When I was younger, my late father told me a story about our surname, a story that, sadly, I haven’t researched further (perhaps admitting this publicly will spur me to do so). Here’s the story: My father was from Cincinnati, which is separated from the small town of Southgate, Ky., by the Ohio River. The Ohio was the last crossing many enslaved people had to make to reach the free northern states. As a child, he heard that a white woman from the Southgate family who founded the town had fallen in love with an enslaved man on her estate. At some point, they married and the man took her surname, not having one of his own.
Many African Americans, whether they know it or not, have a tale something like this in their family history. Usually, the gender roles are reversed, and it is a white man who has had a child with (either by force or by love) a black woman. Many white people also have such stories in their history, though they are sometimes more reluctant to acknowledge it. In any case, because of “the peculiar institution” most African Americans have great difficulty tracing their ancestry much further back than the 1800s. When Henry Louis Gates was able to trace comedian Wanda Sykes’s family back to free blacks in the 1600s, it was a notable rarity. By and large, we were property, counted in with the cows, the pigs and the furniture, with records sketchy if they exist at all.
For obvious reasons, the story of Michelle Obama’s long-dead relatives has also attracted attention. Rachel L. Swarns summed up the facts in a 2009 New York Times article that led to her new book, “American Tapestry”: “[A] union, consummated some two years before the Civil War, represents the origins of a family line that would extend from rural Georgia to Birmingham Alabama to Chicago and finally to the White House. Melvinia Shields, the enslaved and illiterate young girl, and the unknown white man who impregnated her are the great-great-great-grandparents of Michelle Obama, the first lady.”
In “American Tapestry,” Swarns traces both sides of Mrs. Obama’s family back to the 1840s, building carefully to the story of Melvinia Shields. Swarns’s research is extensive and meticulous — one feels the hours that she spent poring over old documents and talking with genealogists and historians. Her passion for the story is clear and striking.
What works against her, and against the full success of the book, is the sketchiness of the history that slavery created and enforced and the rareness of literacy among slaves and their immediate descendants. Very few letters, journals or notes have survived — all the written ephemera so crucial to the historian in discovering the mindset of his or her subjects. Further, many of those in the generations immediately after slavery maintained a staunch silence about the experience, as though to blot out the horror.
Because of that silence, African Americans tend to lack stories from “the old country.” Without these anecdotes and handed-down stories, many of those whom Swarns interviewed have slender and unenlightening memories, as in this quote from Nomenee Robinson, remembering his grandmother Phoebe Robinson, Mrs. Obama’s great-great grandmother on her father’s side: “She was the keeper of wonderful recipes. . . . Rhubarb pie. I’ve never had it since. She made dandelion greens, dandelion soup. That I remember very well.”