Slavery enters the presidential elections

POSTED: 06/20/12 12:23 PM

Thinking that the history of slavery is an obsession exclusively entertained by people in the Caribbean, and in St. Maarten in particular, is a mistake. Slavery also keeps Americans – at least certain Americans – occupied.

It is of course no coincidence that the American presidential elections are almost there (on November 6). That’s one thing to keep in mind when reading that the American First Lady Michelle Obama appears to have Caucasians among her predecessors.

What the creators of this news mean to say by this remains unclear. What does it matter that some of your predecessors were white and not black (or the other way around)? To the ultra conservatives in the United States this does matter.

That the first lady had Caucasians among her forebears has been published on earlier occasions. Now DNA-tests have established that her great-great-grandfather was the son of a white slave owner. Southern states like Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Texas are home to distant nephews and nieces and they’re all white, the Volkskrant reported yesterday based on a story in the New York Times.

We wonder how these DNA-tests were done. Did the first lady voluntarily give her husband’s political opponents a DNA-sample? Did somebody nick her toothbrush from the white House? This, the story does not tell.

Among the distant nephews and nieces are a retired construction worker, a bookkeeper and a dietician. None of them knew they had family in the White House and they also did not know that their forebears owned slaves.

Some of these remote family members were embarrassed by this unexpected chapter in their family history. They seem to be unhappy that they are now exposed as descendants of slave owners. And here is the punch line from the story in the Volkskrant: “They also struggle with the question whether their family ties with the country’s most important black woman is the result of rape.”

We just wonder: are the people who are asking themselves such questions insane? Or is this a blatant attempt to smear the Obama’s?

According to the New York Times, the story begins with Henry Wells Shields, a white farmer who owned “Michelle Obama’s great-great-great grandmother, Melvinia Shields.” DNA-tests have proven that a son of Shields, Charles Marion, is the probable father of Dolphus T. Shields, the son of Melvinia and Michelle Obama’s great-great grandfather.

Melvinia  was probably around fifteen when she gave birth to Dolphus. Charles was around twenty. The Shields family was not rich; it had a farm in Clayton County, Georgia. Most of the times the farmers worked the land together with their slaves. Melvinia was not a privileged stay at home slave, the story notes: most of the time she worked outside in the fields.

She gave birth to more children of mixed blood; that gives the white descendants of the Shields family “hope” that Melvinia’s relationship with Charles Shields was consensual. That reaction almost begs the question: who care after all that time?
The story presents Ruth Wheeler Applin as somebody who knew Dolphus and his mother. She suspects that Melvinia was raped by her master. But Applin has never dared to ask Melvinia, who passed away in 1938, whether this really happened.

The Volkskrant offers this explanation: many slaves had trouble speaking about their humiliating experiences after slavery was abolished.

Michelle Obama’s forebears trekked north, among others to the State of Illinois. Understandably, the first lady declined to comment on the piece in the New York Times.

The newspaper spoke with Joan Tribble, a 69-year-old white woman from Rex in  Georgia. She is the daughter of Lottie Bell  Shields. She told reporters that she never imagined that her family once owned slaves. “They were ordinary people who possessed little,” she said.

Tribble would love to meet Michelle Obama. “I am very open towards people and I accept them and I hope that they accept me too.”

What is amazing in this story is that the New York Times is not able to state with certainty that Charles Marion Shields is the father of Dolphus, let alone that he raped her. The fatherhood is only probable and the rape is a suspicion living in the mind of a 69-year-old woman. But never mind, from there the story leads to the White House and that was probably too much to resist.

The story does not answer the real question and that is: what does it matter? Mixing white forebears of a black first lady with slave ownership, rape and embarrassed distant nephews and nieces based on a probability for which there is no absolute proof (maybe it is even better to state: for which there is absolutely no proof), seems more like an attempt to damage Obama’s re-election campaign than an honest attempt at writing history.

Did you like this? Share it:
Slavery enters the presidential elections by

Comments are closed.