To be invisible or exoticized: The NYT’s article on Michelle Obama’s family history

by Guest Contributor Tami, originally published at What Tami Said

The Obama family’s ascendancy to the White House and the national spotlight causes quite a conundrum for black folks who pay attention to how black lives are discussed by media and the mainstream. On one hand, suddenly people notice that black people exist, particularly the black middle class, black bodies, black hair, black families, black professional women, black marriages… After years of being ignored, it feels kinda good to be visible. On the other hand, suddenly people notice that black people exist, particularly the black middle class, black bodies, black hair, black families, black professional women, black marriages…And all of these seemingly mundane things are now treated as fascinating discoveries. They are weighed and breathlessly reported by media, and analyzed and remarked upon by consumers of media. After hundreds of years as part of American culture, blackness is still seen as “other”–sometimes exotic, sometimes dangerous, sometimes strange.

Lots of black women have round butts!

Black people have funny hair!

Black churches sure are different!

and now…from The New York Times

Black descendants of enslaved Africans have triumph, tragedy and non-black ancestors in their histories!

In an NYT article published yesterday, Rachel L. Swarns and Jodi Kantor share Michelle Obama’s family history as uncovered by the newspaper and genealogist Megan Smolenyak. The article zeros in on the story of one of Michelle Obama’s female ancestors named Melvinia:

Of the dozens of relatives she identified, Ms. Smolenyak said, it was the slave girl who seemed to call out most clearly.

“Out of all Michelle’s roots, it’s Melvinia who is screaming to be found,” she said.

When her owner, David Patterson, died in 1852, Melvinia soon found herself on a 200-acre farm with new masters, Mr. Patterson’s daughter and son-in law, Christianne and Henry Shields. It was a strange and unfamiliar world.

In South Carolina, she had lived on an estate with 21 slaves. In Georgia, she was one of only three slaves on property that is now part of a neat subdivision in Rex, near Atlanta.

Whether Melvinia labored in the house or in the fields, there was no shortage of work: wheat, corn, sweet potatoes and cotton to plant and harvest, and 3 horses, 5 cows, 17 pigs and 20 sheep to care for, according to an 1860 agricultural survey.

It is difficult to say who might have impregnated Melvinia, who gave birth to Dolphus around 1859, when she was perhaps as young as 15. At the time, Henry Shields was in his late 40s and had four sons ages 19 to 24, but other men may have spent time on the farm.

“No one should be surprised anymore to hear about the number of rapes and the amount of sexual exploitation that took place under slavery; it was an everyday experience, ” said Jason A. Gillmer, a law professor at Texas Wesleyan University, who has researched liaisons between slave owners and slaves. “But we do find that some of these relationships can be very complex.” Read more…

Later, we learn of Melvinia’s son Dolphus Shields:

Sometime before 1888, Dolphus and Alice Shields continued the migration, heading to Birmingham, a boomtown with a rumbling railroad, an iron and steel industry and factories that attracted former slaves and their children from across the South.

Dolphus Shields was in his 30s and very light skinned — some say he looked like a white man — a church-going carpenter who could read, write and advance in an industrializing town. By 1900, he owned his own home, census records show. By 1911, he had opened his own carpentry and tool sharpening business.

As an amateur genealogist, I love reading stories like this–these quintessentially American stories that are left out of American history (unless it is February). I enjoy hearing about how black people triumphed post-slavery. Make no mistake, as a whole, we did triumph. Dophus Shields was one of many African Americans who rose from bondage and illiteracy to land-owning and self-sufficiency. The story of Melvinia and her family feels familiar. It is familiar. I have uncovered many similar tales in my own family research. (Some posts here and here and here and here.) I have heard countless similar stories shared by other family historians.

Which brings me to my ambivalence. The story of Michelle Obama’s ancestor is, in essence, the story of most ancestors of enslaved Africans. Yes, some details and locations change. But most black genealogists can find ancestors labeled “mulatto” on old census records (as Dolphus Shields was), mostly because sexual oppression and rape of black women was a fact of the American slave system. (And, however “complex” one wants to call these relationships between enslaved and slave master, it’s hard to call these partnerings consensual when one party OWNS the other.) And there were other interracial pairings beyond those that happened in bondage. Other facets of this story are familiar as well–migration, advancement out of poverty to working class and beyond, entrepreneurship, achieving literacy, overcoming racist society. These are hallmarks of the black American history–American history.

So, why does Swarns’ and Kantor’s article seem to treat the story of Michelle Obama’s family–one that seems so common as to be unremarkable–like a fascinating oddity? Why is Melvinia’s tale so juicy and titillating? Why do readers find this story so uniquely amazing and inspiring? Comments to the article include gushing about inspiration and comparisons to Irish and Italian forebears, and the usual complaints of “why can’t we get over race” since this story proves that it doesn’t truly exist. While several NYT readers did point out how typical the Shields story is, many had reactions like this one:

The Obama story just grows and grows and becomes more complex and more interesting for our Country. All I can say is WOW.

Oh, those wacky Obamas with their weirdly “complex” lineages! Wow? Really? I cannot think of reading a similar account of the family tree of a white First Lady where Americans were encouraged to marvel at her “complex” Scots-Irish or French or German or English heritage or an ancestor’s journey from immigrant to business man. A story like that is, to the mainstream, “normal,” an illustration of the American Dream. The stories of African Americans, even those whose families have been here for hundreds of years, provoke amazement.

So, I am torn–just like I have been over the months as the media and mainstream have pulled apart and parsed Michelle Obama’s (and by extension other black folks’) body parts, from tresses to gluteus maximus. It’s nice to be noticed, for once, I guess. But it pains to be treated like some rare, exotic, oddly-plumed, big-butted, mixed-pedigreed, once-caged bird.

Is that the only choice black people have–to be invisible or exoticized?