Among the many benefits anticipated in Obama’s presidency is a more overt public discussion of race and racial tension in this country. This week the New York Times introduced a new element in its investigation into Michelle Obama’s family tree, which consists in part of slaves and of at least one white man:
In 1850, the elderly master of a South Carolina estate took pen in hand and painstakingly divided up his possessions. Among the spinning wheels, scythes, tablecloths and cattle that he bequeathed to his far-flung heirs was a 6-year-old slave girl valued soon afterward at $475.
In his will, she is described simply as the “negro girl Melvinia.” After his death, she was torn away from the people and places she knew and shipped to Georgia. While she was still a teenager, a white man would father her first-born son under circumstances lost in the passage of time.
In the annals of American slavery, this painful story would be utterly unremarkable, save for one reason: This union, consummated some two years before the Civil War, represents the origins of a family line that would extend from rural Georgia, to Birmingham, Ala., to Chicago and, finally, to the White House.
Melvinia Shields, the enslaved and illiterate young girl, and the unknown white man who impregnated her are the great-great-great-grandparents of Michelle Obama, the first lady.
I think this story is interesting in the way the NYT presents it — as a sort of pat on the back for America’s progress. But I don’t particularly like the privileged tone with which the writer talks about how unremarkable stories of slavery and rape are. To whom is a story of a young girl being handed off from one slave owner to another “utterly unremarkable?” Someone whose family hasn’t suffered that history? Someone who’s not from the South? I understand the writer is attempting to work some literary device here, but I think the effect is to degrade the individual stories that comprise American history. The fact that the writer finds a source to comment on the unremarkable nature of horrific stories of slavery also seems odd and inappropriate:
It is difficult to say who might have impregnated Melvinia, who gave birth to Dolphus around 1859, when she was perhaps as young as 15. At the time, Henry Shields was in his late 40s and had four sons ages 19 to 24, but other men may have spent time on the farm.
“No one should be surprised anymore to hear about the number of rapes and the amount of sexual exploitation that took place under slavery; it was an everyday experience, “ said Jason A. Gillmer, a law professor at Texas Wesleyan University, who has researched liaisons between slave owners and slaves. “But we do find that some of these relationships can be very complex.”
No one should be surprised? Are we, then, supposed to become immune to the oppressive violence that is our nation’s history? Are we to teach our children that stories of slavery are unremarkable and unsurprising? What about the children whose ancestors were slaves? Do we tell them there’s nothing interesting about the distortion of their heritage due to the institution of slavery?
It’s an interesting project the NYT took on, but the pretentious way the author tries to set up why/how Michelle Obama’s story in particular is special degrades the many who still do not find slavery to be “utterly unremarkable.”