Michelle Obama’s mysterious roots

The first lady's great-great-great-grandmother kept a secret from the family

Topics: Michelle Obama,

Freedom came to Jonesboro, Ga., in that spring of 1865, during those hardest of hard times. The town was in ruins, its buildings shattered by cannon fire. The fledgling green fields had been decimated by drought and hunger rippled through the land. Everywhere Southerners turned, people were moving. Many newly freed slaves were dropping their hoes and packing their sparse belongings. They were walking away from the parched earth and the white people who had owned them, overseen them or marginalized them. Melvinia, a dark-eyed young woman with thick wavy hair and cocoa-colored skin, watched them go. Like all of them, she knew the miseries of slavery. She had toiled in bondage for most of her existence. She had been torn away from her family and friends when she was a little girl. She had been impregnated by a white man when she was as young as 14. Yet when the Civil War ended, when she could finally savor her own liberty, she decided to stay. She decided to build a new life right where she was, on the outskirts of that devastated town, on a farm near the white man who had fathered her firstborn son. She was barely in her twenties and silenced by the forced illiteracy of slavery. Even if she had wanted to, she could not have put pen to paper to reveal the name of the father of her child, to spell it out in the permanence of black ink. This was a different kind of affirmation. Her choice was her clue. A census taker would record her address after the war, memorializing her decision in his curly script. His notes would serve as something of a handwritten message that would survive, untouched, for more than one hundred years. It would be the only message Melvinia would ever leave.

Nearly a decade would pass before she gathered up her children and headed north on her own. Black people walked then, sometimes for miles and miles on those dusty, country roads, or squeezed onto the crowded, rattling railroad cars that chugged between small towns in rural, up-country Georgia. Sometime in the 1870s, Melvinia put some 60 miles between herself and her past. And somewhere along the way, she decided to keep the truth about her son’s heritage to herself. People who knew her say she never talked about her time in slavery or about the white man who so profoundly shaped her formative years as a teenager and a young mother. She never discussed who he was or what happened between them, whether she was a victim of his brutality or a mistress he treated affectionately or whether she loved and was loved in return. She went her way and he went his, and, just like that, their family split right down the middle. Their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren — some black, some white, and some in between — scattered across the country as the decades passed, separated by the color line and the family’s fierce determination to step beyond its painful roots in slavery.

Contemporary America emerged from that multiracial stew, a nation peopled by the heirs of that agonizing time who struggled and strived with precious little knowledge of their own origins. Melvinia’s descendants would soar to unprecedented heights, climbing from slavery to the pinnacle of American power in five generations. Her great-great-great-granddaughter, Michelle Obama, would become the nation’s first African American First Lady. Yet Mrs. Obama would take that momentous step without knowing Melvinia’s name or the identity of the white man who was her great-great-great-grandfather. For more than a century, Melvinia’s secret held.

On November 4, 2008, some 143 years after Melvinia experienced her first days of freedom in that postwar wasteland, Mrs. Obama stood before a crowd of thousands of roaring, singing and weeping supporters in Chicago’s Grant Park. It was Election Night and her husband had just become the first African American president of the United States. Mrs. Obama was all warm smiles and gracious thank-yous that evening, the poised picture of a sophisticated, self-assured woman prepared to take her place in history. The truth was, though, that she knew very little about her own.

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Over and over again, older members of Mrs. Obama’s family said that their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t talk about slavery, dis- crimination, or racial violence or about the provenance of the family’s white ancestry. They described an almost willful, collective forget- ting, an intentional loss of memory that spanned different communi- ties and encompassed different branches of the family.

The silence pervaded Mrs. Obama’s immediate family as well, a sort of burdened inheritance. As a little girl, Mrs. Obama and her brother, Craig Robinson, lived on the South Side of Chicago in a one-bedroom apartment so small that her parents had to partition the living room to create space for her and her brother to sleep. Their home stood within blocks of their four grandparents; they have warm memories of spending time with them at family barbecues and Sunday dinners. But Mrs. Obama and her brother grew up knowing little about how those grandparents ended up on the South Side and virtually nothing about the ancestors who came before them. Mr. Robinson remembers discussing slavery and segregation on a Sunday drive in his parents’ Buick Electra 225 when he was about 12 and Michelle was about ten. He and his sister watched the popular and powerful miniseries “Roots,” based on Alex Haley’s family’s experience in slavery, when they were teenagers. Mrs. Obama, meanwhile, recalls being transfixed by Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” with its powerful evocation of a twentieth-century family still haunted by the old wounds of slavery. She swallowed it whole, reading it all in one day. “That book, it like grabbed me and I just kept reading and kept reading,” she told a group of school children last year. During the summers, she and her family often passed by old rice plantations as they visited relatives in South Carolina. But the family never discussed how the plantations might be related to their personal history. Mrs. Obama has said that she talked about almost everything with her parents, but “we didn’t talk about that.”

The family’s conversations about slavery were almost always rooted in discussions about the African American experience in general, rarely about the family’s experience in particular. “We were aware that most [African American] families were at some point descended from slaves and we talked about that and kind of understood that was the case in our family,” said the First Lady’s brother. During Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, his aides enlisted a historian to dig into Mrs. Obama’s father’s line, which also extends back to slavery. But Craig Robinson has said his family knew little beyond that. “We didn’t do the whole family tree,” he said. “Getting into the nitty-gritty of the genealogy, we didn’t do that.” Nomenee Robinson, Mrs. Obama’s uncle, said that when he tried to dig, he found himself blocked by an impenetrable silence. “All of these elderly people in my family, they would say, ‘Boy, I don’t know anything about slavery time,’” Mrs. Obama’s uncle recalled. “And I kept thinking: ‘You mean your mother or grandmother didn’t tell you anything about it?’ What I think is that they blocked it out.”

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