Lois Leveen


June 18, 2012

Michelle Obama’s DNA

There's a great piece in the New York Times about Michelle Obama's forebears, and her distant cousins.

The white ones.

While most of us are aware that Barack Obama is biracial, Michelle's mixed ancestry is less well known. Or it has been, until some author (you know how they are) started researching the topic, using DNA evidence (for more on DNA evidence and a different case of interracial presidential genetics, check out this clip).

The article talks about what it means for whites today to come to terms not only with the fact that their ancestors not only owned slaves, but with the likelihood that a particular great-great-grandfather raped some of those slaves. Not an easy thing to think about. Actually, even writing that sentence was hard. I want to say "abused" or "forced" as though maybe those words are less ugly, less brutal. But why pretend anything about the topic isn't brutal and ugly?

The article reminded me of two very good, though very different, books. One is The Alchemy of Race and Rights, by the law professor Patricia Williams. In the book, Williams talk about how, when she was accepted to law school, her mother said that wasn't surprising, since they had lawyering in their family. What shocked Williams was that the lawyer in question, Austin Miller, was a slaveowner. He bought an eleven-year-old slave, who within a year had borne his child. That slave was Williams' great-great-grandmother, and Miller was her great-great-grandfather. He was a demon in the story of her family. But he was also as much a part of her as the young girl whose identity Williams and her sister researched, in their efforts to understand how slavery touched their family.

The second book is Kindred, by Octavia Butler. In that novel, the main character, a black woman married to a white man and living in Los Angeles in the 1970s, is repeatedly transported back in time to the nineteenth century, when she happens about a young white boy in trouble. He's in trouble a lot. She saves him. A lot. And then she realizes he will grow up to be the person who rapes *her* great-great-grandmother. She's left to choose whether to rescue him, or to let him die, or to take some action to kill him. And in that process, the novel reveals how much the protagonist owes to the very acts of violence and systematic oppression she has always hated.

I've taught both these books, together. Because I think it's not just Williams or the fictional character in Kindred or Michelle Obama's "white" cousins who need to think about these things. Ultimately, this nation is the offspring of that brutal, awful, despicable institution. Slavery financed early America. Slavery financed some of our greatest thinkers and most powerful institutions. Slavery allowed some of Americans to enjoy freedom they never would have had otherwise. My family immigrated to America long after slavery was outlawed here. But I recognize that the America that offered them a haven only existed because of the way it embraced slavery in earlier generations (and that it continued to support things like red-lining and segregation in ways that privileged white immigrants over blacks whose families had been Americans for generations).

So in a way, we're all descended from slavery.

Which does not mean I will start calling Michelle Obama cousin. Unless she asks me to. In which case I will totally do it.
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