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Michelle’s Family Tree

Before her bomb-dropping husband received a prize usually reserved for those waging peace, Michelle Robinson Obama and her family were the subject of much media scrutiny. For reasons known only to themselves, the New York Times felt compelled to study the first lady’s family tree.

The story about the Robinson family was replete with specious investigation methods and bizarre conclusions. There was nothing particularly noteworthy in its description of the genealogy of a black family with southern roots. The Times seemed caught up in a particularly powerful form of Obamamania which made them curious about the Robinsons, but not curious enough to examine how slavery effects this country to this very day.

It all seems to be a case of white people deciding that black people are ever so fascinating. The level of interest never extends to the conditions black people face on a daily basis in the 21st century, however. Those conditions stare even the most casual observer in the face, but are only investigated as opportunities to condemn and to blame black Americans as the source of any and all problems.

The Times determined that the most noteworthy Robinson ancestor was a woman named Melvinia Shields. In the year 1850, when she was six years old, Melvinia’s slave holder listed her among his property to be bequeathed to a relative upon his death. She later gave birth to four children who were listed as mulatto in the 1870 census.

Megan Smolenyak, the genealogist hired by the Times, declared that Melvinia was “screaming to be found.” I’m sure all of the enslaved, who were bought, sold and willed as property cried out for recognition, but it is the birth of Melvinia’s children that seems to spark the most curiosity, but not for the reasons it should have. Slavery demanded the constant reproduction of human beings. The rape of slaves was useful not only for pleasure, but for business too.

But these obvious facts elude the writers at the great Gray Lady, who felt comfortable stating only that Melvinia was “coerced” into bearing a white man’s children. The delicacy obscures what should have been the salient point of any telling of slave history, that women were under the constant threat of sexual violence. The Times’ writers had only some degree of curiosity, and no willingness to give any meaningful analysis to their research. The article was an opportunity to delve into America’s greatest shame, and into the ongoing legacy of that shameful and criminal behavior into the 21st century.

The Times would probably be better off ignoring any future urge to learn any fascinating tidbits about the negro race. It is difficult to believe the Times contention that Michelle Obama didn’t know she had had at least one white ancestor.Every black person is aware of this part of their family history. The name or names are usually unknown, but their existence is never in doubt, despite what the Times says on the subject.

Melvinia’s oldest son, Dolphus Shields, is one of Michelle Obama’s direct ancestors. He and his mother are the only ones deemed worthy of such great scrutiny. To add further insult, Dolphus Shields’ life was rendered into nothing more than a simplistic “pull up by the bootstraps” story which usually does nothing more than let white people off the hook. If it can be said that an individual born into slavery ended up owning a home and a business, then America can’t be so bad after all.

It is all very “complex” so the Times says. Relationships between exploited slave women and their masters were “complex,” and so is the Robinson family tree. If there is anything complex about Michelle Obama’s family, it is in exactly the same way that most black families are. Some children survived slavery and or Jim Crow and managed to live productive lives despite the horrors of their beginnings. Some did not, but should not be judged by New York Times genealogists as wastrels who mysteriously fell by the way side.

Unfortunately, reaction to the story was predictable and useless. We are all one race, the human race. Race is a sociological construct. Michelle Obama’s family persevered and proved that other black people can too and are at fault if they don’t.

After the Nobel peace prize dust settles, the family story will reappear. Someone like Henry Louis Gates will find a way to make money and the “we are all one people” group will hold sway in public discourse. The story of millions of people toiling without pay for more than two hundred years, and the legacy it left behind will go unnoted by the Times and their ilk in the corporate media. It will all be turned into sentimental mush and Melvinia Shields may still be crying out for the recognition she ought to have received.

MARGARET KIMBERLEY’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in Black Agenda Report. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)BlackAgandaReport.Com.

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Margaret Kimberley writes the Freedom Rider column for Black Agenda Report, where this essay originally appeared. 

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