Michelle Obama's White Heritage: New Book Explores Her Roots, Race

First lady Michelle Obama (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)In "American Tapestry," New York Times reporter Rachel L. Swarns explores the family history of Michelle Obama and discovers that the first lady's roots are entwined with those of white slave-owners in 19th-century Georgia. The revelation has sparked a discussion about people and power and shows that while some want to celebrate the distant connections between blacks and whites, plenty more are still uncomfortable and angry about racial issues in America.

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"My family, well, they were just your most basic people who never had a lot. I never imagined they owned slaves," Joan Tribble, 69, told Swarns. Her great-great grandfather, Henry Wells Shield, owned a 200-acre farm near Rex, Georgia. He also owned Obama's great-great-great-grandmother, Melvinia Shields, who came to his farm as an 8-year-old slave -- torn from her parents, valued at $475 after her owner died -- in 1852.

Swarns' book, an excerpt of which ran recently in The New York Times, is a work of history, not a biography or an account of life in the White House. "I started with Mrs. Obama's four grandparents and followed their family lines as far back as I could," she writes on her website. "At least one of the First Lady's white ancestors is believed to have fought in the Revolutionary War; other mixed-race ancestors appear in documents that date back to the mid-1800s. I traced their lives in the South during the 19th century and their migration to Chicago in the early 20th century."

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According to Swarns' research, Melvinia was a young teenager when she gave birth to her son Dolphus T. Shields around 1860. DNA testing shows that Henry Wells Shields' son Charles Marion Shields, then 20, was most probably Dolphus' father.

A new book traces Michelle Obama's heritage.Photos of Dolphus Shields published in the New York Times show a light-skinned man with Caucasian features. He looks remarkably similar to a man in another photo -- McClellan Charles Shields, another one of Charles Sheilds' sons. When Tribble saw Dolphus Shields' picture for the first time, "I just thought, 'Well, he [Dolphus] looks like somebody who could be in my family,' Tribble told Swarns.

People are divided as to the nature of Charles' and Melvinia's relationship. While some of Shields' descendants told Swarns that they hoped it was a happy one -- "To me, it's an obvious love story that was hard for the South to accept back then," Aliene Shields, who is white, said -- others have pointed out that a slave wouldn't have the option of turning down unwanted advances from her master's son.

"The shame of slavery for black people is that we were property to be worked to death, raped and sold by the white people who owned us," commenter "astewart" from Brooklyn, N.Y., wrote at the New York Times. "Our children were not 'bi-racial' and our daughters were put on the auction block to breed like cattle."

Swarns did not interview Mrs. Obama for her project (a spokeswoman from the first lady's office told Yahoo! Shine that Mrs. Obama had no comment), though she did interview several of her relatives. She also relied on DNA testing to tell the parts of the story that traditional genealogical data couldn't. Still, in spite of having spent two years researching the book and more time writing it, some people are certain that Obama's ancestry is part of a political ploy, in spite of the fact that the first lady is not an elected official and Obama's bi-racial back story has been well known for years.

"I quickly dismiss this as 'election-time' verbiage employed to entice white people to feel a 'kinship' to a black president as a ploy to secure more votes," wrote BlancaM, a New York Times reader from Houston, Texas.

But Swarns says that politics isn't the point of her book.

"I hope that the book will encourage people to talk more openly about slavery and how that wrenching period of American history still reverberates in this country, shaping countless contemporary family lines, whether black, white or in-between," she writes on her website. "What I loved most about Mrs. Obama's ancestors is that they were ordinary people who loved, struggled, strived and found their way forward under enormously difficult circumstances. Many of us share those kinds of stories. We only have to start digging to find them."

Most African Americans whose families have been in the United States for generations have at least some Caucasian ancestry, so the fact that the first lady does, too, shouldn't come as a surprise. What's surprising, though, is that so many people are so uncomfortable about it. Are detractors uneasy because slavery is tough to talk about? Or is it simply harder to justify hatred once you know you have something in common?



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