finding the white folks in First Lady Michelle Obama’s family tree

The word ‘rape’ appears four times in the recent NYT article, Meet your Cousin, The First Lady. Even before reading it, my first instinct was to count. Second instinct: get mad. No way a mainstream paper wasn’t going to pretty up sexual encounters between a female slave and her master for their majority white readers; the Times was already pushing it by introducing dark-skinned Michelle–whose image sometimes appears online as a monkey–as a cousin. And higher and faster I laid those bricks for a defensive wall all before even reading the article. I’m making the point of describing my initial reaction because after, I had to check myself.

First, stop expecting (demanding?) that white folks write and feel about slavery (or Jim Crow or the post Civil Rights period for that matter) in exactly the same way as you. That’s impossible given the historic gulf between black and white lives. And second, allow white folks to have their own conversations about race without me stupes-ing from the corner. (A caveat before I proceed,the audience for an article about white folks in a dark-skinned woman’s family tree is white folks. For blacks, that’s as much news as the sky is blue.)

All that to say, despite the criticism, read journalist Rachel Swarns’ article based on American Tapestry, her new book about the dark-skinned Obama-née-Robinson’s ancestors. If the book is like the article, it may help to open up a self-critical conversation about your own prejudices or assumptions. More important than the search for white folks in Obama’s family tree is our modern day reaction to that fact.

What’s brilliant about the NYT article is that instead of choosing sides, which is what I expected, Swarns presents both broad black and white reactions to sexual interracial relationships during slavery–without judgment. That had the effect of overhearing a conversation in one home and then settling on the wall of the home across town to hear the other. The word rape is first mentioned late in the article, in the home with the triptych of Barack Obama, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King on the living room wall. The first part of the article begins on the white side of town where one distant female relative believes that the encounter between slave and master was “an obvious love story…”. And as I’ve done all throughout the past year’s legislative fits over vaginas, I’m begging for an eject button to disappear this woman from the sex. But a thinking reaction asks and seeks to understand, why. Why is the love story, “obvious?”

One of Obama’s greats, 15-year-old Melvinia gives birth to a bi-racial boy fathered by Charles, 20, the master’s son. Swarns, or her editor, describes the union as one of the “forbidden liaisons across the divide…”. What a lie. The very nature and point of owning another is to destroy the notion of a boundary: moral, physical, spiritual, natural, etc. Plus, what could ever be ‘forbidden’ when a male owns a female? I nearly stopped reading. But that would’ve been my mistake. I wouldn’t have heard another white female distant relative grappling honestly with what it means to learn that an ancestor very likely was also a rapist and to our modern understanding, a pedophile. I feel for someone in that position.

And that’s the thing about race discussions: as uncomfortable as they are you have to sit through all of the trash-for-your-ear because more often than not you’ll come across a reason to empathize with the spewer. I wish the article focused a bit more in fact, on why the first female relative believes there may have been a love story between master and slave.

Now, true, I have a higher threshold for listening to bigoted or ignorant opinions than most people I’ve met in my life. Makes sense as I’ve been practicing since I was a child and I’m a reporter (i.e. listener) by nature. But even I need a refresher from time to time to stop talking to ideas in my head and actually listen to the individual before me. Perhaps because of my own lineage, I intimately understand, we might be distant cousins.

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