Americans are constantly surprised by their own history – at least they act as though they are. It’s a fascinating phenomenon. But when you’re invested in a national narrative that is all fireworks and triumph, it’s
tempting to ignore the things that don’t shine quite so brightly.
My colleague Michelle Bernard’s Fourth of July story provided some balance, as she echoed Frederick Douglass’s declaration that the promise doesn’t always reflect the reality for black Americans, who, by the way, have as much invested in the American dream as their fellow citizens.
“American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama” – and the reaction to it – is a reminder of why those messages continue to resonate and to matter.
Initial coverage of the book’s revelations pored over the first lady’s white relatives, then and now: the slave holders who bought and sold human beings and the modern-day descendants who don’t care to face that fact. These blood lines were easier for author Rachel Swarns to trace, of course, given the relative importance American society placed
on taking notice of the lives of whites and blacks.
There is the big reveal of Michelle Obama’s white great-great-great grandfather, though there is speculation about his relationship with her black great-great-great grandmother. Was it rape, romance, or something complicated in between? We do know for sure that as a teen-age slave, she would not have had much of a choice in any interaction.
But despite the breathless commentary, this was old news, obvious from just a glance into the faces of Americans of every race. We’re all mixed up. Even many white Americans are not as white as they suppose.
The white relatives who wove fantasies of masters who cared and treated their slaves with kindness – though owning a human being is a cruelty in itself – take a cue from the politicians who interpret any clear-eyed history lesson as an unpatriotic knock on American exceptionalism. It’s an attitude I encountered when I explored the world of Confederate heritage groups and found folks who were sure every one of their ancestors was noble, good, and treated his slaves like members of the family. It’s an illusion shattered by an exhibit in “America I Am,” Tavis Smiley’s museum show reaching back through hundreds of years of African American history: a silver-accented set for the mistress of a slave-owning home, with mirror, comb, brush and ladies-sized whip for use on house slaves.
Despite past records that listed them not by name but by numbers on a bill of sale and obstacles that left them too exhausted or unlearned to leave diaries, Michelle Obama’s black ancestors from slavery on wove an American tale that should have been central to commentary on “American Tapestry.”
We know their stories, too, but in chronicling their progress often wash away just how much the odds and crushing laws worked against them. This book tells the country’s story through them. One step out of slavery and into a period of Reconstruction, during which they voted and lived beside whites, followed by retribution from whites who snatched those rights away and restored a slavery-like system where murder of blacks was an everyday occurrence and the only job available was
Escape from dire circumstances – to Birmingham or Chicago – was followed by the realization that some form of discrimination awaited, another obstacle to full citizenship. Nevertheless, they learned to read and write – once a crime -- served in wars, raised families and sacrificed, always with an eye toward a better future. After the Civil War, it took an act of will for families broken up and sold to reunite, yet many men, women and children walked hundreds of miles to make the effort and sometimes, miraculously, succeeded. (There is one such reunion in Michelle Obama’s family tree.)
By moving backward through the story of one family, Michelle Obama’s, the names and faces make all-too-human frailties real. Woven through the stories of marriages begun and ended, children orphaned and taken in, homesteads established and abandoned, is the frame of inequality written into law and enforced, often through brutality. In “American Tapestry,” children die of disease and illness, exacerbated by unsanitary conditions and lack of adequate medical care that blacks had to endure.
The great-great-great grandmother, Melvinia, is this true story’s survivor, sold off from her family in South Carolina and sent off to Georgia when she was only about 8. Though in her time, she was thought of as having little value, her reach now extends to the White House. As an African American, her story commands my attention and gratitude. But what “American Tapestry” makes clear is that you don’t have to be Michelle Obama – or black, for that matter – to share in Melvinia’s very American story.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3