Thursday, October 8, 2009

Congratulations Michelle Obama, You Have a White Rapist in the Family! or In First Lady’s Roots, a Complex Path From Slavery

We are all one people now. Did you know that black Americans have white ancestors? And shockingly, that white folks may have some chocolate in their cream? Although I enjoyed the NewYork Times piece on Michelle Obama for what it was: another contribution to the Roots 2.0, Henry Louis Gates Jr. enterprise of personal (re)discovery through genealogy, I generally respond to these types of stories with no small amount of consternation and head shaking.

To be blunt, what is the big deal? Yes, I understand the political moment and a need to re-inscribe our American narrative of racial togetherness as the Obama wave (now greatly diminished) settles across the land, but the fact of these stories--more specifically, the fact that black folk were forced to co-mingle with White people--holds no great appeal for me.

One, these stories are anti-climactic. Two, stories such as these are often uninteresting because they follow a standard narrative (black person or white person sends in DNA to a biomedical company or goes to a local historical society and finds out they have some "surprises" in the family tree). Three, the politics at work in the black and white folk discovering a common ancestor during slavery are unsettling because they quite literally apply a white wash to American history.

Consider Michelle Obama's genealogy. Her ancestor, Melvinia, was taken away from her family and bequeathed as a piece of property to the relatives of her original "owner." There she was "impregnated" and a family lineage began--a tale of strength and dignity that is far more compelling than the emphasis on the white slave owner at the beginning of the story. Not surprisingly, the foul treatment of this young child is glossed over by the Times' essay, because ultimately, Melvinia's life circumstances are taken for granted as being horrible. Thus, no real exposition or detail is apparently needed. The reasoning is as follows: "we" know slavery was cruel, violent, and denigrating to black personhood, so why focus on the specific details? Moreover, to highlight the barbarism of black enslavement at the hands of White Americans would take away from an otherwise compelling human interest story, a tale of race and reunion and the beating heart of the Times's essay.

For example, here is an original passage from "In First Lady's Roots a Complex Path from Slavery":

WASHINGTON — In 1850, the elderly master of a South Carolina estate took pen in hand and painstakingly divided up his possessions. Among the spinning wheels, scythes, tablecloths and cattle that he bequeathed to his far-flung heirs was a 6-year-old slave girl valued soon afterward at $475. In his will, she is described simply as the “negro girl Melvinia.” After his death, she was torn away from the people and places she knew and shipped to Georgia. While she was still a teenager, a white man would father her first-born son under circumstances lost in the passage of time...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...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.

The story is a little bland for my taste. It lacks descriptive, evocative details. Now, let's correct that a bit.

In 1850, the elderly master of a South Carolina estate took pen in hand and painstakingly divided up his possessions. He saw nothing odd about including a human being among his property as this was the custom in a country where black people were counted as valuable commodities to be used, disposed of, and profited from as White people saw fit. Among the spinning wheels, scythes, tablecloths and cattle that he bequeathed to his far-flung heirs was a 6-year-old slave girl valued soon afterward at $475. In his will, treated as a piece of livestock and necessary equipment for the running of a plantation estate, this innocent child, described simply as the “negro girl Melvinia” was torn away from the people and places she knew and was shipped to Georgia.

Melvinia was transported to what was from her perspective a far away land. Moreover, she was ripped away from any sense of stability and relative freedom or security she had once known. This trip would have been terrifying under the best circumstances for any child. One can only imagine how frightening it must have been for a child in a country where her security and safety was often dependent upon the whims of people who saw her as less than human.

Years later, while Melvinia was still a teenager, a white man would father her first-born son. It is difficult to say who might have impregnated Melvinia. She gave birth to Dolphus around 1859, when 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. Because white men had de facto access to the bodies of black women (ironic, given that during slavery and Jim Crow white women of means had their bodies policed as the private property of their white husbands, while black women's bodies were treated as the communal right of white men), it is hard to determine which of the men in the household (or among its visitors) parented Dolphus. Rape was extremely common and the violence visited upon young Melvinia could likely have been a daily occurrence at the hands of one, two, or many other white men on the plantation. Tragically, Melvinia would have had little recourse for her own protection.

The story reads a little bit different, does it not? When one highlights the brutal rape and exploitation of a child, the warm sentiments turn a little bit more sour, no? I must wonder, what would the public's reaction to these Roots 2.0 stories be if a little more truth and detail were included on the printed page?

My godmother, a very fair skinned black woman who could have easily passed for white summed up my sentiments quite well. She never understood why some black people wanted to pass. Pragmatically, her life would have been much easier if she had chosen this path. But on an existential, moral, and ethical level my godmother could not comprehend why one would turn their back on their own people to join a group (Whites in mass) who held black people in such utter low regard. As she would often say about those nominally black folks who wanted to qualify their ancestry as "mixed," were proud to be "high yellow," or "for having white relatives," why would a black person want to celebrate having the blood of a slave-holding rapist in their veins?

I know that sounds harsh. Nevertheless, is it not an accurate description of what lies at the heart of so much black and brown folks fetishizing of their white ancestry? What is there to celebrate or be proud of because a slave owner (or his family and/or friends) took their pleasure with one of your/our/mine ancestors? Certainly, some historians and others will appeal to the "complexity" of relationships between slaves and white slave owners. Perhaps, these same historians and others will make a heartfelt plea that there was some "love" between those many often nameless Melvinias and their white rapists. This is nonsense on two accounts. First, how can two people have true love for one another when one person has total power over the other? Second, how can there be true love when one agent has neither the reasonable nor realistic power to say no?

The rest of the NY Times piece can be found here, as well as responses to the piece from a range of scholars.

Per tradition, some questions.

1. Again, help me understand. Why do some black people feel compelled to reach out to the white descendants of the people who owned, exploited, and violated their kin? What is the appeal here? Now, if there were reparations involved or a claim to a just piece of an estate I would most certainly understand the motivation. Am I the only one who shakes his head at these black folks trying to claim some lineage to famous White families such as the Jeffersons of Monticello, when you have been summarily disavowed?

2. In fairness, what of these white folk who reach out to the descendants of the black people their people owned? Honestly, if I were a member of one of these white families I would quite frankly be ashamed. For example, did anyone else see this story about Senator Tony Rand and his reunion with his black "relatives?" Apparently, the Rands all get together and extol the greatness of their "family." I wonder what would happen if some of the black Rands did some research and asked the white Rands for a piece of the family estate with interest? Hmmm...I am sure that hilarity would immediately ensue.

3. Did anyone else smile when reading about how Dolphus and Melvinia maintained their dignity, strength, and pride as they built a family? Or how Dolphus became a respected member of the community? Or how men like him and his heirs, living symbols of those many thousands of men and women who struggled with quiet dignity as Pullman car porters, maids, nurses, and laborers, struggled for their full citizenship?

4. Did anyone else feel a bit of sadness seeing how the accomplishments of other men in that family were minimized and made more difficult because they had the misfortune of growing up in a profoundly racist society?

5. I wonder if any self-identified mulattoes, mixed-race negroes, "biracials," or Canablasians read stories such as these and see the tragedy of their own hypervaluation of whiteness?

6. If history is a process, a living narrative that is being written and (re)written to serve the political needs of the present, how will the story that is black slavery and the freedom struggle be conveyed in some 50, 100, or 200 years? How whitewashed will it become? What sort of history does a now and future post-racial America demand for its national mythology?


Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

Excellent piece, Chauncey, with wonderful analytical thinking and examples. Your re-write of the NY Times article resonated with me, too.

Both sides of my family experienced this American tragedy. Some felt like your godmother, who resented the abuse her family had to endure by white slave owners. Another, however, could only see how successful he would have been if he had been born white, rather than blaming his oppressors for keeping him from becoming hugely successful and rich. He certainly had the brains, talent and education for it, and as a black man, did very well, but he died an old man angry that he could have done more, if only...

When it came to race, that "if only" made him pretty miserable, always wishing he was something he could never be, rather than wishing racists would stop their abusive ways and blocking equality.

Otherwise, the NY Times had their collective heads stuck in a bubble and their eyes compromised by their rose colored glasses.

geerussell said...

Overall nice article and I agree with the other comment that your rewrite of the times account rings more true.

In response to your fifth question, about self-identification and hypervaluation of whiteness I have a question of my own. While I see where you're coming from where distant ancestry is concerned, a lot of people who self-identify as one of the labels you listed have parents who are two different races.

In that case, is it always a case of hypervaluation to self-identify as anything other than black or is is there an acceptable way to define your own checkbox without sounding like you're playing down your blackness?

Unknown said...

Very interesting article. Several times you capitalized "white" (White in mass, White families, etc.) but not black or negro. Is there a point you are making?

chaunceydevega said...

@Kit--thanks, given how spot on your posts on I take that as a complement.

@Gee--That is an issue I grapple with as I have said here on a few occasions, I don't "get" the biracial/multiracial identity movement in general. For white-asians who are trying to earn their whiteness it makes sense--I know that is a loaded comment I will unpack later if you like. But for black folk, it does not compute. On one hand self announced biracial or mixed people say race is a fiction. But, then they reinforce this fiction by positioning themselves between blackness and whiteness in an explicit effort to be something other than black. My question has always been if race is a social construction, then your blackness is not negated by the fact you have a white parent, grandparent or the like--and two, most blacks in the New World are mixed anyway, so what is the point of claiming a distinctive identity?

Be black. Be proud. And see your blackness as including these other identities. Practically, society sees you as a black person, treats you as such, and marks you as such, so why give into a society by valuing whiteness in the same way that dominant society does?

@givepeace--I capitalize white in order to signify Whiteness or the relationship between Whiteness and power. I use "white" when talking about individuals. Sometimes they overlap sometimes they do not. I often capitalize Black to signify political blackness. Or here, I do not as a function of a stylistic choice given the tone of the piece. Good question, and appreciated, though.