back to the era of slavery — a period, which encompasses the majority of American history.

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Finally, it should be noted, that Melvinia’s tale points us as much to the history of white people as it does to that of black people. From various descriptions and from his picture, it is clear that Dolphus T. Shields, son of an enslaved black woman and a free white man, could have passed as white, and enjoyed the many benefits of white skin. He did not, but many others did. Their descendants often have no knowledge that they — as historian Edward Ball discovered — are as much descendants of Africa as they are of Europe, with a good portion of Native America thrown in.
For too long, the American people have divided themselves into imaginary categories that have no basis in any genetic reality. This reality has led some historians to conclude that a goodly portion — perhaps a majority — of Americans descended from slaves are presently “white.” There is much to be learned from Melvinia’s tale, and not just for the First Family.

A New People

Ishmael Reed is the author of “Mixing It Up, Taking On the Media Bullies.”

The revelations about Michelle Obama’s white ancestors come as no surprise to most African-Americans who have white, usually Irish or Scots Irish, or Native-American ancestors, or both. Such a revelation debunks most books, opinion columns, and think tank papers about race that are based upon the myth of the uninterrupted African ancestry of those whom we mistakenly designate as “African-Americans.” Put them all in the trash can and let’s get real.

In his great novel “Black No More,” George Schuyler made a wager to his white readers that they could not trace their ancestry without uncovering black relatives. William Loren Katz and Noel Ignatiev have written about race mixing among Americans. Novelists Chester Himes and Joel Williamson have claimed that it has occurred so frequently that those whom we refer to as black or African Americans are indeed, as Williamson has written, “a new people.”

Readers' Comments
1 .
New York
October 8th, 2009
9:20 am
Black people will persevere no matter what.That's what we do.

Recommended by 48 Readers
2 .
Don John
Melbourne Australia
October 8th, 2009
9:20 am
You are so lucky to have someone as marvellous as Michelle Obama as your first lady: try to concentrate on who she is and not what colour her great grandfather may have been. JML
Recommended by 61 Readers
3 .
Rev. Cheryl
Savannah, Georgia
October 8th, 2009
9:20 am
At one time or another, every Black person has looked at their skin and wondered, "Who is in me?" Especially if their skin tone is lighter or darker than their parents, as mine is. While DNA testing and advances in gerontology may help us find out the whos, most of us will never get to know the hows. That is the more interesting story.
Recommended by 23 Readers
4 .
Woodstock, Georgia
October 8th, 2009
9:20 am
I find this topic fascinating. I'm a white Southerner with a deep interest in genealogy, I've traced my own family lines back at least to the early 1800s and in some cases to Europe in the Middle Ages. My Y-Line (paternal) and Mitochondrial (maternal) DNA are both classified as European. Several years ago I had a DNA analysis done which indicated I'm 89% European, 7% East Asian, and 4% Sub-Saharan African. The test results cautioned that results below 10% could be just statistical noise, and I have other doubts as to their accuracy, particularly on the lack of Native American ancestry. But its intriguing, nevertheless.Dr. Gates and I had our Mtdna analyzed at the same lab, and we are an exact match. I've communicated with Dr. Gates' genealogist and, while we haven't identified our common ancestress, its undeniable and fascinating that we have this link.
Recommended by 33 Readers
5 .
October 8th, 2009
9:20 am
Great article. Gordon-Reed and Berry make one excellent point that should not be missed. White Americans seem to be comfortable acknowledging that black Americans can be and are of mixed background. But most of them don't seem to flip the coin over and acknowledge that they themselves may and in fact many do have African blood in them. Time to look in the mirror.
Recommended by 95 Readers
6 .
October 8th, 2009
12:13 am
As I have noticed in being black and acknowledging a 'mixed race' family history, is that some blacks have a problem with this, as if I am trying to mitigate my blackness or to make myself more exotic. I don't think that black people are hiding their pasts, I think it is a realization that no matter what your past says, if your skin is brown and your hair has any texture at all, you are black in America, point blank.
Recommended by 27 Readers
7 .
Spectral Thinker
Ithaca, NY
October 8th, 2009
12:13 am
It's very simple really.This points to the fact that it is not race that defines anything. What defines a person and indeed a people as a whole are the features and qualities of culture. Most simply put, culture, as it defines an individual, can be said to be how individuals conduct themselves as they move through societal life. Clearly that is a more useful gauge than appearance.
Recommended by 17 Readers
8 .
New York City
October 8th, 2009
12:13 am
While Michelle Obama's racial lineage may not be particularly unusual among black Americans, her family's racial composition is quite rare. She is married to a man whose mother was white, whose father was Kenyan/African, whose step father was Indonesian, whose sister is part Indonesian and part white and is married to a man who is Chinese-Canadian, Michelle's black brother is married to a white woman. This family's racial composition is rare but is a picture of things to come. We are rapidly moving into a cultural environment in which class is replacing race as a major distinguishing feature. However, present indicators are that because of historical factors the lower classes will be primarily people of color.
Recommended by 64 Readers
9 .
springfield, mo
October 8th, 2009
12:13 am
Perhaps this discovery and subsequent dialoguing will lead us closer to a consensus that we are all, first and foremost, human beings. And that we, in America, are a people at the crossroads of humanity. We have a turbulent history to be sure. But is there a greater testament to the greatness of our country and our people than the first lady herself and her story?
Recommended by 11 Readers
10 .
The Texan
October 8th, 2009
12:13 am
We're ALL the human race. I'm Irish, French, English, and Cherokee. I'm sure there's more. My blood is red, too.
Recommended by 36 Readers
11 .
Lee Karr
Venice, FL 34285
October 8th, 2009
12:13 am
I haven't seen word one on the implications of the overwhelming possibility that many of the white progenitors of contemporary African-Americans were brutes and rapists and that their genetic heritage burdens the innocent bearers of their bequest.
Recommended by 38 Readers
12 .
October 8th, 2009
12:13 am
The late Brazilian author (and Stanford Professor) Gilberto Freyre described in detail the intermingling of races in Northeastern Brazil as a result of centuries of sexual encounters between white man and black slaves in his book "the masters & the slaves". In this sense, Brazil is different from the U.S. because here race mixing was an official Government policy, decided by the marquis de Pombal, prime minister of the Portuguese Empire at the end of the 18th century, as recounted by Kenneth Maxwell in his book "Conflicts and Conspiracies: Brazil and Portugal 1750-1808".
Recommended by 15 Readers
13 .
at work
October 8th, 2009
12:13 am
Miscegenation seems such a dirty word. It's time pose a way of rendering the mixing of the races as a positive thing - a 'pro'cegenation kind of a deal if you will.
Recommended by 12 Readers
14 .
October 8th, 2009
12:13 am
I find it hard to believe that anyone could look at Michelle Obama (or almost any other African-American) and not realize that she is of mixed race. My eyes were opened in the late '60s when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin. It was strikingly clear that there were racial differences between the students from Africa and the African-American students.
Recommended by 23 Readers
15 .
Nashville, TN
October 8th, 2009
12:13 am
Once upon a time, was a scientist named Gregor Johann Mendel. His work should make those who think they are either pure black or pure white think again.

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