Slavery, Race, and Reunion: The NY Times White Washes the Rape of Michelle Obama’s Ancestors (Again)Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, History, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Slavery, Social Science, United States on 2012-06-18 21:26Z by Steven
We Are Respectable Negroes
Why would any person honor rapist’s blood?
In an effort to write the Obamas, who are de facto American royalty, back into a larger post-racial narrative that ostensibly makes some white folks feel more comfortable about having a black President, such a move seems par for the course.
In 2009, the NY Times featured a very problematic story about how genealogical researchers had reconstructed Michelle Obama’s family tree. There, the NY Times offered up a story about one of the First Lady’s ancestors who was a child slave and in all likelihood repeatedly raped by her white master. Just as was done in Saturday’s Meet Your Cousin, the First Lady: A Family Story, Long Hidden by Rachel Swarns, the realities of power and exploitation under the chattel regime were conveniently overlooked and (quite literally) white washed away.
Family tree DNA research is in vogue: networks such as PBS and ABC have found it a compelling means to craft a narrative about a shared “American experience.” Given the country’s demographic shifts, and the election of its first black President, there is a coincidence of interests who are deeply invested in furthering a narrative of multicultural America, one where it is imagined that we are all in one way or another related.
In this racial project, the color line is broken in some deeply dishonest ways which do nothing to challenge power, illuminate deeper truths about racial inequality in the United States, overturn white privilege, or challenge the Racial State. For example, Henry Louis Gates Jr. can discover his Irish roots. Tina Turner can find out she is not significantly related to the Cherokees. Latino stars and starlets can find out about their “exciting” Anglo-African-Indigenous roots. Asian Americans can find out about their long history of respect for education, family, and the arts…
..Because the President and First Lady are the symbolic leaders of a country in which black people were historically considered anti-citizens, less than human, property, and not fit for inclusion in the polity, the DNA citizenship project’s goals are robust. The discovery of Michelle Obama’s white ancestors—while no surprise to her family—is a way for white folks to find kinship with her…to “own” her. Ironically, this will do nothing to soothe the anxieties of Michelle Obama’s among reactionary white conservatives—to them she is a black woman who has no business being in the White House except as a chambermaid.
Likewise, President Obama may be “half-white.” Nevertheless, he is the blackest man alive (despite all efforts to distance himself from policies that would uniquely assist African-Americans) for the Tea Party GOP and the racially resentful, reactionary white public. Race is a double bind for the President. Obama’s whiteness is a means to excuse-make for their racism; Obama’s blackness is a means for white bigots to overtly disrespect and diminish him…
In response to the Times’ first foray into these ugly, ahistorical waters, I offered a commentary and rewrite. I would like to pivot off of that intervention again.
Let’s work through a few particularly rich passages in Meet Your Cousin, the First Lady: A Family Story, Long Hidden and offer some correctives and commentary…
…The politics of language are rich here as they advance a multicultural, conservative, colorblind racial agenda that imposes contemporary standards onto the past in an effort to remove the grounds of historical grievance in the present. Melvinia did not give birth to a “biracial” child. She was raped and had a black child who would be considered human property unless freed by his “father.”
The Slaveocracy and America’s racial order was based on the “one-drop rule” where a child’s racial status and freedom was determined by that of the mother. Thus, a white man (and slave owner) could rape, exploit, and do as he wished with black women (and men). The children would be born slaves. The logic of hypodescent was also operative as well. Race is not about the reality of genetic makeup and admixture. Racial identity is about perceptions by the in-group regarding who belongs and who does not.
Despite all of the efforts by the multiracial movement in contemporary America to create a “mixed race” census category—what is really a desire to access white privilege through the creation of a buffer race or colored class—being perceived as “black” or as having “African” ancestry, marks a person as having a connection to that group.
The NY Times is working to frame the story of Michelle’s ancestors, and the child rapist, slave owning white Tribble family, as a human story and drama, one about “ordinary” people…
…The racial project of reading America as a multiracial project historically, in the service of a post-racial fiction about the Age of Obama in the present, is operative throughout the above passage. Rachel Swarns’ allusion to a “multiracial” stew ignores the role of law, practice, social norms, and the State in carefully policing the colorline.
These Americans of “mixed ancestry” were not celebrated. White authorities saw them as a problem to be corrected, “cured,” eliminated, and as a threat to American society. For example, white race scientists labored over what to do about the Whind tribe who were of mixed black, native American, and white ancestry. Strict laws about miscegenation, segregation, schooling, and other areas of racialized civil society, were enforced through violence in order to protect the purity of America’s “white racial stock.”
These racially ambiguous people knew that to “pass” into whiteness was to move up the class and racial hierarchy. This was a common story in the black community, but also extended to Melungeons, the Mississippi Chinese, and others who in acts of racial realpolitik ran away from blackness in order to secure some share of whiteness as a type of property.
Meet Your Cousin, the First Lady: A Family Story, Long Hidden‘s last paragraph is a potpourri of historical flattening and misrepresentation.
Black Americans are a “multiracial” people. This is a byproduct of mass rape and exploitation. White blood has purchased little if any social currency in white society for those blacks able to leverage it. The Irish are an object less in how white ethnics transitioned from some type of racial Other into full whiteness. They were a group that were once considered “black,” but who “earned” whiteness through racial violence against people of color. While a common misunderstanding that yearns for alliances across racial lines among oppressed peoples, the Cherokees, like many other Native American tribes, owned blacks as human property and participated in the slave trade…
Read the entire article here.