Tuesday, July 31, 2012

He Got It From His White Momma: Barack Obama Related to First Black Slave in the United States

Barack Obama is now American "royalty" twice-over. He is the first President of the United States who happens to be black. And with the discovery of his genealogical ties to John Punch, the first African bondsman in America, Obama can trace his family lineage back to the genesis of that most cruel and peculiar institution known as chattel slavery.

As I wrote about here, the "discovery" of President Obama's blood ties to the beginnings of slavery in the United States are part of a broader political and cultural moment. The United States is renegotiating and struggling with how race is central (or not) to American identity. As the United States becomes more black and brown, Whiteness is figuring out--as it always has--the ways in which it can adapt and evolve in order to maintain its dominant position.

Genealogy is one of the "technologies of race" where science helps to situate people individually, collectively, and relative to one another in the service of Power.

For example, Henry Louis Gates' various DNA escapades are largely about fashioning a new and more cosmopolitan and "global" understanding of race and the Black Atlantic.

The efforts to trace Michelle Obama's lineage back through slavery and to white-wash the rape of her ancestors is a dishonest ploy to write the (black) First Lady back into an approved and sanitized version of the American story. Shows such as Who Do You Think You Are? are parallel efforts to play on the hard times myths of white ethnics, so that in a time of increasing racial diversity white folks can use their own family stories as leverage against the particular and unique justice claims made by people of color.

Ancestry.com's discovery that President Obama was descended from John Punch through his white mother's family line is also a teachable moment for a country that is blindly ignorant of how chattel slavery was and remains central to the American story.

Like many whites in the 17th century, Punch entered the country as an indentured servant. As slavery was evolving, racial lines hardened. White elites created a system that privileged "whites" and marginalized "blacks." These were decisions made by individuals working in the service of a particular set of political, social, and economic interests. Oftentimes, there is a tendency by some to naturalize slavery as something that was unavoidable; alternatively, many apologists deploy the intellectually lazy claim that these white elites "were products of their time." Sure they were, and who cares?

The abolitionists and others who fought against the slave regime were products of their time as well.

[This moment will also produce the normal complaints whenever we confront white supremacy's legacies in the present or dare to talk about the TransAtlantic slave trade and the Black Holocaust. Some white folks and others will defensively howl, "every society had slaves, get over it!" The reply here is always an easy one. 

First, chattel slavery in the Americas and across the Black Atlantic was unprecedented in human history. Second, if America is so exceptional, unique, and noble, why ought we hold ourselves to such a low standard where "if everybody else did it, then it must be okay?"]

In all, Barack Obama's ancestry is a reminder that slavery was a process where American, and in particular Southern society, moved from one where some people happened to be slaves, to a slave society where the majority of blacks were held as human property. This legacy of the color line is still with us today as seen through disparities in wealth, income, life expectancy, social mobility, health outcomes, and incarceration rates.

As a practical matter, this discovery will likely have little impact on how President Obama is viewed by either his supporters or opponents. The President has been racialized by the White Right since the 2008 campaign, and he will be further "blackened up" as the 2012 race continues. The discovery of Obama's connections to slavery will do little to hurt with with a crowd that already sees him as anathema to American ideals, a black brigand and usurper, and hates the very fact that a person of color (and his family) is in the White House as anything other than as a janitor or chambermaid.

For his supporters, especially those in the black community, Obama's African-American ancestry (which can now be traced all the way back to the crucible and smelting pot of race in the United States) will make him no less popular or beloved. The President identifies himself as a black American by experience, affinity, and birthright. With this discovery, Obama now simply has the blood and soil DNA bonafides which link him back to the African-American founders of this country. And no, his "relationship" to John Punch will not make President Obama any more likely to speak directly about the particular needs of black and brown folks in the United States.

I do have two fleeting thoughts however. As observers such as Shelby Steele, Randall Kennedy and others pointed out during the 2008 Presidential Race, part of Obama's appeal is that he was not one of those "angry blacks" who can trace their lineage back to White America's national sin of black enslavement and mass murder. Obama was the "safe black" who did not remind white voters of their collective shame and guilt--and thus did not fully activate feelings of white racial resentment. Will the discovery of President Obama's ancestry challenge this bargain?

Perhaps I have seen Batman The Dark Knight Rises too many times? (four as of yesterday) But, in taking a cue from Commissioner Gordon's advice to Nightwing a young detective, there are few coincidences in life. Why was this information released about President Obama's genealogy now? Who wins and loses by making such a revelation so near election day?


nomad said...

"Although Obama's father was a black man from Kenya, his ties to slavery stem instead from his white mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, Harman said. The enslaved, black Punch had children with a free white woman. Because their mother was free, Punch's mixed-race kids were born free and went on to become "prominent" land owners in Virginia, Harman said."

Well, that impresses me not at all. The sword cuts both ways. As slavery developed in colonial America, many of the offspring of the original black slaves/indentured servants, that had children with whites became slave owners. And that was probably the case with these wealthy descendants of Punch. It was especially so as this class of elite blacks grew whiter in intermarriage with whites, generation after generation, until their African ancestry was completely erased. As I keep repeating, there were two classes of blacks in antebellum days. And many of the black elite (mulattoes)held slaves. It would be interesting to find out if these black/mulatto landholding ancestors of Obama's mother owned slaves. If that turns out to be the case, this could turn out not be a cause for celebration but a blight on Obama's family history.

chaunceydevega said...

@Nomad. You know. I am going to post a video later on passing. That is a great point though. Do some digging, let's see what you/we can find.

Anonymous said...

Why was this information released about President Obama's genealogy now? Who wins and loses by making such a revelation so near election day? - Chauncey Devega

In almost everything that we as human beings do, timing is a critical component in the decision making process. Without a doubt, President Obama’s ancestral records were released in close proximity to the election in order for these records to unleash its maximum potential to cast him as one of those angry, hot tempered Field Negro that you alluded to. For those of us who don’t know a little bit about this country’s slavery regime era, Field Negros never showed any loyalty towards his master. And since he never displayed any allegiance for the Slave Master, he was not to be trusted under any circumstance. Even if he eventually becomes the President of the United States some day (that day has arrived).

Furthermore, the publishing of these records were also done to queue and confirm in the feeble minds of most whites that President Obama is in fact a foreigner after all. Simply put, the implication here is to say in other words: DON’T VOTE FOR BARACK OBAMA because he’s not trustworthy! – Black Sage

OTB said...

It would be interesting to know the political leanings of the people who released this information, and whether or not there actually is some ulterior motive.

It will also be interesting to see the results of the impending third party review. The report mentions that many records are missing, and there could be problems with the reliability of DNA from centuries ago.

Chauncey makes charges against "Who Do You Think You Are?" -- that it serves to show that whites had equally hard roads as blacks. While blacks make up some 12% of the US population, blacks accounted for 26% of the show's subjects (7/27). One of those subjects, Spike Lee, would likely not condone these newly disclosed roots of Barack Obama.

Anonymous said...

I was on this website many moons ago commenting about those peculair so called "white" folks around us. Cindy Crawford, Elvis,Eva Gardner, Jonny Depp, Angelina Jolie,etc. I told the truth there is one drop of black blood in all of them and everyone in the little southern towns where there ancestry can be traced to knows it! I was ridiculed and it was said "what black blood"? The reality is that there a lot of folks passing these days. They don't look like Halle Berry they look like the President's mother. One drop means black until someone suggest they change the rule books in every southern state in Dixie. Go to court with one drop of black blood in any southern state and the judge will rule in favor of the laws of the south that still remain one drop y'all black. So now it goes to this CHange the rules! Allow a multi racial category. All you "progressive" WHITEs who love this website know exactly what I mean cause you got the same gentics as obama's mama, swarthy, dark eyes and hair , wavy hair for no reason. You're not italian your not jewish someone somewhere came from down south and it's just Indian blood yeah we know. You can comment one websites like these cause you got those myths and stories of that one black ancestor in your family and you know it. You know to much and are too attracted to "black issues" for a reason. Trust me real white people ie: Christie Brinkley aint that intersted in state of black affairs. But ya'll are and you know why. Do yourself a favor work on changing the rules down south before it's too late and ancestry .com comes for you! Then your love of living the black life while walking around with "white privledge" will soon come to end and you'll be nothing more than a n........well you know the rest!

chaunceydevega said...

@OTB. Your metrics don't really have anything to do with the claim about white ethnic myths, the white backlash to the civil rights movement post 1960s, or the metanarrative of the show. Having black and brown folks on such shows is also a signal to a larger racial/political project. We went to and fro on this in an earlier post.

You are right on the need to confirm these findings. As I alluded to earlier there is apparently much more to the story.

@Anon. Obama the field negro? Lord. Comedy gold, given that he has done everything in his power to soothe any sense of being overly black identified. His problematic Independence Day speech back during the campaign was a huge concession towards constructing a blameless, false equivalency laden harmless narrative of white racism in the guise of this post racial crap meme. You may be right though. Something about the whole thing just stinks to me.

makheru bradley said...

There is a distinct difference between “the first documented African enslaved for life in American history,” and the first enslaved Afrikans in what was then part of the British Empire in North America. Indeed the title of this article does grave injustice to the Angolans, called the “20 and odd” who were sold to the governor and cape merchant of Virginia by British pirates in August, 1619.

These Afrikans were slaves in every sense of the word, having been captured in Angola. There were approximately 350 people crammed into a Portuguese slave ship called the San Juan Bautista bound for Mexico. Based on the merchant records about 150 of them perished during the dreaded Middle Passage. British pirates attacked the “Bautista” and stole 50 of these Angolans, whom they transported to Virginia aboard two ships the White Lion (carrying the first 20 and odd) and the Treasurer which arrived a few days later. These Angolans were sold for food and supplies then resold to Virginia settlers in Jamestown. Some of them became indentured servants, but the terms of their servitude was never documented.

Unlike English indentured servants who voluntarily came to North America due to massive unemployment, and intense poverty in England, or to finish serving time for criminal convictions, these Angolans who were transported to Virginia in 1619 were free people living productive lives who became part of the largest forced migration in history. So don’t get this “first Black slave” thing twisted.

In fact, prior to the English, the Spaniards transported 100 enslaved Afrikans to South Carolina.

[The first slave revolt in continental North America was in South Carolina in 1526. Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon, a Spanish colonizer founded a town near the Pee Dee River. This settlement consisted of 500 Spaniards and 100 enslaved Africans. Illness soon hit the settlement and Ayllon died. The South Carolina Indians became hostile to the settlement, and in November the enslaved Africans revolted, killing their Spanish masters, and escaped to the Indians.]

The history of John Punch is well documented.


Is President Obama related to John Punch through an unknown white woman and their son John Bunch? It’s plausible, and remarkable if true. However, to claim that the President is a descendant of the “first Black slave in the American colonies” simply isn’t true.

Bougie Mongrel said...

Looks like we came to very similar conclusions: http://gamblingandlosing.com/2012/08/02/up-from-slavery-84-2/ Love this blog btw

nomad said...

makheru bradley
Thanks for the link.
"Though fleeing similar circumstances, the fates of the runaways differed under the court’s aegis. A judge sentenced all three to whippings. He then added four years to the indenture terms of James and Victor, both white Europeans. John, a black man, alone he condemned to lifelong servitude."

This exemplifies the trend in colonial America by which enslavement for blacks was gradually made perpetual. Ostensibly black and white indentured servants started out being treated equally, but racial/cultural bias eroded that. This process phased whites from the burgeoning slave population, reserving enslavement exclusively for blacks. In addition Christianized blacks, which, no doubt, Bunch was, would have been treated better than Africans direct from the continent.

makheru bradley said...

In addition Christianized blacks, which, no doubt, Bunch was, would have been treated better than Africans direct from the continent.—Nomad

In this case the opposite is true per several sources.

As regards the Afrikans from Angola:

[Virginia's first Africans spoke Bantu languages called Kimbundu and Kikongo. Their homelands were the kingdoms of Ndongo and Kongo, regions of modern-day Angola and coastal regions of Congo. Both were conquered by the Portuguese in the 1500s. The Africans mined tar and rock salt, used shells as money and highly valued their children, holding initiation ceremonies to prepare them for adulthood.

And they most likely had been baptized as Christians, because the kingdom of Ndongo converted to Christianity in 1490. Many were literate. This background may be one reason some of Virginia's first Africans won their freedom after years as indentured servants, the historians said.]


As regards John Punch:

[Whatever the status of these first Africans to arrive at Jamestown, it is clear that by 1640, at least one African had been declared a slave. This African was ordered by the court "to serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere."

The grounds for this harsh sentence presumably lay in the fact that he was non-Christian rather than in the fact that he was physically dark.]


If Barack Obama and John Punch are related how about this for cruel irony: Punch was the first person documented to be sentenced to indefinite servitude in what became the United States; Obama is the first US president to sign indefinite detention into law.

nomad said...

@makheru bradley
Very interesting. Good info. Where's your blog?