Updated: June 27, 2012 7:03PM
Imagine the revelation of Michelle Obama finally uncovering the mystery of her genealogy after becoming first lady: not only the discovery of an ancestral slave from Georgia, her great-great-great-grandmother, Melvinia, but also that she bore several children to a Caucasian man on a farm in the mid-1800s.
Thanks to the in-depth research of New York Times reporter Rachel Swarns, missing branches have been restored to the first lady’s elusive family tree. Now her book, American Tapestry: The Story of Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama (Amistad, $27.99), further explores a multiracial bloodline that flows throughout the South during Reconstruction and beyond and more prominently through Chicago’s South Side during the swinging jazz era of the 1920s.
American Tapestry is not only the remarkable story of the first lady’s family, providing insight into some of the wonderful traits that have been passed down to her, but also a microcosm of this country’s story as well. It’s unfortunate that not enough documentation survives to answer so many more questions, but the anecdotal tales shed light on a history that’s been long suppressed in the first lady’s family and within many other African-American families. Namely, the pain and shame associated with slavery and mixed races.
The story of the first lady’s genealogy, though sometimes hard to follow, is riveting as Swarns pieces together the family tree, branch by branch and generation by generation. It certainly helped having Obama’s long-lost cousin Jewell Barclay consent to a DNA test in Cleveland in the search for the truth. It was news to Barclay that so many of her relatives settled in Chicago and that she was related to the first lady. But then, one of the side benefits of this research is how so many of Obama’s relatives reconnected.
It turns out that Melvinia’s oldest son, Dolphus Shields, moved to Birmingham, Ala., where he became a prosperous Baptist deacon, homeowner and businessman. Purnell Shields, his grandson, relocated to Chicago with his mother in the integrated South Side but later became embittered about the Jim Crow South and the segregated North.
On the other side of the family, the Great Migration north to Chicago contains its share of hardships: Obama’s great-grandmother Phoebe Moten struggled with middle-class aspirations during the Depression with her minister husband, James Johnson, when racial strife soared. In a way, the real-life saga of struggle, survival, triumph and tragedy serves as an uplifting companion to Alex Haley’s Roots and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.
Eventually, chance encounters in South Chicago produce Obama’s grandparents. At which point, Swarn’s narrative retraces the family branches produced in the Old South and post-slavery. “A lot of the time these stories get buried, because sometimes the pain of them makes it hard to want to remember,” Obama recounts.
Thus, in the end, American Tapestry is about the crucial ties that bind the first lady.
Gannett News Service