Obama Slave-Ancestry Report Misses Mark

Two scholars dispute assertions that a 17th-century forebear was one of the first documented slaves.

Barack Obama (Jim Watson/AFP); Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham(Maxine Box/Getty Images)
Barack Obama (Jim Watson/AFP); Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham(Maxine Box/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Monday’s New York Times article on President Obama’s roots in Southern slavery through his mother has reopened the contention that the first Africans brought to Virginia were indentured servants and not slaves. While some observers, such as writer Alondra Nelson, may contend that genealogy studies prove little beyond how closely all members of the human family are related, they are invaluable for understanding the greater past.

Yesterday’s news was also about real historical events and the ability to bring the past alive. There was a real John Punch, real laws that defined his status in a racializing America and real descendants who made certain decisions in the evolving marketplace of American race relations. These past decisions have major implications about the way that contemporary Americans view themselves and fellow Americans.

That being said, the issue is a complicated one. As professors of history and African-American studies at Boston University, we have been unraveling the story of the first African arrivals in Virginia over the past decade, and despite suggestions to the contrary in the New York Times article, we can assert that Africans were not indentured servants as Europeans were.

As stated in the Times piece, genealogists from Ancestry.com said they have evidence that “strongly suggests” that through his white mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, President Obama had an enslaved ancestor in the 17th century named John Punch: “In 1640, Mr. Punch, then an indentured servant, escaped from Virginia and went to Maryland. He was captured there and, along with two white servants who had also escaped, was put on trial. His punishment — servitude for life — was harsher than what the white servants received, and it has led some historians to regard him as the first African to be legally sanctioned as a slave, years before Virginia adopted laws allowing slavery.”

We should immediately note, though, that the word “slave” was rarely used in documents generated in Virginia in 1640 — at least, not in the legal sense of a condition of constant and inheritable servitude. Africans were, however, usually identified in documents as “negroes.” In fact, this was by far the most common term for people of African descent in Virginia records.

“Negro” was not, of course, an English word but, rather, a Portuguese one. It entered English in the late 16th century and with specific reference to Africans because Portugal was the only European nation engaged in the slave trade, and the Portuguese used this word specifically to designate slaves.

The word was not confined to slaves from Africa. Brazilian records routinely use the term negros da terra (Negroes of the country) to describe Native Americans held as slaves in sugar plantations during the same period.

When the word appeared in Virginia in 1619, it referred to Africans taken from Portuguese ships — as were all slaves brought to English and Dutch colonies in North America — and took on the Portuguese meaning of slavery. For the Portuguese, there was no confusion about what slavery was: a permanent, lifelong and inheritable condition of servitude that could be relieved only by manumission from the master.

The question then, is, would Africans arriving in Virginia under these circumstances be given contracts of indenture for a specified term of service, as Englishmen and other Europeans were? There are few records of indentures for anyone in early Virginia, since many contracts were only verbal, but we think it most unlikely that they would have been.