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