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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.

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