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While Alex Haley’s groundbreaking book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, may have not been the first attempt to bridge history from the coasts of Africa to American slavery to modern-day life in America, it certainly galvanized widespread interest in African Americans tracing their roots back to their enslaved ancestors and beyond. Since then, scholar and educator Henry Louis Gates Jr. has become Haley’s heir apparent, generating new interest in tracing roots with the additional tool of DNA testing with his PBS show African American Lives and most recently Finding Your Roots. Finally, the proliferation of genealogical research websites such as Africanancestry.com has also made genealogical research more accessible than ever before.
With the scrutiny of the lineage of the nation’s first black president who has more of a direct connection to Africa than many African Americans, very little attention was paid initially to the lineage of Michelle Obama. However, Mrs. Obama’s lineage is likely more representative of average African Americans who may know some of the history of their grandparents in America but have little knowledge of their connection to their enslaved roots or African beginnings. In 2009, a genealogist discovered that Michelle Obama was the great-great-great granddaughter of Melvinia Shields (a former slave) and a white man. New York Times reporter Rachel L. Swarns wrote about the discovery and was later convinced to expand the article into her new book American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama. Swarns traces the ancestry of Mrs. Obama all the way to Clayton County, Georgia, where I have lived for several years.
Earlier this summer, Clayton County officials unveiled a monument dedicated to Melvinia Shields in Rex, Georgia, where Melvinia lived when she gave birth to Mrs. Obama’s great-great grandfather Dolphus Shields. Both black and white family members took part in the ceremony, although Mrs. Obama was not present. While Mrs. Obama declined to be interviewed for the book (as a policy, she is not interviewed for any books, Swarnes said), Swarnes interviewed Mrs. Obama’s family members including her aunt, uncle and others and explained just how all of these people, both black and white, spanning several states, are related. In fact, she traced Mrs. Obama’s maternal and paternal roots, spinning a rich history that is surprisingly relevant today.
One of the book’s recurring themes is how tenuous civil rights can be, particularly for American black people. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, during the era of Reconstruction, blacks were given unprecedented freedom and access to representation in government, both locally and nationally. Jefferson Long became the first black man to represent Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served less than three months before leaving his seat in 1871. Swarnes noted that it would be over a century before another African American represented Georgia again as segregationists and Ku Klux Klan members began implementing schemes and laws rescinding the rights of African Americans. In 1908, “blacks were effectively barred from the ballot box altogether when whites amended the state constitution to require voters to pass a literacy test and own property. … They also had to own forty acres of land or property valued at $500.” As I read example after example of civil rights reversals, I was reminded of the contemporary controversy surrounding the recent implementation of voter ID laws throughout the country that many believe will effectively disenfranchise black voters. In fact, Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network launched a “Voter Engagement Tour” this summer to travel to various states where new voter ID laws have been enacted to educate voters about their full rights.
With all the debate about marriage, whether it’s for white people or gay people or any people, I was interested in how marriage was presented Swarnes’ book. A successful marriage has always been a difficult feat, though there is a tendency to romanticize the marriages of yesteryear. Dolphus Shields was married four times. Fraser Robinson II, Mrs. Obama’s paternal grandfather, left his wife and children in Chicago after nearly seven years of marriage around 1941. In fact, when he enlisted in the Army on March 26, 1941 at 28 years old, he was described as “separated without dependants.” He did, however, ultimately reconcile with his wife around 1950. Mrs. Obama’s maternal grandparents Purnell Shields and Rebecca Jumper Coleman separated after having seven children. The couple lived separately, blocks away from one another in Chicago, although they never divorced.
The black church and the historical impact of religion were also apparent in this work. What has been deemed as “Christian” has certainly changed throughout history. In the 1800s, “one Methodist minister told his congregation that ‘catching and returning runaway slaves to their masters is a Christian duty binding upon any church members.’” I wonder if the church (First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs in Mississippi) that recently refused to allow a black couple to get married at their church would have supported such a stance had it been in existence then. Dolphus Shields, who was a deacon, helped to found Trinity Baptist Church and another church in Birmingham, Alabama, that still exists today. Lavaughn Johnson, for whom the First Lady is named (her full name being Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama), was deeply religious, becoming the first African American woman to manage a Moody Bible bookstore.
As I read American Tapestry, I considered how genealogy is also a persistent theme in the Bible. The lineage of Jesus included Rahab the prostitute, King David the adulterer, the less-than-supermodel Leah, the wise King Solomon, Joseph the dreamer and many other interesting people. Slavery, wars, famine, government takeovers, and more served as backdrops. I believe genealogy in the Bible, as it does in American Tapestry, demonstrates that human beings are essentially the same from generation to generation despite modern innovations, shifting cultural sensibilities and evolving laws through the years. As there is nothing new under the sun, we will always need a Savior to help us resist temptation to be inhumane toward each other and achieve our highest human good. Remembering from whence we came as individuals, families, and nations can help remind us that we’re all part of an evolving legacy of human struggle, hope, and redemption.