President Obama’s Kenyan/Kansan heritage makes him about as authentically African American as one can be but, in some camps, his “racial bona fides” — son of an African immigrant, and a white mother who raised him in Asia and then sent him to grow up with his white grandparents in Hawaii — suggest he is not culturally “black enough.”
Now, it turns out that Barack Obama is apparently descended from a slave – on his mother’s side.
The genealogy Web site Ancestry.com has done research that they say confirms that Stanley Ann Dunham, Obama’s mother, is descended from a historically significant Virginia slave named John Punch. The Web site’s archival and DNA research supports the theory that descendants of Punch, one of very few Africans in early Colonial Virginia, were white landowners in Virginia and ancestors of Kansas-born Dunham — who would be a great-great-great-great–great-great-great-great-great-great grandchild of the unlucky Punch.
Punch is known to historians because of a 1647 Virginia court decree that made him the first recorded African in the state’s history to be legally “enslaved for life.”
The court decision that sealed his fate grew out of then-legally permitted indentured servitude, a draconian scheme common at the time that obligated poor men to years of uncompensated work in exchange for land warrants and debt repayment. Punch illegally escaped from his servitude but was caught and tried in Virginia, and was then sentenced to lifelong enslavement (along with “thirty stripes” by “punishment of whipping”).
By the end of that century, large numbers of kidnapped humans from Africa were being brought by Dutch and English ships to the Virginia colony, where the slave trade continued for more than a century and a half. Though such “importation” of “persons” was officially prohibited in 1808, emancipation for Negro slaves and their children did not come for another 50+ years.
Extensive access to DNA testing and genealogical research has in recent years demonstrated mixed-race heritage in many old white families, as well as evidence of slave owners in the bloodlines of many black families – including Michelle Obama, as Rachel Swarns establishes in “American Tapestry,” her biography about the first lady’s black, white and multiracial ancestors.
As my colleague Mary C. Curtis recently noted, that truth should not come as much of a surprise. There are many families whose American experience can be traced back though generations of hardworking ancestors who endured the abomination of slavery — or were its wrongheaded beneficiaries. It seems likely that genealogical studies will eventually confirm that if we go back far enough in American history, we can find evidence that, regardless of our skin color, we are all distant cousins.
Maybe the recognition will even lead to an end to hundreds of years of racism and discrimination. Hopefully it won’t take another 10 generations before that happens.
Bonnie Goldstein is on Twitter @KickedByAnAngel.