Monday, June 18, 2012

Slavery, Race, and Reunion: The NY Times White Washes the Rape of Michelle Obama's Ancestors (Again)

Why would any person honor rapist's blood?

In an effort to write the Obamas, who are de facto American royalty, back into a larger post-racial narrative that ostensibly makes some white folks feel more comfortable about having a black President, such a move seems par for the course.

In 2009, the NY Times featured a very problematic story about how genealogical researchers had reconstructed Michelle Obama's family tree. There, the NY Times detailed how one of the First Lady's ancestors was a child slave--and in all likelihood repeatedly raped by her white master. Just as was done in Saturday's Meet Your Cousin, the First Lady: A Family Story, Long Hidden by Rachel Swarns, the realities of power and exploitation under the chattel regime were conveniently overlooked and (quite literally) white washed away.

Family tree DNA research is in vogue: networks such as PBS and ABC have found it a compelling means to craft a narrative about a shared "American experience." Given the country's demographic shifts, and the election of its first black President, there is a coincidence of interests who are deeply invested in furthering a narrative of multicultural America, one where it is imagined that we are all in one way or another related.

In this racial project, the color line is broken in some deeply dishonest ways which do nothing to challenge power, illuminate deeper truths about racial inequality in the United States, overturn white privilege, or challenge the Racial State.

For example, Henry Louis Gates Jr. can discover his Irish roots. Tina Turner can find out she is not significantly related to the Cherokee. Latino stars and starlets can find out about their "exciting" Anglo-African-Indigenous roots. Asian Americans can find out about their long history of respect for education, family, and the arts.

And white ethnics can have their "hard times," "we suffered too just like the blacks so why do they complain?" family mythologies validated too.

Because the President and First Lady are the symbolic leaders of a country in which black people were the very definition of the "anti-citizen," less than human, property, and not fit for inclusion in the polity, the DNA citizenship project's goals are robust. The discovery of Michelle Obama's white ancestors--while no surprise to her family--is a way for white folks to find kinship with "own" her. Ironically, this will do nothing to soothe the anxieties of reactionary white conservatives--to them she is a black woman who has no business being in the White House except as a chambermaid.

Likewise, President Obama may be "half-white." Nevertheless, he is the blackest man alive (despite all efforts to distance himself from policies that would assist the specific and particular challenges faced by African-Americans in the Great Recession) for the Tea Party GOP and the racially resentful, reactionary white public. Race is a double bind for the President. Obama's whiteness is a means to excuse-make for their racism; Obama's blackness is a means for white bigots to overtly disrespect and diminish him.

Swarns' essay on Michelle Obama's family (and white relatives) is an exercise in violence through the use of contemporary, politically correct language. When she massages away stories of rape, trauma, and human exploitation in order to further a master frame and narrative that wants to amplify the juxtaposition of the Obama's success in the present, and Michelle's white ancestors' "humble" origins, something is horribly amiss. These are racial micro-aggressions of the textbook variety.

Whiteness is built upon lies. As such, there are many white deflections in Meet Your Cousin, the First Lady: A Family Story, Long Hidden . The most obvious one is the act of discovery, this shock by the Tribble family that their ancestors owned slaves.

[Laughably, while there were many millions of African slaves in the United States, apparently no white people who are alive today had ancestors who owned slaves. Riddle you that one?]

In response to the NY Times' first foray into these ugly, ahistorical waters, I offered a commentary and rewrite. I would like to pivot off of that intervention again.

Let's work through a few particularly rich passages in Meet Your Cousin, the First Lady: A Family Story, Long Hidden and offer some correctives.

From the NY Times:
The bloodlines of Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Tribble extend back to a 200-acre farm that was not far from here. One of their common ancestors was Henry Wells Shields, Mrs. Tribble’s great-great-grandfather. He was a farmer and a family man who grew cotton, Indian corn and sweet potatoes. He owned Mrs. Obama’s maternal great-great-great-grandmother, Melvinia Shields, who was about 8 years old when she arrived on his farm sometime around 1852 
The DNA tests and research indicate that one of his sons, Charles Marion Shields, is the likely father of Melvinia’s son Dolphus, who was born around 1860. Dolphus T. Shields was the first lady’s maternal great-great-grandfather. His identity and that of his mother, Melvinia, were first reported in an article in The New York Times in 2009, which also indicated that he must have had a white father. 
Melvinia was a teenager, perhaps around 15, when she gave birth to her biracial son. Charles was about 20. 
Such forbidden liaisons across the racial divide inevitably bring to mind the story of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. Mrs. Obama’s ancestors, however, lived in a world far removed from the elegance of Jefferson’s Monticello, his 5,000-acre mountain estate with 200 slaves. They were much more typical of the ordinary people who became entangled in America’s entrenched system of servitude. 
There is much wrong here. How do we contextualize the relationship between Melvinia and the white people who owned her? She is also a child in an unimaginable situation. She is torn from her home and family and sold to the Shields family. Does she have the power to resist his advances? No.

This is not a "relationship" based on consent: it is rape and exploitation.

The politics of language are rich here as they advance a multicultural, conservative, colorblind racial agenda that imposes contemporary standards onto the past in an effort to remove the grounds of historical grievance in the present. Melvinia did not give birth to a "biracial" child. She was raped and had a black child who would be considered human property unless freed by his "father."

The Slaveocracy and America's racial order was based on the "one-drop rule" where a child's racial status and freedom was determined by that of the mother. Thus, a white man (and slave owner) could rape, exploit, and do as he wished with black women (and men). The children would be born slaves. The logic of hypodescent was also operative as well. Race is not about the reality of genetic makeup and admixture. Racial identity is about perceptions by the in-group regarding who belongs and who does not.

Despite all of the efforts by the multiracial movement in contemporary America to create a "mixed race" census category--what is really a desire to access white privilege through the creation of a buffer race or colored class--being perceived as "black" or as having "African" ancestry, marks a person as having a connection to that group.

The NY Times is working to frame the story of Michelle's ancestors, and the child rapist, slave owning Shields family, as a human story and drama, one about "ordinary" people. This passage furthers that narrative:
In Clayton County, Ga., where the Shields family lived, only about a third of the heads of household owned human property, and masters typically labored alongside their slaves. Charles was a man of modest means — he would ultimately become a teacher — whose parents were only a generation or so removed from illiteracy.
The NY Times is also emphasizing the ironic parallels of the present: the Obamas are now the President and First Lady; the Tribbles are a family of far more modest social standing. The NY Times is also developing a script that fits within a broader American story of hard work, yeoman farmers, and aspiring, fundamentally decent, white people. 

This racial project involves the crafting of a story in which slavery was relatively uncommon. Moreover, slavery was really the foul practice of the fictionalized plantation class as depicted in Gone with the Wind. The white racial frame desperately wants to rehabilitate white people and Whiteness from any connection to one of  the country's greatest sins. While it cannot eliminate the color line, the white racial frame can emphasize how white slave owners were not necessarily "evil." These "humble" participants in the slaveocracy even worked alongside their slaves.

History can be unfair in its harsh truths. America's wealth was built on cotton and human property. African Americans--black slaves--were the single largest capital good in the United States. As such, to own slaves was to have a chance at upward class mobility. Owning human property was the root of Southern society and being "American." As has often been alluded to by historians, while a small number of slave owners had large numbers of slaves, the reality is that the South was a slave society. This extended across class levels. As such, the Shields were deeply and personally invested in a system of white supremacy.

On this point, James Oakes' essential text The Ruling Race suggests that:
The ownership of slaves became for many immigrants the single most important symbol of their success in the New World, although few of the ever participated in the economy of the larger plantation...Professionals also  prospered as merchants, civil servants, and craftsmen. In 1850, more than 27,000 doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals were included in the ranks of the slaveholding class.  
Slaveholding professionals were probably the single most influential class in the antebellum South. Their education and wealth gave them control of much of the southern press. They were elected to political office in staggeringly unrepresentative numbers by presenting themselves to southern voters as living testimony to the validity of the American dream of upward mobility.
There are White Lies and the liars who tell them:
 Melvinia was not a privileged house slave like Sally. She was illiterate and no stranger to laboring in the fields. She had more biracial children after the Civil War, giving some of the white Shieldses hope that her relationship with Charles was consensual.
“To me, it’s an obvious love story that was hard for the South to accept back then,” said Aliene Shields, a descendant who lives in South Carolina.
Again, the language of "biracial" is used incorrectly. Melvinia had black children who would grow up in a society where people like them were marginalized and uniquely subject to Jim and Jane Crow, black codes, economic exploitation, and the violence of the KKK, police, and lynching tree.

In another example of the deceptive and delusional power of the white racial frame in practice, Aliene Shields lies to herself. Her understanding of whiteness as an identity that is inherently good cannot accept that her ancestors were killers and rapists. She wants to make a story of child rape, exploitation, and racism into a Lifetime movie where "love" succeeds against all odds.

Is Shields' investment in Whiteness so tied to a fiction of white personhood as being existentially benign, that she cannot critically assess the fact(s) of race in America? Is Whiteness that precarious and vulnerable a social identity?

Interestingly, Michelle Obama's ancestor never claimed the white ancestry of her "love child:"
People who knew Melvinia said she never discussed what happened between them, whether she was raped or treated with affection, whether she was loved and loved in return. 
Contemporary America emerged from that multiracial stew, a nation peopled by the heirs of that agonizing time who struggled and strived with precious little knowledge of their own origins. By 1890, census takers counted 1.1 million Americans of mixed ancestry. 
Somewhere along the way, she decided to keep the truth about her son’s heritage to herself.
All four of Mrs. Obama’s grandparents had multiracial forebears. There were Irish immigrants who nurtured their dreams in a new land and free African-Americans who savored liberty long before the Civil War. Some were classified as mulatto by the census, while others claimed Cherokee ancestry.
Melvinia should have voice and agency in her own story. If the child she had with Charles Tribble was born of consent and mutual affection, why would his white lineage not be spoken of? Could it be that blackness trumps whiteness in a one-drop rule society? Thus, "biracial" identity as imposed backwards in the NY Times piece is a fiction, a marker with little to no currency in 19th century America?

The racial project of reading America as a multiracial society historically, in the service of a post-racial fiction about the Age of Obama in the present, is operative throughout the above passage. Rachel Swarns' allusion to a "multiracial" stew ignores the role of law, practice, social norms, and the State in carefully policing the color line. 

These Americans of "mixed ancestry" were not celebrated. White authorities saw them as a problem to be corrected, "cured," eliminated, and as a threat to American society. For example, white race scientists labored over what to do about the WIN tribe who were of mixed black, native American, and white ancestry. Strict racial laws about miscegenation, segregation, schooling, and other areas of civil society, were enforced through violence in order to protect the purity of America's "white racial stock." 

These racially ambiguous people knew that to "pass" into whiteness was to move up the class and racial hierarchy. This was a common story in the black community, but also extended to Melungeons, the Mississippi Chinese, and others who in acts of racial realpolitik ran away from blackness in order to secure some share of whiteness as a type of property.

Meet Your Cousin, the First Lady: A Family Story, Long Hidden's last paragraph is a potpourri of historical flattening and misrepresentation. 

Black Americans are a "multiracial" people. This is largely a byproduct of mass rape. And white blood has purchased little if any social currency in white society for those blacks able to leverage it. The Irish are an object lesson in how white ethnics transitioned from some type of racial Other into full whiteness. They were a group that were once considered "black," but who "earned" whiteness through racial violence against people of color. While a common misunderstanding that yearns for alliances across racial lines among oppressed peoples, the Cherokees, like many other Native American tribes, owned blacks as human property and participated in the slave trade. 

White denial blinds:
“I’m appalled at slavery,” said Mrs. George, 61. “I don’t know how that could have even gone on in a Christian nation. I know that times were different then. But the idea that one of our ancestors raped a slave..." 
She trailed off for a moment, considering the awful possibility.

This is an example of willful and cultivated ignorance. One of the core privileges of Whiteness in this society is the power to avoid certain facts, to protect oneself from discomfort, and to live in a bubble of racial myopia. If black folks are subject to the existential dilemma and threat of "niggerization," white folks have been subject to a cultural project that exaggerates their worth, and protects them from uncomfortable truths.

Christianity was central to the Slave Regime. White Christians may have temporarily struggled with owning human property, but they quickly reconciled such tensions in the pursuit of profit. Some whites were so angst ridden that they worried that white people, "Christians" like them, would be damned to hell in the afterlife for participating in such a vicious business. Christianity could be used to provide justification for the enslavement of black people; the Bible was a tool for creating docile slaves.
Oakes offers more insight here:
In later years, the psychological dilemma of masters was reflected in the frequently expressed wish to be rid of the slave entirely. Completely ignoring the servants who stood right behind her, a Gulf Coast mistress declared that "it would be better if there wasn't any niggers in the world." 
"Lord send that there was no negro in all America," a Mississippi master prayed...The slaveholders confirmed the essential tragedy of their lives by declaring their inability and unwillingness to change. "We were born under the institution and cannot now change or abolish it," a Mississippi slaveholder declared. He would rather be "exterminated" than be forced to live in the same society "with the slaves, if freed." 
...Slaveholders never did find a way to abolish slavery "with safety," and so the lure of prosperity continued to attract white Southerners to black slavery, despite moral injunctions implicit in their religious values.
A white privilege laced confessional?   
“I would like to know the answer, but I would not like to know that my great-grandfather was a rapist,” she said. “I would like to know in my brain that they were nice to her and her children. It would be easier to live with that.” 
Mrs. Tribble, who began researching her roots before Mrs. Obama became the first lady, said she was shocked to learn that her ancestors owned slaves. 
“My family, well, they were just your most basic people who never had a lot,” Mrs. Tribble said. “I never imagined that they owned slaves.”
"It would be easier to live with that.” This is the crystallization of white privilege: it is the power to bend reality in the service of one's own will and needs. Thus, Mrs. Tribble is able to fashion a lie for herself, one that makes her feel better about the realities of her ancestors' behavior. 

I wonder if Melvinia had that privilege? I wonder if black people specifically, and people of color more generally, have such a power--to avoid the uncomfortable through an act of willful self-deception on matters of race and racial inequality--in this country today?

Whiteness and white privilege do moral, ethical, intellectual, cognitive and spiritual damage to white people in American society. Meet Your Cousin, the First Lady: A Family Story, Long Hidden is a tour de force example of that reality.


Anonymous said...

Tell the truth and shame the devil. The NY Times' reporting and op-eds re African-American issues has been quite myopic and offensive lately. Their "Why Black Women Are Fat" article was the last straw for me.

freebones said...

---------"And white ethnics can have their "hard times," "we suffered too just like the blacks so why do they complain?" family mythologies validated too."--------------

i love you, CD, but come on. this is just childish.

white ethnics? why is it neo-nazi-ist for whites to learn about their heritage?

why downplay the suffering of any group?

why write it off as mythology?

why even put this blurb in? very antagonizing. not like you at all.

but, much love as always, for we may peacefully disagree.

incidentally, have you heard about the adidas "slavery sneakers"? i am expecting you to write on that any day now.

chaunceydevega said...

@Free. Got to push back. There is a deeper game here.

There is a political project of white ethnic grievance politics that is predicated on these "hard times" stores as a way of neutralizing the justice claims of black people.

This began at least in the 1970s as a backlash to busing and the CR movement.

If you watch these shows intently as I have been doing--I want to write a book chapter or article on their racial project--the context of a changing America, perceived black success in Obama, and white victimology is rich as a context.

In fact, one of the recurring narratives on these shows is white people discovering their hard times roots in the family. There is the slavery discussion for blacks, the multiracial discussion for latinos, the model minority roots for asians, and then white people with few exceptions discovering the "struggles" of their ancestors.

I do believe that we can rank oppressions and historical grievances. White ethnics had/have one great advantage in America that blacks by definition can never have--they could become white. White immigrants knew it, and did it over and over and over again.

I would check out Jacobson's Roots Too and also the classic the Ethnic Myth. Roediger's Working Towards Whiteness hints at this as well.

If there is interest I may put up parts of a recent article on the myth of those much discussed signs that said "No Irish, No Dogs."

A cultural historian went through archives and collections and could find not one example. So he traced the myth. Guess when it began? About the time of the white ethnic "rediscovery" backlash against civil rights in the 1970s.

freebones said...

i'm intensely uncomfortable with the idea that irish immigrants weren't highly discriminated against in america.

also, the vast majority of the white ethnic pride movement comes from baltic and nordic countries, not from the irish.

but i would love to see your writing on that either way.

chaunceydevega said...

@Free. I didn't say they were not discriminated against. They were. And that is one of the ironies, the Irish lost their "blackness" by actively and violently discriminating against black people. A double irony, some of the most rabid supporters of black emancipation and our freedom struggle were the Irish in Ireland.

Ignatiev and Roediger do a great job of mapping this out. I think Theo Allen may have some allusions to it as well.

Also, I was not talking about the "white pride" movement. I am talking about the white ethnic backlash against Civil Rights in places like Boston and Chicago. One of the central narratives was this "we had it hard and made it" why can't "the blacks shut up" and do the same. This is a cousin to the Southern Strategy, California tax revolt, neoliberal colorblind racism move in the 1970s.

There is alot written about it, look for some of the books I mentioned I think you will like them. As I said, I may post the article on the myth of the No, Irish, No Dogs sign.

fred c said...

This Times article is in the mainstream of the standard American socio-political response to this historical problem. A response that is a propagandistic whitewash. Not only of the Black American problem specifically, but of the whole immigrant problem in general.

In the late '70's I visited the Statue of Liberty, and I was very interested in the big "Story of Immigration" presentation in the base. It addressed in vague, euphemistic terms the problems faced by immigrants of little means, both in transit and upon arrival, and it also addressed, in the same wishy-washy terms, the forced immigration of the slaves. All of these problems were presented as Old-Time-Specific problems that had been overcome by the the generous American spirit.

The meme of "hard times" for those old-timey Whites is, as you suggest, exculpatory and disingenuous. None of my people, from the beginning and up to the present times, would trade their hard times for the hard times of Black Americans. No thanks! I'll take these hard times right here! As you also suggest, it's a different order of magnitude, and a horror.

Anonymous said...

This is an awesome narrative and analysis I must fully acknowledge without any reservations.

I took CD to the shed in his previous commentaries for a number of reasons which were affirmed by other bloggers.

To observe CD come back with a vengence renews my respect for WARN and lessens my concern that CD's was slipping..


Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Very well done, sir. The rape and sexual abuse of female slaves was very much a part of public discourse in the 1850s! The fact that it is being denied or downplayed today is ridiculous, and I think you've really touched on why.

I am with you on the "hard times" thing. My family has risen from the working to the middle class, but with the help of veterans benefits, farm subsidies, and educational opportunities that were almost exclusively available to whites at the time. As hard as I try to point this out to them, they continue to believe they got where they are solely on their effort alone. The "hard times" meme is perhaps the most effective mental habit used to deny white privilege among working and lower-middle class white folks.

Tom said...

It's a good point. Very few people respond to accounts of the Holocaust by saying "yeah the Huguenots had it tough too" or "same thing happened to the Armenians." It's the wrong time to bring it up, and people generally don't.

But with slavery there's this drive to minimize it. Because white Americans were responsible for slavery, is obviously the reason.

Tom said...

Ok, I have to mention another side of this however. I think it's a mistake to give the impression that you're calling atrocities other than slavery "myths."

freebones said...

well, CD, let this be a testament to the fact that polite disagreements can happen here. :)

Anonymous said...

I dont know about America but the Irish were routinely characatured as ape like creatures in the English media up until as recently as the 1980s and those signs certainly exsisted here.

Tom said...


I don't know who was "discriminated against" and that doesn't come close to comparing to slavery.

But. African Americans were enslaved for hundreds of years. Armenians and Jewish folks were massacred; man-made famines in British India were rampant at times, killing tens of millions of people; Stalin intentionally starved ten million or more. On a smaller scale at one point a million Irish people were starved to death while their country exported food. Huguenots were killed and driven out of their land as refugees, and so were a number of groups that virtually ceased to exist in South Africa. It's happening to the Palestinians right now. The Tasmanians were utterly destroyed.

CD and Freebones I know you're both arguing in good faith. But to me "myth" and "discrimination" are both red herrings at best.

chaunceydevega said...

@Fred C. If you want a good laugh check out the School House Rock video on immigration.

@Mr.Bear. Always nice to have a historian in the house. That narrative is a powerful tool for the Right-wing in their divide and conquer game. You probably read it, but When Affirmative Action was White is a great book that develops much of the history you allude to.

@Tom. Which makes it more interesting that when asked about reparations and other active moves towards compensatory justice, in surveys whites actively support such measures in fictional scenarios that are a direct borrowing from what happened in the U.S. When the language is made real, they oppose the idea.

@Tom. I didn't mean to suggest some of what white immigrants went through were "myths" per se, but rather that the whole narrative has been mythologized.

@Free. I will post some of that article.

@Anon. The Irish-Ape image was a common way of paralleling them with blacks. But, and here is where the research by historians is so powerful, those stereotypes did not persist in such a way to deny the Irish power politically or in the labor market.

The NINA language and signs were more common in the UK. But not in the U.S. It is part of a cultural myth.

Tom said...

CD -- Yeah, it's amusing how many/most white Americans try to wriggle out of making reparations for slavery. F***ers.

One very articulate white blogger, who saw the racism in the Jena Six case and spoke out indefatigably against it, agreed with me that we owe reparations for slavery, but said that those reparations were somehow owed--technically speaking--by the Confederacy not the Union, and so sadly can not be paid. Which was a shame. Reparations for Jim Crow, she said, are also owed, and should be paid by Southern states (where she lived; forget which state), but unfortunately since it's too difficult to track people who were affected by Jim Crow vs African Americans who were not so affected, again, sadly, as a practical matter reparations again unfortunately cannot be paid.

Free college tuition wherever kids get in would be just a starting point in a reparations bill, to my way of thinking. Just to get the ball rolling, you understand.

lasoti said...

This article is frickin' brilliant.

Anonymous said...

Thing is that the Irish *could become white*. Once the first generation was here and they lost their distinctive accents, it was just a matter of aggressively assimilating -- losing the Mcs and the Os as needed, and Protestantizing where it was safer -- because we didn't have any overt physical markers. Even now, my family of intensely Irish-surnamed people is as white as anyone can get, and we have every piece of white privilege possible. We are Whitey McWhitepeople, and my straight white male stupidly rich banker/accountant cousins are enjoying their ability to go wherever any other straight white male can go in terms of progress in the workplace.

Every generation of first immigrants is highly discriminated against, but the people who can become white in a generation have so much more of an edge, and will cheerfully throw anyone who *can't* become white under the bus.

Comrade Physioprof said...

They were much more typical of the ordinary people who became entangled in America’s entrenched system of servitude.

This sentence blew my fucken mind. As if the slave owners and the slaves were equivalently "ordinary people" who just happened to "bec[ome] entangled" in slavery. This absolutely obliterates the vast moral and practical chasm between the slave and the owner. Shameful of the author to write this, and even more shameful of the editors to allow it to be printed.

Anonymous said...

Damn good article. I hope the President reads it. To this day I do not believe he understands, he knows,but he does not understand what it is to be African American. if he did he would stop acting like it is the 1950's and he is the first negro "this"

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, Chauncey for writing this article!
The new meme that has developed to buttress and undergird the "hard times" narrative is yet another instance of the "equivalency game"---the assertion that whites were slaves too, that white indentured servants had it as "hard" if not worse than enslaved Africans---that white European indentured servants were subjected to more intense exploitation and valued less than enslaved Africans. You hear this stance trotted out repeatedly to minimize the specificity of chattel slavery.

ellemarie said...

As much as I hate to say it because it feeds into the notion of a herd mentality among black folks, but it seriously bothers me that Ms. Swarns is a Black woman, writing this foolishness. I read “Such forbidden liaisons across the racial divide . . .” and thought to myself “Is this chick [that wasn’t the actual word] for real?” To be blunt, this is the type of writing I expect from white folks within the mainstream media who believe themselves to be qualified analysts of race in America but who rarely (if ever!) engaged with race (critically or otherwise) before Barack Obama threw his hat into the ring for the presidency. A “Whitewashing” of history is the nicest thing you could say about this mess.

Unknown said...

what really puzzles me is the woman's reluctance to accept that her forefather was a rapist. how does this harm her? it is important to understand the system of racism, and part of that is to separate one's own actions. i am white, and i am ABSOLUTELY certain that while i am 3rd generation here in 3 sections of my family, the 4th is from lousiana and had undoubtedly owned and raped (and mistreated otherwise) black people. this does not reflect upon me unless i value those actions. i do not in the slightest. it is my duty to root out racism in myself and others around me-not to justify the actions of my foreparents. if that all makes sense to people.