". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Friday, June 29, 2012

Photograph of Our First Lady's White Ancestors

Follow-up to the NY Times article adapted from American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama by Rachel L. Swarns, published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

A descendant of Michelle Obama's great-great-great-great grandfather, alerted by the story, sent a photograph to the author.

Along with the photograph, the descendant says this:

[ " When I spoke to Jarrod by phone, he told me that he hoped that he might be able to meet his extended black family, he said of the descendants of the slaves his ancestors had owned. “I always really wanted to say I was sorry. I also wanted to let them know that we’re glad that you’re part of our family, however it came about.’’— Rachel L. Swarns "

Jarrod's response to this information is very different from that of another descendant quoted in that Sunday article:

[ " “I don’t think there’s going to be a Kumbaya moment here,” said one of Charles Shields’s great-grandchildren, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearful that the ancestral ties to slavery might besmirch the family name. " ]

Now, as then, mixed responses, mixed reactions, even within families

This is perhaps the most pertinent of the lines included in the article:

[ " 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. " ]

What I am guessing is this news, this book, is going to make concrete, real and understandable for a large number of us this most fundamental fact of the centuries of institutional slavery -- that the white owners raped their enslaved property.  That it was a matter of fact behavior, so much so, that it wasn't even talked of within the communities of their peers, whatever class their peers were in. This fact has been blocked out, ignored and denied both within and without the families whose ancestors possessed slaves.

I base this guess on this, again from the article:

[ " “You really don’t like to face this kind of thing,” said Mrs. Tribble, whose ancestors owned the first lady’s great-great-great-grandmother." ]

And on this, what the physician, who was prodding my back. said, the Wednesday after the article ran in the Times:

[ " My family only came here after the War -- meaning WWII, refugees from war-devastated Europe -- I had no idea about any of this.  The Civil War, what is that? Slavery in this country? It's not real to me. But wow -- a First Lady who had an ancestor who was a slave and who was raped by her owner?  When you think about it, that wasn't so long ago."] 

Of course, what we will be seeing a whole more of now too, is this:

[ " “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. " ]

I.e. it wasn't rape at all, but like old Tom, master on his Virginia mountain, and his wife's half sister slave, Sally, and his own daughters' aunt, a grand Romance.  Can this country rewrite history on a dime or what?

This is not to state categorically that love couldn't or didn't ever grow in these conditions. Love is that miracle that will spring up in the most hostile of environments.* What I will categorically state however is that we cannot know, because the women were in no position to leave us a record of what they thought and felt. As well, the habit that formed part of their toolkit for surviving slavery, of never expressing to anyone in any way what they thought or felt, even to their children and grandchildren, continued even after slavery was done and gone -- so to speak -- as Jim Crow apartheid's sun rose, to take slavery's place.


* The award-winning novel, Sally Hemings: A Novel, by Barbara Chase-Riboud (of mixed ancestry herself), does advocate that Jefferson and Hemings's story is a love story.

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