here was breaking news yesterday in the lively world of presidential genealogy. Barack Obama–who is regarded as an inauthentic African-American by some because his late mother, Stanley Anne Dunham, was a white woman and his father’s ancestry traced to Kenya rather than Kentucky or the Carolinas–was suggested to be descended on his maternal side from John Punch, a black man.
Researchers at Ancestry.com, the online root-seeking company, derived Obama’s relationship to Punch using a combination of standard genealogical research and Y-chromosome genetic analysis. (Y-DNA is passed essentially unchanged from fathers to sons to grandsons to great-grandsons, etc.) The timing of this announcement could not be better for the Provo, Utah company that just reported booming fourth quarter profits and is rumored to be seeking a buyer.
An indentured servant in 17th century Virginia, Punch would earn the lamentable designation of “the first documented African enslaved for life in American history” when he was reduced to chattel as punishment for his attempt to escape servitude. Punch, like Obama the elder, was an African; tragically, what makes Punch “African-American” is his slave status. With rebellious, freedom-loving roots firmly planted in the New World, our nation’s first president of African descent —Punch’s 11th great grandson–may just be “black enough” after all.
News of POTUS’s connection to Punch, reported in The New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere, follows a now established pattern of presidential genealogy exposés that partly rely upon the paradox of opposing political ideology and shared kinship. So, in 2010 we learned, courtesy of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, that then Massachusetts senator-elect Scott Brown was the President’s tenth cousin. As a Los Angeles Times reporter put it, “[d]espite the political chasm that separates the two men… Obama and Brown have at least one solid family link.”
We have a high threshold for political gossip and, in the digital age, genealogy is a fast fad that shows no sign of passing out of vogue. But the primary reason these ancestry stories entrance us is because they bring us face-to-face with our national fascination with and anxieties about racial miscegenation. Take, for example, the minor controversy over Rachel L. Swarns’ recently published American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multicultural Ancestors of Michelle Obama. Megan Smolenyak, the prominent genealogist who conducted the research for Swarns’ widely-read 2007 co-authored article that revealed Michelle Obama’s white slavery-era ancestors, critiqued it in the Huffington Post. Smolenyak was stunned that:
Smolenyak further complained that “the ‘revelation’ of the white ancestor via DNA testing” wasn’t unexpected; “the only true surprise in the book” she concluded, was “the absence of over a third of Mrs. Obama’s known ancestors.”
It’s hard to know for certain whether a book about FLOTUS’s predominantly black ancestors would have warranted the same level of interest as the multiracial narrative that Swarns penned. But Smolenyak’s comments certainly gets at the problem of “selection bias” that is characteristic of root-seeking. As computer scientist and genealogist, Mark Humphrys said to The Atlantic in 2002, “genealogies aren’t two-dimensional… They aren’t three-dimensional… They have hundreds of dimensions.” This means that we choose what parts of our genealogies are important to us: a genetic genealogy company called African Ancestry is of interest to those seeking information about their black identity, while a company called Oxford Ancestors may hold the most draw for people looking for European relatives. As sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel contends, genealogy says more about our social values and priorities and than it does about our “real” families: “we manipulate genealogies to accommodate personal and collective agendas of inclusion and exclusion.”
In a rare moment of racial forthrightness laced with humor, Obama got right to the heart of the genealogical matter. In fall 2007, following the revelation by the Chicago Sun-Times that Obama and Vice President Dick Cheney were eighth cousins, the democratic candidate quipped to a New Hampshire audience that “everybody has… black sheep in the family.” In a nation built on racial slavery, what made Obama and Cheney different was more than politics.
Indeed, if we go back far enough in time just about any two people of any background are related. Science writer Steven Olson provides some genealogical factoids that shed light on the ordinariness of the news we’ve learned about the Obama’s extended family over the past few years:
- “all Europeans alive today have among their ancestors the same man or woman who lived around 1400”
- “almost everyone in the New World must be descended from English royalty—even people of predominantly African or Native American ancestry”
- “the most recent common ancestor of all six billion people on earth today probably lived just a couple of thousand years ago”
- “Confucius, Nefertiti, and just about any other ancient historical figure who was even moderately prolific must today be counted among everyone’s ancestors.”
The “dense interconnectedness of the human family might seem to take some of the thrill out of genealogical research,” Olson surmises. This would be the case if we fully appreciated how similar we all are genetically, how close we all are genealogically. Yet our preoccupation with presidential roots suggests that that we still struggle over the boundaries of our human communities—be these “first” families or our nuclear ones. The fact that the slave ancestry of President Obama’s mother is presented as a “surprise” tells us a little something about what drives the genealogical marketplace, but a lot more about how slow we have been to accept the founding truths of American society.