Friday, October 16, 2009


This is already yesterday's news -- or rather, last week's news, or, looked at from another point of view, centuries old news! -- but the New York Times reports that a genealogist has uncovered a slave-owner five generations back in Michelle Obama's family tree. This is not in itself totally surprising, of course, since it was not uncommon for slave owners to rape their slaves; and hence many African Americans have white people in their lineage. However, as the article says, "the more complete map of Mrs. Obama's ancestors -- including the slave mother, white father and their biracial son, Dolphus T. Shields -- for the first time fully connects the first African-American first lady to the history of slavery, tracing their five generation journey from bondage to a front-row seat to the presidency." 

African American genealogy of the antebellum period is more difficult to research than that of most European Americans, since slaves' names were changed, their marriages were not recognized and recorded in the same way that whites' were, those who were literate were subject to have their writings destroyed, and slaves were scarcely considered worthy of historical documentation. So, given all that, it's remarkable that African American genealogy has advanced has far as it has. The New York Times also has what is known of Michelle Obama's family tree here, and readers who have some connection to are knowledge of it are invited to help fill in the many gaps here

One thing that fascinates me about the gaps in genealogical records -- of African Americans or others -- is not only the ever more sophisticated methods people may use to fill in those gaps, but also the imaginative journeys they may be inspired to take in order to tell a more complete story about where they come from. I'm not suggesting that genealogists are making up family trees out of whole cloth, but rather that the gaps in knowledge can inspire the creation of art and literature.

P.S. I hope you'll take this chance to visit (or revisit) the podcast episode featuring Maya Lilly, the creator of a one-woman show called "Mixed," about people of mixed race.  

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