Tracing Michelle Obama's Multiracial Ancestry

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

First Lady Michelle Obama looks on as US President Barack Obama speaks before signing a memorandum on childhood obesity February 9, 2010 in the Oval Office (Getty Images)

Back in August 2008, in a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama spoke of embarking on an "improbable journey" for the race for president. 

New York Times reporter Rachel Swarns has followed this journey right back to the first lady's ancestry. Her new book "American Tapestry" explores the surprising genealogy of Michelle Obama.

It stretches back to the Revolutionary War and tells the story of the first lady’s ancestors, who moved from slavery to the White House within the space of five generations. Not only does it tell the first lady’s story, but it also gives an insight into the web of connections that bind Americans.

"There is this real fascination with family history, with genealogy, with DNA testing," Swarns says. "I think the first lady has always had some curiosity about her own family tree." 

The story of Michelle Obama is a "very American" story. "Her forebears were Irish Americans who came here with dreams of building lives in a new place," the author says. "She had slaves who toiled on rice plantations." The first lady's ancestors moved north as part of the Great Migration, a movement of over 7 million African-Americans who relocated from the South towards northern cities from 1916 through 1970. Ancestors of mixed race, and some who were runaway slaves round out a family history that touches on many themes of U.S. history — slavery, immigration, and the melting pot.

Members of the First Lady's extended family, black and white alike, got to meet each other for the first time at a memorial dedicated to one of her ancestors in the town of Rex, Georgia. "For some people, it was not an easy thing to go back into the history," Swarns says. "But there [were those] who were willing to take on this history, and, black and white, they were willing to talk about it. It was fascinating to see."


Rachel Swarns

Produced by:

Paul R. Smith

Comments [2]

LORRAINE BELOTE from Conway, Arkansas

What a wonderful work you have done; what reserve, class and training you display; as I watched the Shomberg book interview on t.v. (I may have misspelled the name of the institute). There must be a treasure trove of untold stories in this country. My Mother teamed with a lady in my small hometown of Clarksville, Ar. and wrote a little book, which she never copywrited, for a club project entitled, "The Black Experience in Johnson County". She had no particular stories of interest to tell, but she did a little genealogy. I could write a bit, but, as many other white people, I don't think anyone would be interested. I have written a few articles for the Johnson County Historical Journal, but none relating to black history.
I had a long career as a Miller-Unruh (Calif.) reading specialist. I helped hundreds of children become better readers, including a two year stint in Little Rock, Ar , teaching inner-city children at the Pulaski Heights Middle School. Bless the teachers in this country. They make a difference. Again, you are a 'treasure'. I could tell just by the interview on t.v. and I wish you could have been one of my former students. I didn't realize that many black people feel that today there is a 'backsliding'of Civil Rights efforts. I think since I am 77 yrs. old, that the next generation of people, both black and white just don't relate to the former (un-technnologically driven people) very well. I see that in my own white family, and suspect the same is true in black families.
Congratulations on your book.

Jul. 22 2012 06:42 PM

I find it interesting that Michelle Obama's racial heritage (played in a gentle, historical, favorable, human-interest fashion) gets this kind of a mention on The Takeaway.

And yet NOT ONCE in the past 60 days, with regular breaking developments in the story including a virtual retraction by the Boston Globe, has The Takeaway seen fit to mention the controversial suppositiong about Elizabeth Warren's racial heritage.

Jun. 27 2012 08:22 AM

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