The news that First Lady Michelle Obama’s great-great-great-grandmother was a slave and that her great-great-great grandfather was a white man has been a topic of much discussion today. The New York Times published an article uncovering the details of Mrs. Obama’s genealogy, and the story has since been picked up by a number of media outlets around the world.
Although the New York Times piece provides insight into the depth of information and wide variety of tools that are available to the public when tracing one’s family history, I have found myself wondering what it is that is particularly newsworthy about Michelle Obama’s history.
That Mrs. Obama’s great-great-great grandmother was enslaved is hardly a surprise. If you are black in America, you are either descended from enslaved people or your family came to the country as immigrants. We already know – or at least, I assumed we all did – that Michelle Obama’s family was not an immigrant one. Even their last name – Robinson – gives us insight into that. Perhaps what this story really reveals is the chasm between what people of color consider common knowledge and how little others truly know about the black American experience.
The aspect of Mrs. Obama’s ancestry that seems to have caught everyone’s attention the most is that a white man is part of her bloodline. But again, why the surprise? That component of Michelle Obama’s history is far from unique. It is already well known and documented that many female slaves had relations – oftentimes forced, coerced and unconsenting ones – with their white slave owners or other white men and that many children were born as a result of such interactions.
If anything, this news should make people stop and think about the horror and dehumanization endured by people who were enslaved: Michelle Obama’s ancestor was only six years old when she was valued at $475. Having Mrs. Obama’s ancestry as the subject of this piece, it also does the job of personalizing the reality of slavery, the nature and legacy of which many people often have a hard time understanding.
Most importantly however, this story highlights the fallacy of racial categorization. It goes some way towards eroding the notion that there is any such distinct thing as ‘black’ or ‘white’ and that people of mixed heritage have a particular caramel colored skin tone and can readily be identified as mixed. The fact is, and has been for generations, that a large number of black people – whether dark, light, or any shade on the spectrum – in America and in other parts of the world have white ancestors.
One popular misconception, which I have often argued against, is the idea that racism and intolerance will end when everyone has ‘mixed’ children who are all the same color. My view has always been that ‘black’ people are already ‘mixed’ and that such an assertion actually serves to calcify the much believed, but mistaken, idea that race is real. The reality is that racial categorizations are based on the most of superficial factors – usually skin color – which actually have little to do with one’s genetic and ethnic make up.
I have ‘white’ friends with blond hair and blue eyes whose mother looks ‘black’. Ironically the mother herself, although darker skinned, has parents who are ‘white’ and ‘black’. Similarly, I have a dark skinned black friend whose grandmother is also white, yet you would never know that by looking at her.
It cannot be denied that racial categorizations carry weight in real life. When you are on the street, people do not ask you what ethnicity your ancestors are before making a judgment. However, stories like the one in the New York Times – although not particularly noteworthy to those who already know this background – can be helpful in shattering some of the persistent myths about race that exist in society. What Michelle Obama’s ancestry tells us is that you just can’t judge a book by its cover.