What Michelle Obama’s white ancestors tell us about ourselves

Posted on November 24, 2014


Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama

Using DNA testing to trace the forebears of Michelle Obama, New York Times reporter Rachel L. Swarns has been able to identify the First Lady’s white ancestors. Swarns used historical records to determine the most probable contributors to Mrs. Obama’s white heritage. Once that family was identified, DNA testing was used to confirm the relationship.

But when I shared that information with my wife, she wasn’t particularly surprised or interested. As she rightly pointed out, most African Americans already believe they have whites somewhere in their family tree.

Michelle Obama’s white family

The white contribution to Michelle Obama’s bloodline seems to have occurred in the way these things usually did in 19th century America – a liaison between a white man and a slave woman under his control. In Mrs. Obama’s case, this occurred when her black ancestors were slaves on the Georgia plantation of Henry Wells Shields.

Michelle Obama’s great-great-great grandmother was Melvinia Shields, a slave belonging to Henry. Melvinia gave birth to a bi-racial son. DNA tests involving both white and black descendants of the Shields family indicate the child was probably fathered by Henry Shields’ son, Charles. Since Melvinia was just 15 years old at the time, she was by definition, at least in modern terms, the victim of a rape. Her child, Dolphus Shields, who died in 1950, became Michelle Obama’s great-great grandfather.

Michelle Obama’s bi-racial heritage is not surprising to African Americans

The only thing different about this story from one most African Americans could tell is that the particular individuals involved have been identified through Rachel Swarns’ diligent research. But from the very beginning of their experience in this country, African Americans have displayed a range of skin colors that could have only happened because of the mixing of white and black bloodlines.

The “one drop” rule

One reason the revelation of Michelle Obama’s partially white ancestry won’t have much of an impact is that it doesn’t change her racial identity at all. As F. James Davis, retired professor of sociology at Illinois State University notes in his book “Who is Black? One Nation’s Definition,” the “one drop rule” remains in full effect in this country. By that rule, a person with any known black ancestry, down to a “single drop” of African blood, is defined as black. According to Professor Davis, that definition is still generally accepted by whites and blacks alike; even our court system often abides by it.

Does it still matter?

I think African Americans have long since gotten past the point where having white ancestors is an issue. There was a time when it was viewed with some amount of shame since, as with Melvinia Shields, there was an implied element of degradation in births resulting from the use of black women as unwilling sexual partners by slaveholders. My sense is that today, however, most African Americans consider it to be simply a fact of history. Many, like my wife, assume it to be part of their own family history, even if they have no specific data to back up that conclusion.

Hopefully, the fact that Michelle Obama’s bi-racial husband has twice been elected President of the United States is an indication that the peculiarities of an individual’s racial background are beginning to matter less and less to the nation as a whole.

Ron Franklin

See also Should Parents Give Their Children Distinctively “Black” Names?

© 2013 Ronald E. Franklin