'American Tapestry' author says book on Michelle Obama's ancestry encapsulates 'American experience'
In a presidential election year, books that delve into the lives of political candidates appear with the frequency of campaign ads and stump speeches.
Recent titles have examined everything from Barack Obama’s college girlfriends, to Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith, and all manner of fact, fiction and minutia between.
Now comes the new book, American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama (Amistad), by Rachel L. Swarns, a Washington correspondent for the New York Times.
Yet Swarns, a veteran journalist who covered the historic 2008 presidential campaign and Mrs. Obama’s first year in the White House, hasn’t penned a political tell-all.
Instead, the author uses census records, family oral history, photos, and the power of DNA to explore the first lady’s ancestral roots from the 18th Century to the White House.
“The story definitely grabbed me,” says Swarns, who said the book grew out of an October 2009 article she co-wrote for the Times; agenealogist helped uncover Michelle Obama’s black, white and mixed-race forebears.
“The article ran on the first page. The next day, a publisher contacted me,” says Swarns, sounding a bit incredulous.”She asked if I’d be interested in writing a book, which I’d never done before.”
The topic was ripe for exploration.
While Americans and people all over the world are familiar with president Obama’s biracial heritage, only basic family history was publicly known about the nation’s groundbreaking first lady.
After the Times article appeared, Swarns says she learned that Mrs. Obama passed out copies of her family tree during the Obama’s first Thanksgiving dinner in the White House.
Still, the first lady did not consent to an interview for the book (a longstanding policy); neither did her mother or brother.
“I did speak with an aunt, uncle, great aunt, and several cousins,” says Swarns, who also conducted multiple interviews with two elderly women — one white, the other black — who learned of their ties to Mrs. Obama.
“In doing the research, I was amazed by the range of experiences in the first lady’s history. It really encapsulated the American experience.”
With its blend of extensive research and lyrical prose, the 400-page tome reads like a historical novel, one that spans some five generations.
Readers learn of Mrs. Obama’s ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary and Civil wars. Family members who suffered the horrors of slavery, and some who escaped from bondage. We meet kinfolks who weathered the indignities of Jim Crow, and later headed north as part of the nation’s Great Migration.
Along the way, there are dozens of true life “characters” including Irish relatives, and possible ties to the founders of the Jewish Reform movement.
Those aren’t the only revelations in these pages.
A central figure in the original article and the book is Melvinia, taken from her South Carolina family as a girl and sent to Georgia.
“She had been impregnated by a white man when she was as young as fourteen,” Swarns writes of the woman who would become Mrs. Obama’s maternal great-great-great grandmother.
And thanks to DNA testing—executed with the cooperation of black and white family members—the book unmasks his identity. (theGrio won’t spoil the book’s mysteries by revealing that here.)
The confirmation that their bloodlines were intermingled owing to slavery, brought “mixed” reactions from relatives — pain, shame and more.
“These were not easy conversations,” Swarns says. “But this modern day wrestling with history was a really important part of the book.”
In recent weeks, some of the black and white descendants of Mrs. Obama’s mother — the Shields family — have met. In late June, a statue was erected to honor Melvinia in Clayton County, Georgia.
“I was there and it was something to see,” says Swarns. “Some family drove from across the country. It was very emotional.”
Meanwhile, Swarns has returned to the Times after taking a two-year hiatus to write the book. Her national book tour has so far taken her to D.C. Georgia, Alabama, the Chicago suburbs, and elsewhere.
This week, she’s slated to visit Baltimore for a book signing at the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
Greeting audiences and unearthing the contents of American Tapestry has been exciting for Swarns, though as yet, there’s been no official feedback from the first lady.
“I kept her staff apprised while I was writing, and gave them copies of the book,” she says. “They have been gracious, but I don’t know whether she has read it or not.”
Does Swarns think her book will have any bearing on the coming presidential election?
“I’m not expecting it to have any significant impact,” she says. “But I do hope it will inspire others to dig into their own family trees. I think we all have these stories in our families that connect us.”
Readers can learn more about American Tapestry and watch a video about how Rachel Swarns conducted her research at http://rachelswarns.com/