In defiance of law, social convention and what some “believe,” an enormous amount of “race mixing” has long been occurring in the U.S.
First Lady Michelle Obama’s maternal third-great-grandfather was a white man who fathered Melvinia Shields’ (her maternal third great-grandmother) son, Dolphus T. Shields, both slaves. This discovery, like all recoveries of the identities of ancestors we thought had been obliterated in the crucible of slavery, is first and foremost a welcome gift for the first family, especially for Michelle’s mother, Marian Shields Robinson, and the Shields family line. And for anyone still naïve enough to believe in the myth of racial purity, it is one more corroboration that the social categories of “white” and “black” are and always have been more porous than can be imagined, especially in that nether world called slavery.
As I have learned since embarking upon my African American Lives series (for PBS), never before are more African Americans determined to ferret out the names of their slave ancestors, and never before have more resources, especially online, been available to facilitate these searches. But, be prepared. To paraphrase the Bible: seek; but fasten your seat belt as to what ye may find.
For those of us fortunate enough to lift the veil on our family’s slave past and identify our actual ancestors, these genealogical searches often yield startling results—two in particular. The first shock? That Cherokee Princess that family lore says is your great-great-grandmother most probably never existed. The sad truth is that the overwhelming percentage of African-American people have very little Native American ancestry in their DNA.
A Harvard colleague of mine likes to say, “DNA don’t lie.” And the Reverend Eugene Rivers likes to say that “DNA has freed more black men than Abraham Lincoln.” But genealogy and DNA tests are also “freeing” a lot of our white ancestors as well, revealing the vast extent of white ancestry that each black American has. Here are the facts: Only 5 percent of all black Americans have at least 12.5 percent Native American ancestry, the equivalent of at least one great-grandparent. Those “high cheek bones and “straight black hair” your relatives brag about at every family reunion and holiday meal since you were 2 years old? Where did they come from? To paraphrase a well-known French saying, “Seek the white man.”
African Americans, just like our first lady, are a racially mixed or mulatto people—deeply and overwhelmingly so. Fact: Fully 58 percent of African-American people, according to geneticist Mark Shriver at Morehouse College, possess at least 12.5 percent European ancestry (again, the equivalent of that one great-grandparent). As a matter of fact, if I analyzed the y-DNA (which a man inherits exactly from his father, and he from his father, etc.) of all the black players in the NBA, fully one-third (somewhere between 30 percent and 35 percent) would, incredibly, discover that they were descended from a white male who impregnated a black female, most likely a female slave, just as a white man did Michelle Obama’s third-great-grandmother. In the ‘60s, we were fond of saying that we are an “African people.” Well, our DNA proclaims loudly that we are a European people, a multicultural people, a people black as well as white. You might think of us as an Afro-Mulatto people, our genes recombined in that test tube called slavery.
For African American Lives, I’ve tested 21 African Americans, possessing a range of phenotypes—from a person who could “pass” for “white,” and whose father actually did, to people with darker and more traditionally African features, such as Don Cheadle and Chris Rock. Not once has any person tested turned out to be 100 percent African. Chris Rock, for example, is 20 percent European. Don Cheadle is 19 percent European. That straight black hair and high cheek bones on your grandmama’s head? Look at a Google Map of Europe, find Italy, then look straight north to England and Ireland, Germany and France. That’s where, in all probability, your ancestor’s hair texture and lighter complexion comes from, not from the rendezvous of a fugitive slave and an Native American compatriot, united in enmity toward a common enemy, sitting around a campfire, smoking a peace pipe and woofing on the white man.
Black roots are deeply and improbably tangled, inextricably intertwined with the history of slavery and the genes of the very Euro-Americans who enslaved our ancestors. In my personal case, geneticists floored me by revealing that not only did my father’s line go back to Ireland (we had thought this), but my mother’s did as well, which is very rare. (Only 1 percent of us descend from a white woman who slept with a black slave or former slave.) Not only that, but my own admixture shows that I am 49.4 percent European and 50.6 percent African, even though no one would ever mistake me for a “mulatto.”
The story of the paternity of Melvinia Shields’ children is all too common in the annals of American family trees. Among the guests in African American Lives, Quincy Jones (who is a direct descendant of King Edward I), Maya Angelou, Tom Joyner and Morgan Freeman all learned the names of the white male who impregnated their black female slave ancestor—unlike Mrs. Obama whose white ancestor remains anonymous. My paternal great-great-grandmother, Jane Gates, took the identity of the father of her children with her to her grave in 1888. But with DNA tests, we are closing in on this Irishman’s identity, almost a century and a quarter later.
What all this means is that in defiance of the law and social convention, and just what some “believe,” an enormous amount of “race mixing” has long been occurring in the United States. We as a society have been in deep denial about our heritage of interracial sexuality for just as long. Some of this sexual contact was voluntary, we now know: For example, Morgan Freeman is descended from white Alfred and black Celie Carr, who not only stayed together after slavery ended but lived together openly and are buried together in Mississippi. But most of it was coerced or violent or a species of rape, 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 at the root of these relationships, infidelity, guilt, shame and disgrace at an unwed pregnancy—both black people and white people had a certain vested interest in keeping these relationships in the dark, as it were.
The first lady’s family tree—and the social and sexual complexity it reflects—is quite typical of the family trees of a majority of African Americans. And we all have to be happy for Mrs. Obama that her ancestors—long lost—have now been found. There is a certain inexpressible joy in knowing from whom you have descended, knowing where and from whom and through whom you come from, no matter what their complexion or hair texture. Michelle Obama’s family tree enables all Americans to marvel at—and begin to accept—the very complexity of race relations in the history of this country, a complexity registered in our collective DNA, a complexity writ large on the very face of black, or mulatto, America.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is the founder and the editor-in-chief of The Root.