In case you haven’t heard: First Lady Michelle Obama has mixed ancestry. You don’t say! Somebody’s pulling my leg. She’s part European, African and… drumroll… “Indian”! Honestly, what American isn’t? Okay, I know discovering one’s family genealogy is a very satisfying endeavor. Particularly for black people who struggle to fill in genealogical holes due to a lack of record-keeping during slavery. But why are white Americans still surprised that African-Americans are a group of people genetically impacted by something other than west African? More importantly, why are some folks trying to single out one of Michelle Obama’s maternal biracial ancestors as a 19th century Barack Obama?
In today’s New York Times, writers Rachel L. Swarns and Jodi Kantor have this to say about the First Lady’s maternal great-great grandfather:
“Dolphus Shields was in his 30s and very light skinned – a church-going carpenter who could read, write and advance in an industrializing town… Dolphus Shields served as a rare link between the deeply divided black and white communities. His carpentry shop stood in the white section of town, and he mixed easily and often with whites… Dolphus Shields believed race relations would improve. “It’s going to come together one day,” he often said…”
Now I appreciate Swarns and Kantor’s need to share with their readers the complexities of some of our First Lady’s ancestors. It’s some interesting stuff, but it’s nothing new for black folks (or whites either if they’d just come clean about their so-called clear-cut ancestry). I also can appreciate Swarns and Kantor’s need to show the uncanny parallel between Michelle Obama’s biracial great-great grandfather and her biracial president-husband. But the danger in their parallel could mislead readers to think only biracial men made political and social impacts in the early 20th century. Or that literacy, trade and the belief that race relations would improve wasn’t also the dream of darker-skinned African-Americans.
Again, I think Swarns and Kantor’s parallel is an interesting one. I’m just not sure if they’re suggesting Michelle Obama has a history of literate, biracial men in her family so choosing Barack Obama as her husband makes sense; or if they’re suggesting Barack Obama’s presidency and successes are rooted deep in his biracial, light-skinned appearance and the privileges it provides. But for many, that’s not news at all.