Shelley Halstead, LSRJ Summer Legal Intern
The story in the NY Times about Michelle Obama’s ancestry caused quite a stir the first time, but this time it was even more tantalizing—probably because it had pictures. I’m sure it’s hard not to stare into the photos of Michelle’s white ancestors and try to see her in them (or are we trying to see her in “us”?). But what is so disconcerting to me is that this is nothing new – it’s the story of a black slave girl, a white male slave owner, and bi-racial off-spring. It’s the story of power and exploitation that happened for many years in this country through slavery and the subjugation of black Americans, half-black Americans, one-quarter black Americans and “one in the wood-pile” Americans. You get my drift.
Black Americans already know that some of our ancestors were white. But do white Americans know? Oh, I understand, it’s the President’s wife—the ascendancy. How far we’ve come. Really? Is that what all the fuss is about? I’m skeptical that the fascination with her family tree is only about her being the first lady. I know that the first family is our royalty here in the States but it seems that this is about something else. It’s seems to be about her whiteness rather than her blackness. Perhaps it just makes her, in some people’s eyes, a little less black and a little more acceptable (read: white). In the Times article, one of the Michelle’s kin mentioned that she did not want to think of their ancestor’s as rapists or slave-owners. Luckily for her she does not have to unless confronted through DNA. Black girls did not want to be slaves nor did they want to be raped. We don’t want to think about it either. But unfortunately, this is our nation’s history. It’s not like I’m saying, “speak truth to power,” I’m simply saying, “it’s the truth” and we know it.
I’m all for people looking into their pasts. Or even having others dig around in their stead. It’s just that when the story that is told does not square with the lived reality, I find the “importance” of a story like this a little tenuous. If we want to marvel at the first lady’s heritage let it be as an accomplished black woman from a black family—not about her beginning, that story’s as old as the States—but then again, sometimes it seems that black folks are the only ones who know it.