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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 detailed how one of the First Lady's ancestors 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 Cherokee. 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.

And white ethnics can have their "hard times," "we suffered too just like the blacks so why do they complain?" family mythologies validated too.

Because the President and First Lady are the symbolic leaders of a country in which black people were the very definition of the "anti-citizen," 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 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 assist the specific and particular challenges faced by African-Americans in the Great Recession) 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.

Swarns' essay on Michelle Obama's family (and white relatives) is an exercise in violence through the use of contemporary, politically correct language. When she massages away stories of rape, trauma, and human exploitation in order to further a master frame and narrative that wants to amplify the juxtaposition of the Obama's success in the present, and Michelle's white ancestors' "humble" origins, something is horribly amiss. These are racial micro-aggressions of the textbook variety.

Whiteness is built upon lies. As such, there are many white deflections in Meet Your Cousin, the First Lady: A Family Story, Long Hidden . The most obvious one is the act of discovery, this shock by the Tribble family that their ancestors owned slaves.

[Laughably, while there were many millions of African slaves in the United States, apparently no white people who are alive today had ancestors who owned slaves. Riddle you that one?]

In response to the NY 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.

From the NY Times:

The bloodlines of Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Tribble extend back to a 200-acre farm that was not far from here. One of their common ancestors was Henry Wells Shields, Mrs. Tribble’s great-great-grandfather. He was a farmer and a family man who grew cotton, Indian corn and sweet potatoes. He owned Mrs. Obama’s maternal great-great-great-grandmother, Melvinia Shields, who was about 8 years old when she arrived on his farm sometime around 1852

The DNA tests and research indicate that one of his sons, Charles Marion Shields, is the likely father of Melvinia’s son Dolphus, who was born around 1860. Dolphus T. Shields was the first lady’s maternal great-great-grandfather. His identity and that of his mother, Melvinia, were first reported in an article in The New York Times in 2009, which also indicated that he must have had a white father.

Melvinia was a teenager, perhaps around 15, when she gave birth to her biracial son. Charles was about 20.

Such forbidden liaisons across the racial divide inevitably bring to mind the story of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. Mrs. Obama’s ancestors, however, lived in a world far removed from the elegance of Jefferson’s Monticello, his 5,000-acre mountain estate with 200 slaves. They were much more typical of the ordinary people who became entangled in America’s entrenched system of servitude.

There is much wrong here. How do we contextualize the relationship between Melvinia and the white people who owned her? She is also a child in an unimaginable situation. She is torn from her home and family and sold to the Shields family. Does she have the power to resist his advances? No.

This is not a "relationship" based on consent: it is rape and exploitation.

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 Shields family, as a human story and drama, one about "ordinary" people.

This passage furthers that narrative:

In Clayton County, Ga., where the Shields family lived, only about a third of the heads of household owned human property, and masters typically labored alongside their slaves. Charles was a man of modest means — he would ultimately become a teacher — whose parents were only a generation or so removed from illiteracy.
The NY Times is also emphasizing the ironic parallels of the present: the Obamas are now the President and First Lady; the Tribbles are a family of far more modest social standing. The NY Times is also developing a script that fits within a broader American story of hard work, yeoman farmers, and aspiring, fundamentally decent, white people.

This racial project involves the crafting of a story in which slavery was relatively uncommon. Moreover, slavery was really the foul practice of the fictionalized plantation class as depicted in Gone with the Wind. The white racial frame desperately wants to rehabilitate white people and Whiteness from any connection to one of  the country's greatest sins. While it cannot eliminate the color line, the white racial frame can emphasize how white slave owners were not necessarily "evil." These "humble" participants in the slaveocracy even worked alongside their slaves.

History can be unfair in its harsh truths. America's wealth was built on cotton and human property. African Americans--black slaves--were the single largest capital good in the United States. As such, to own slaves was to have a chance at upward class mobility. Owning human property was the root of Southern society and being "American." As has often been alluded to by historians, while a small number of slave owners had large numbers of slaves, the reality is that the South was a slave society. This extended across class levels. As such, the Shields were deeply and personally invested in a system of white supremacy.

On this point, James Oakes' essential text The Ruling Race suggests that:

The ownership of slaves became for many immigrants the single most important symbol of their success in the New World, although few of them ever participated in the economy of the larger plantation...Professionals also prospered as merchants, civil servants, and craftsmen. In 1850, more than 27,000 doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals were included in the ranks of the slaveholding class.  

Slaveholding professionals were probably the single most influential class in the antebellum South. Their education and wealth gave them control of much of the southern press. They were elected to political office in staggeringly unrepresentative numbers by presenting themselves to southern voters as living testimony to the validity of the American dream of upward mobility.

There are White Lies and the liars who tell them:
Melvinia was not a privileged house slave like Sally. She was illiterate and no stranger to laboring in the fields. She had more biracial children after the Civil War, giving some of the white Shieldses hope that her relationship with Charles was consensual.

“To me, it’s an obvious love story that was hard for the South to accept back then,” said Aliene Shields, a descendant who lives in South Carolina.

Again, the language of "biracial" is used incorrectly. Melvinia had black children who would grow up in a society where people like them were marginalized and uniquely subject to Jim and Jane Crow, black codes, economic exploitation, and the violence of the KKK, police, and lynching tree.

In another example of the deceptive and delusional power of the white racial frame in practice, Aliene Shields lies to herself. Her understanding of whiteness as an identity that is inherently good cannot accept that her ancestors were killers and rapists. She wants to make a story of child rape, exploitation, and racism into a Lifetime movie where "love" succeeds against all odds.

Is Shields' investment in Whiteness so tied to a fiction of white personhood as being existentially benign, that she cannot critically assess the fact(s) of race in America? Is Whiteness that precarious and vulnerable a social identity?

Interestingly, Michelle Obama's ancestor never claimed the white ancestry of her "love child:"

People who knew Melvinia said she never discussed what happened between them, whether she was raped or treated with affection, whether she was loved and loved in return.

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. By 1890, census takers counted 1.1 million Americans of mixed ancestry.

Somewhere along the way, she decided to keep the truth about her son’s heritage to herself.

All four of Mrs. Obama’s grandparents had multiracial forebears. There were Irish immigrants who nurtured their dreams in a new land and free African-Americans who savored liberty long before the Civil War. Some were classified as mulatto by the census, while others claimed Cherokee ancestry.

Melvinia should have voice and agency in her own story. If the child she had with Charles Tribble was born of consent and mutual affection, why would his white lineage not be spoken of? Could it be that blackness trumps whiteness in a one-drop rule society? Thus, "biracial" identity as imposed backwards in the NY Times piece is a fiction, a marker with little to no currency in 19th century America?

The racial project of reading America as a multiracial society 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 color line.

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 WIN tribe who were of mixed black, native American, and white ancestry. Strict racial laws about miscegenation, segregation, schooling, and other areas of 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 largely a byproduct of mass rape. And white blood has purchased little if any social currency in white society for those blacks able to leverage it. The Irish are an object lesson 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.

White denial blinds:

“I’m appalled at slavery,” said Mrs. George, 61. “I don’t know how that could have even gone on in a Christian nation. I know that times were different then. But the idea that one of our ancestors raped a slave..."

She trailed off for a moment, considering the awful possibility.

This is an example of willful and cultivated ignorance. One of the core privileges of Whiteness in this society is the power to avoid certain facts, to protect oneself from discomfort, and to live in a bubble of racial myopia. If black folks are subject to the existential dilemma and threat of "niggerization," white folks have been subject to a cultural project that exaggerates their worth, and protects them from uncomfortable truths.

Christianity was central to the Slave Regime. White Christians may have temporarily struggled with owning human property, but they quickly reconciled such tensions in the pursuit of profit. Some whites were so angst ridden that they worried that white people, "Christians" like them, would be damned to hell in the afterlife for participating in such a vicious business. Christianity could be used to provide justification for the enslavement of black people; the Bible was a tool for creating docile slaves.

Oakes offers more insight here:

In later years, the psychological dilemma of masters was reflected in the frequently expressed wish to be rid of the slave entirely. Completely ignoring the servants who stood right behind her, a Gulf Coast mistress declared that "it would be better if there wasn't any niggers in the world."

"Lord send that there was no negro in all America," a Mississippi master prayed...The slaveholders confirmed the essential tragedy of their lives by declaring their inability and unwillingness to change. "We were born under the institution and cannot now change or abolish it," a Mississippi slaveholder declared. He would rather be "exterminated" than be forced to live in the same society "with the slaves, if freed."

...Slaveholders never did find a way to abolish slavery "with safety," and so the lure of prosperity continued to attract white Southerners to black slavery, despite moral injunctions implicit in their religious values.

A white privilege laced confessional?  
“I would like to know the answer, but I would not like to know that my great-grandfather was a rapist,” she said. “I would like to know in my brain that they were nice to her and her children. It would be easier to live with that.”

Mrs. Tribble, who began researching her roots before Mrs. Obama became the first lady, said she was shocked to learn that her ancestors owned slaves.

“My family, well, they were just your most basic people who never had a lot,” Mrs. Tribble said. “I never imagined that they owned slaves.”

"It would be easier to live with that.” This is the crystallization of white privilege: it is the power to bend reality in the service of one's own will and needs. Thus, Mrs. Tribble is able to fashion a lie for herself, one that makes her feel better about the realities of her ancestors' behavior.

I wonder if Melvinia had that privilege? I wonder if black people specifically, and people of color more generally, have such a power--to avoid the uncomfortable through an act of willful self-deception on matters of race and racial inequality--in this country today?

Whiteness and white privilege do moral, ethical, intellectual, cognitive and spiritual damage to white people in American society. Meet Your Cousin, the First Lady: A Family Story, Long Hidden is a tour de force example of that reality.

Originally posted to chaunceydevega on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 10:16 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks, RaceGender DiscrimiNATION, Invisible People, and Genealogy and Family History Community.

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Comment Preferences

  •  It is not clear that rape was involved. (4+ / 0-)

    We may never have an answer to that question.

    And your interpretations of the Times articles as  "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..." is way off base.

    The Sunday article was a sensitive, sociologically probing, exploration of a national (often under the radar) angst that affects real people, black, white and mixed.

    •  how can a slave give consent (20+ / 0-)

      to a sexual advance?

      that is the core issue.

      How is it off base? Please be specific. One of these narratives is exactly about how her history is now made more "complex"--as though the story of white on black rape is special or uncommon in the history of the United States.

      Moreover, one of the narratives around the election of Obama was precisely how some white folks wanted to claim his "white side" and this historic moment...not willing to concede that Obama is a black man and identifies as such.

      The Times piece was an object lesson in white privilege and denial.

      •  Your subject line says it all! n/m (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        tytalus, Gorette, chimene, retLT

        Never underestimate stupid. Stupid is how reTHUGlicans win!

        by Mannie on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 10:32:27 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  I agree, although (3+ / 0-)

        in a way, it's easier for me to. My family's history AFAIK is of more recent immigration, not descent from slave-owning southerners. I'd like to think that if I were, I'd be more interested in truth than comfort, but who can say.

        "Creationists make it sound as though a 'theory' is something you dreamt up after being drunk all night." - Isaac Asimov

        by tytalus on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 10:36:44 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  The usual line of bull on this goes something (9+ / 0-)

        like this, "She asked for the sexual encounter to improve her standing as a slave."

        Seriously, I've heard that repeatedly. I suppose she wore a slinky dress and walked like a slut, after all, she was asking for it. God the rape denial shields of some people are worse than the race denial shields. Great diary on a tough topic.

        All my sig lines are hand-crafted by demented elves living in my skull.

        by ontheleftcoast on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 10:53:22 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  At age 14 she wore a slinky off-the-shoulder (0+ / 0-)

          black dress, 4" high heels and chanel 5 perfume dabbed at all the right places as she waylaid the slavemaster's son with seduction on her mind.
          O yes, she wanted it al'right and you know, those people always got everything they wanted.
          Of course, she started way before 14 as she wouldn't necessarily have gotten pregnant the first time she was RAPED(!!!!) .

      •  I think a fairer way to put it (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        johnny wurster, Frank Knarf

        is that we do not (and may not ever) know the exact individual circumstances of the relationship between these two people. So while apply the rape label may be entirely fair today, it doesn't tell us what they thought or felt.

        I am not black and my family was not even in this country during slavery, so I will not take it upon myself to tell you how you should feel. But for my own part, I am strongly inclined to be more charitable to Mrs. Tribble.

        Ok, so I read the polls.

        by andgarden on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 10:54:01 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  And for that matter, (4+ / 0-)

          I would have to say that, contrary to what you wrote in your diary, it seems that you are the one intent on applying contemporary standards to judge 19th century actors. Some degree of this is unavoidable if we are to have any opinions at all, but I prefer not to cast stones over it.

          Ok, so I read the polls.

          by andgarden on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 10:56:27 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  We know quite a bit, your quote (8+ / 0-)

          "So while apply the rape label may be entirely fair today, it doesn't tell us what they thought or felt."

          is a bit problematic. So because the law did not see forced sex, physically coerced or otherwise from a white person on their black human property as a "crime" the relationship was therefore consensual?

          Triangulating from what we know about the slavery regime, how Michelle's kin were owned by these people, and she chose not to claim the "white ancestry" of her children, and never spun some romantic Lifetime movie crap to her family members, the data would suggest something other than consent and "love."

          Mrs. Tribble is in profound denial: this is a common affliction of Whiteness, what is a national psychosis.

          •  Please do not put words in my mouth (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Frank Knarf

            I would absolutely not use the legal standards of the 19th century to judge whether or not this was rape. And as I conceded readily, I agree with you that it probably was, objectively, rape. But people in history are not blank canvasses for us to paint our broad conception of the past only. That is, at least, if we care to be fair to the fact that they were individuals, not archetypes. I don't think we know enough--or are ever likely to know enough--to make the sorts of individualized judgements you propose.

            But I am much more concerned with your treatment of Mrs. Tribble. I read her words and I do not see denial per se. I see someone coming to terms what a past that she realizes is ugly. I cannot accept that her statement that she doesn't want to know certain things about her ancestors is meant to be taken literally.

            I would not be inclined to sit in judgement of every word she uses, looking for embedded "privilege" (though you may be right that it is there). Rather, I would (and do) thank her for being willing to talk about a difficult subject.

            Ok, so I read the polls.

            by andgarden on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 11:08:49 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  that was your quote and (3+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              tytalus, JayRaye, retLT

              I get the point about archetypes. I also understand that Melvinia did not talk about her "relationship" in fond terms.

              I am not going to valorize Mrs. Tribble, who is someone in denial. While she may have more "courage" than her relatives who wanted to stay anonymous, nothing strikes me as being particularly noble when she says:

              "“I would like to know the answer, but I would not like to know that my great-grandfather was a rapist,” she said. “I would like to know in my brain that they were nice to her and her children. It would be easier to live with that.”
              Mrs. Tribble, who began researching her roots before Mrs. Obama became the first lady, said she was shocked to learn that her ancestors owned slaves.

              “My family, well, they were just your most basic people who never had a lot,” Mrs. Tribble said. “I never imagined that they owned slaves.”"

              Neat huh, lot's of "I would like to believes." What about the alternative, just telling the truth that he was likely a rapist?

              I love the "they were nice to her and her children". Insert finger into mouth and induce vomiting.

      •  at some point, all women were property (4+ / 0-)

        It's hard to discuss consent in a time when women did not have basic civil rights. I'm certainly not saying all women were the same, but they all were potentially rape victims.

        Snarka snarka snarka!

        by Hunter Huxley on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 11:00:56 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  It would be rape today regardless. (6+ / 0-)

      He was 20. She was 15.

      The age differential plus the power differential make clear that even if she believed she was consenting it was rape.

      "I was a big supporter of waterboarding" - Dick Cheney 2/14/10

      by Bob Love on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 11:02:47 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I disagree as well. When I read it the other day (6+ / 0-)

      I had the same reaction as the diarist!

      It is not at all off base.

      The subtleties belie the actual situation of a young teenage girl who was not allowed to resist her owner's attentions.

      The suggestion that it could have been a "relationship" or a "love story" rather than forced intercourse (rape) is ridiculous. While possible, it is unlikely because the girl had NO POWER. She was a piece of PROPERTY.

      There is no male-female relationship when one is a human and the other is PROPERTY!

      As a white woman I find these southern white women's feelings understandable, it would be nice if all of the thousands and thousands of children born to black slave women, fathered by white owners were LOVE children, or the result of caring relationships. It is hogwash to believe that.

      "extreme concentration of income is incompatible with real democracy.... the truth is that the whole nature of our society is at stake." Paul Krugman

      by Gorette on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 11:45:30 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I do not know what planet someone would have (6+ / 0-)

      to be born on that would enable them to think that sex was consensual and not some form of rape.  Blinders help when subject matter is offensive.

  •  Why haven't any "white" presidents done this? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Mannie, LaraJones

    We might find that Obama wasn't our first black president.

  •  I'm only to this part (12+ / 0-)

    of your excellent diary:

    The NY Times is working to frame the story of Michelle's ancestors, and the child rapist, slave owning Shields family, as a human story and drama, one about "ordinary" people.
    and just wanted to comment a bit further on this paragraph
    In Clayton County, Ga., where the Shields family lived, only about a third of the heads of household owned human property, and masters typically labored alongside their slaves. Charles was a man of modest means — he would ultimately become a teacher — whose parents were only a generation or so removed from illiteracy.
    I see it not just as an attempt to make it a human story about "ordinary" people, but an attempt to further bury the rape and impregnating of a 14-15 year old child (I have a 14 year old daughter, so this hits home hard for me -- Melvina had the double disadvantage of being both a slave and a child, thus unable to give consent).  
    "Masters typically labored alongside their slaves" = Shields was a nice man who probably worked alongside Melvina, and this gives him an air of respectability.  "Charles was a man of modest means — he would ultimately become a teacher"  is another sentence added that gives him respectability. A teacher is such a respectable position in society, surely a teacher would not have committed a rape, let alone multiple rapes spanning decades.
    It's a theme that in modern society is used to minimize the actions of child rapists of any ethnicity.  Here in Utah, child rapists are commonly defended with "he's a good provider," or "he's a good family man" (especially nauseating when the good family man's victim is his own daughter), or "he's a member of the church in good standing, and has discussed his lapse in judgement with his bishop."
    Anyway, I'll read the rest of the diary now -- that little whitewash just pushed my buttons.

    "On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps...of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again."

    by middleagedhousewife on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 10:58:43 AM PDT

  •  My family's been in this country (6+ / 0-)

    since the 18th century - or more accurately, had settled the land before it was bought by the United States and eventually converted to statehood.  I don't know much about the first two hundred years of that line because my own grandfather was a bit of a black sheep (poor choice of words, considering, but you know what I mean) and so we've been cut off from the larger family and whatever accumulated history they still pass around.  That being said, it'd be highly unusual if they didn't own slaves at some point.

    Was this ever discussed when I was growing up?   Not at all: we still live in a "The Civil War was really about economics" bubble that wants to rewrite slavery as an immoral aberration that had very little to do with the larger culture of the South, etc. etc.  Nobody owned slaves except for those bad people, and why do we keep talking about them?  It's like the old joke that, once World War II came to a close, it turned out everyone in France fought in the resistance.  

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 11:11:36 AM PDT

  •  republished to Genealogy & Family History (8+ / 0-)
    [Laughably, while there were many millions of African slaves in the United States, apparently no white people who are alive today had ancestors who owned slaves. Riddle you that one?]
    Before becoming a genealogy enthusiast, I often made the statement that my mother's family were northerners and dad's family was in Europe at the time of slavery. Words I had to eat when reading wills from a couple of 17th century slaveholding ancestors who lived on Long Island in what was then part of Massachusetts colony. So I used to be part of the "in denial" crowd; part of uncovering the past is to confront and understand it for what it was.

    "If you are sure you understand everything that is going on around you, you are hopelessly confused." Walter Mondale

    by klompendanser on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 11:20:46 AM PDT

    •  thanks for the link and (6+ / 0-)

      sharing. what was your reaction to learning the truth?

      as you quoted, that is a classic white deflection, making up fictive pasts, doing no research, and trying to pretend their hands are clean.

      few folks, of any background, have clean hands in this society or any other.

      •  For a long time it was just so hard (4+ / 0-)

        to wrap my head around it. There it was, so matter of fact, that this 9g-grandfather willed two human beings and their bedding to his wife. Then on to the other bequests ... my reactions ran the gamut from shock, dismay, anger, and yes a bit of lingering denial (maybe I was looking at the wrong family) ... I wanted to know why, but I also wanted to know what happened to the couple after that. Its been a few years, but I still struggle with emotions ... but in the end it is important to let people to know that it wasn't just the south or "rich" people. It was ugly and it really happened.

        While researching another line, which ended up in New Jersey a 100 years later, I read the membership records of the church my family belonged to. In the early 1800s, there were numerous references to people that with the notation of "colored" or "slave" ... the ones with the "slave" notation only had a first name. Again, the whole myth that northerners had nothing to do with slavery only contributes to ignorance and denial.

        "If you are sure you understand everything that is going on around you, you are hopelessly confused." Walter Mondale

        by klompendanser on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 11:44:40 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  "Clean hands?" (0+ / 0-)

        I wouldn't consider my hands dirty on account of anything my ancestors did. We don't inherit sin though our genes.

        We decided to move the center farther to the right by starting the whole debate from a far-right position to begin with. - Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay

        by denise b on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 02:15:50 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  we do inherit certain unearned privileges (0+ / 0-)

          and disadvantages though. To the degree we let the former stand our hands are indeed dirty.

          we stand on the shoulders of others; likewise the boots of strangers in the past often have their soles on our throats in the present.

  •  I have to disagree with your assessment (7+ / 0-)

    that no white people own up to having slave-holding ancestors. From the shows I've watched; books and documentaries too, this is a common narrative. One of the powerful things about genealogical work is that you find out very quickly that the cliche that we're all family is pretty darn correct. People also begin thinking about the factors that made their lives possible--the good and the bad.
    As for not owning up to rape, you are correct. Technically we don't know what happened--just like with Hemmings and Jefferson, but we do know that an enslaved person has no real freedom to consent.

    •  What would have happened if Jefferson (0+ / 0-)

      had had the legal right to marry Sally Hemings, his wife's half-sister, in Virginia? What if she had been classified as White, and not a slave, having 7/8 White ancestry?

      They were together in Paris, where slavery was illegal, and he paid her wages. She could have remained free in Paris, but went back with Jefferson to Monticello. They had six children in a 38-year relationship.

      Is it fair to say that it was complicated?

      Busting the Dog Whistle code.

      by Mokurai on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 01:00:00 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I haven't read the original (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    chimene

    article/book/whatever and I have no doubt that it's a real attempt to make white folks - of whom I am one - feel better about a truly horrible institution that is a part of our history.  However I've got an issue here with using our modern standards to judge previous generations.  If one defines rape as sexual congress in which one of the participants really has no choice in the matter, we're all children of rape.  We are not that many generations out from when women in general were chattel and there was no such thing as "marital rape" because she didn't have any say in the matter.  It was nice if she was OK with it, but basically immaterial.  Does that mean all of us should assume that our grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and on back had no "tender" relationship with their "lords and masters" - remember husbands are still, hopefully jokingly, referred to as such?  I hope not.  Does this mean I think the situation noted above was acceptable?  NO.  But abused people of all races (and genders) accept as "normal" whatever they grow up with and deal with it as best they can.  They may later become abusers or they may later do their best to fight abuse when they learn that no, that wasn't normal and it wasn't right - but when they are in the middle of it, it's normal.  We are in the position of abused children who've gotten out of the situation and have just learned how absolutely evil the situation we were in actually was.

  •  Huh (0+ / 0-)

    It seems we were all, white or black, just victims of the times.

    ordinary people who became entangled in America’s entrenched system of servitude.
    Obviously though, some people didn't feel "entangled", else we wouldln't have had any abolitionists.

    from a bright young conservative: “I’m watching my first GOP debate…and WE SOUND LIKE CRAZY PEOPLE!!!!”

    by Catte Nappe on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 12:03:53 PM PDT

    •  those black and white folks were equally victims.. (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      JayRaye, Catte Nappe, Mannie, retLT

      huh?

      absurd by any measure. people had agency and made choices. white people made a choice to own others and to exploit and profit off of them. these white folks were not "victims" of anything. they were criminals involved in one of the greatest crimes against humanity we have been witness to.

      many of their ancestors still don't want to own this fact and how it echoes into the present in disparities in wealth, income, and social mobility across the color line.

  •  Mixed response to diary (4+ / 0-)

    First and by far most important, I agree that sex in the master-slave context can never be considered consensual, and that the age difference in this case only underscores that basic fact. Melvinia was a child who was raped, Mrs. Tribble's discomfort notwithstanding. Nor were Melvinia's children "biracial", a modern term completely at odds with the accepted definition of race at the time.

    So I agree with what I take to be the basic premise of the diary, that The New York Times sanitized the story to protect white sensibilities. Again, that is the first and most important piece of my reaction.

    However, there are other parts of the diary that puzzle me.

    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.

    I am a long-time family history buff. It is a truism to me that we ARE all "in one way or another related." In some cases a blood relationship may be so distant that it is unknowable except that we descend from the same early human ancestors (the old separate origins theory of human development is no longer creditable). In many cases, there are considerably more direct connections, especially if relationships other than family are included. I do not see anything wrong with this outlook.
    The NY Times is working to frame the story of Michelle's ancestors, and the child rapist, slave owning Shields family, as a human story and drama, one about "ordinary" people.

    They were ordinary people. If history tells us anything, it tells us that "ordinary people" are capable of extraordinary evil, especially when that evil is societally approved. I think it is a grave mistake to treat the slaveowners of antebellum American as an unfathomable moral aberration.

    Then there is this:

    [Laughably, while there were many millions of African slaves in the United States, apparently no white people who are alive today had ancestors who owned slaves. Riddle you that one?]

    However common this outlook may be outside the genealogical community (where I think it is less often found), the fact is that my experience talking with friends about family history is that most know so little about their forebears that ANY information from that time period is unknown.

    I have researched my own family for over two decades and I have very actively looked on this question and yes, I can point to one ancestor who definitely owned slaves, but he died about 270 years ago. That took some digging. Recently, I discovered (somewhat to my regret, I admit) that another ancestor who never personally owned slaves was, for a time in the 1830s, an estate overseer.

    Certainly there are many Americans whose families were much more intimately involved with slave ownership than my own, but it does not surprise me in the slightest that many do not realize this. How many people can talk knowledgeably about their great grandparents, much less their 4xgreat or 7xgreat grandparents?

    Incidentally, I certainly have met people outside genealogical circles who were quite aware of ancestors who owned slaves. The last blockquoted text above is an overly broad generalization, however true it may be in the diarist's experience.

    My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.
    --Carl Schurz, remarks in the Senate, February 29, 1872

    by leftist vegetarian patriot on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 12:04:24 PM PDT

    •  good points and (3+ / 0-)

      the last observation regarding slavery and the disconnect between whites and their ancestors should be explored a bit more.

      I highlighted that as a wink to the common white deflection that occurs when these matters are discussed. They come in a few different varieties--1) my ancestors came here after 1865 or 2) we never owned slaves, why am I being made to feel guilty? or 3) that was so long ago no one has any connection to it.

      Funny thing, these folks have not done any genealogical research. But, they assume the most benign default about their family identity.

      On your other points, which are fair, the kumbayaa we are all related stuff doesn't really do much to deal with inequalities across the color line. Hell, whites raped and sold and abused their own black relatives for centuries. I like those shows, but the revelations are meh. So what? What are you going to do with a genetic connection in our day-to-day lives.

      I completely agree with your point on how common people can be barbaric. See Goldhagen's great work on the point. But, the Times and other White fictional narratives about white supremacy want to frame those deeds as being done by aberrant monsters not "average" people.

      As a tangent, much of the complaint about that hellish movie the Help revolved around just that framing.

      •  Coming to America after 1865 (2+ / 0-)

        and benefiting in any way from Jim Crow puts your ancestors straight back on the hook. I have plenty of oppressed ancestors--Jewish, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Polish--but that doesn't mean I get an automatic pass for the material benefits that came to many of them from slavery, Jim Crow, Imperialism, and so on.

        OTOH, I get to spend my days now in retirement making presents for millions of children around the world through the One Laptop Per Child program. Not out of guilt, but because it is the most fun I can imagine having, and the most worthwhile.

        Busting the Dog Whistle code.

        by Mokurai on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 01:09:40 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  I think some could be ascribed to human nature (0+ / 0-)

        not just white deflection.

        Funny thing, these folks have not done any genealogical research. But, they assume the most benign default about their family identity.
        You're right. But then, look at all the people who seize on the most tenuous theory or coincidental duplication of name to connect their family line with royalty or some famous personage.

        Regarding the "all related" thing, I see your point regarding the way slaveowners treated their literal flesh and blood. Far too many children (of every color) are sexually assaulted by their own family members today. And those criminals aren't stopped by ties of blood either. Nonetheless, it seems to me that racism is in large part a too-easy way of Otherizing groups of people and although maybe it's just the family historian in me speaking, I think the point still bears emphasis that the farther back a white person's ancestry goes in this country the more likely it becomes (eventually to the point of virtual certainty with sufficient numbers of early immigrants) that they are directly tied by blood and history to people they would unthinkingly assume are completely unrelated (even regardless of whether or not there were any slaveowners in that person's direct line, given the existence of collateral lines). I have only one known direct ancestor who owned slaves. I have many people I could call cousins who did, too many to count.

        As an aside, I avoided seeing The Help for the very reason you name. Ugh.

        My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.
        --Carl Schurz, remarks in the Senate, February 29, 1872

        by leftist vegetarian patriot on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 01:11:10 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  I didn't know until around two years ago (3+ / 0-)

      that anyone in my family had ever had the money to own anyone.

      Then the nonchalant revelation at dinner from a relative whose self-censoring capabilities have worn out from age: not only did one set of my great-great-grandparents have at least a small plantation and own slaves, this relative had been not mentioning for years that she remembered going to the funerals of the last ex-slaves who had stayed with the family rather than leaving and very vaguely remembered meeting them when she was very very small.

      She nearly died less than a year before that. We almost lost that piece of family information.

      Someday, I am using those ancestors' names to dig up every bit of census data attached to them and their household which those ex-slaves resided in for decades after they were freed that I can find and using the fact the genealogy program I use allows for noting non-familial relationships between people and I am making it so anyone else in the family who ever gets ahold of my genealogy data knows names and dates and isn't left wondering about that downright unsavory bit of family history the way I have been. Because damnit, the least that can be done is remembering they were there.

      Prayers and best wishes to those in Japan.

      by Cassandra Waites on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 03:22:43 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I'm mixed on your diary... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Vicky, Cassandra Waites

    I have hard time believing that essay was an exercise of white privilege; however, it is a portrayal of the naivete of most white Americans when it comes to slavery and the discovery of slave ownership in their families.  And this goes quadruply for white Southerns.  A lot of white southern families have basically omitted slave ownership from their family history all together, so for Mrs. Tribble to find it hard to except that history and the fact that rape had more than likely occurred is very understandable.  Albeit quite naive...

    However, I don't agree with your premise that this is some type of whitewash of the First Lady's ancestry and things are hunky-dory in the post-racial landscape of the Obama's America.  The authour, to me, seems like they are presenting a story of oneness that is unique in our country.  Although I do find the overwrought discussion of the Obama's ancestry annoying and fairly insulting.  I swear, if I see another article about a famous or historic white person the president is related to, man...  don't get me started.

    I like the diary but don't completely agree with it.

    The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing online commenters that they have anything to say.-- B.F.

    by lcj98 on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 12:17:19 PM PDT

    •  and that (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      JayRaye

      is the problem:

      "The authour, to me, seems like they are presenting a story of oneness that is unique in our country."

      This conservative colorblindness necessarily involves a white washing of history, an active lie.

      Also,

      "it is a portrayal of the naivete of most white Americans when it comes to slavery and the discovery of slave ownership in their families."

      That naivete is a function of white privilege, the convenience and ability to be willfully ignorant.

  •  Rather overwrought, I think (0+ / 0-)

    But then, I am one of the White descendants of slaveowners who freely admits it, while being quite proud of my African ancestry. (Did you forget that we are all 100% of African ancestry?)

    Busting the Dog Whistle code.

    by Mokurai on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 12:46:57 PM PDT

    •  and to what end did our common ancestry (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      JayRaye, SwedishJewfish

      get us?

      interesting curiosities that do nothing and mean even less in this context and society.

      African ancestry does not mean being "black" or stigmatized as such--just like those white students a few years back who applied for a scholarship program intended for African Americans and claimed they were "african" because we can trace a common ancestor there.

      totally dishonest and a joke.

  •  Slavery is an ancient curse on mankind (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JayRaye, retLT, billmosby

    I take issue with people who say that prostitution was the oldest sin of mankind. Slavery was and slavery still is humanity's oldest sin.  

    Ms Swams may have been commissioned by the NYT to create this "post racial" saga soap opera played out upon the back of the First Lady's great-great-great ancestor. Regardless of how much fictional embellishment the author wove into her certified genealogical research into Michelle's ancestry; human history has frozen the extreme horror of a lifetime of slavery into an indelible account that in itself spans millenniums of human history.

    Ms. Swams attempt to redefine the human experience of slavery is much akin to using a bucket to bail out the ocean from its traditional site along side a wandering coastline.  

    •  I read somewhere recently (0+ / 0-)

      that there may be more slaves in the world now than ever before. In any case, the number is large.

      I'll admit to having seen an ancestral will transferring one or two slaves to the next generation; the name of that ancestor was Mathis. Given my last name, I would never attempt to deny that fact about another set of ancestors either although I have no direct evidence in that case.

      I read somewhere that Georgia (the one in the eastern hemisphere) was still supplying slaves to the Ottoman Empire until it came under the influence of Russia in 1825. I couldn't find an online reference to that, but this has a lot of info on slavery in the region in general.

      Moderation in most things.

      by billmosby on Wed Jun 20, 2012 at 10:13:54 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Have you ever considered the position of (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JayRaye

    descendants of slaves and of slavers, in Africa rather than the Americas, and how their attempts at understanding history and their myth creation differs from ours?  Some background for readers, I know you don't need it:

    http://autocww.colorado.edu/...

    Where are we, now that we need us most?

    by Frank Knarf on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 03:13:51 PM PDT

  •  Great diary ChauncyDevega (4+ / 0-)

    I have been working on a diary about how rape was used as a tool of social control against African American women-both in slavery and in antebellum times. The KKK routinely used it as a way to terrorize black communities as well.

    I just finished "At the Dark End of the Street-Black Women, Rape, and Resistance" which gave a fascinating insight into the dynamics of this, and how it shaped both the 2nd wave feminist movement and the civil rights movement.

    We are so keen on whitewashing (no pun intended) our history-sadly, I see it playing out right here in this thread. Yes, by it's nature any sexual relationship between a slave master and a slave CANNOT BE CONSENTUAL. In order to give consent, you need to be in a positon where you can deny it in the first place-and no slave woman ever was.

    (And yes, that means that our founding father Thomas Jefferson was a rapist. Sally Hemmings was not only his slave, she was only 15 at the time they started their relationship)

    "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter"- MLK

    by SwedishJewfish on Tue Jun 19, 2012 at 05:45:07 PM PDT

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