Michelle’s Great-Great-Great-Granddaddy—and Yours

Henry Louis Gates Jr in The Root:

Youngmichelleobama_0 First Lady Michelle Obama’s maternal third-great-grandfather was a white man who fathered Melvinia Shields’ (her maternal third great-grandmother) son, Dolphus T. Shields, both slaves. This discovery, like all recoveries of the identities of ancestors we thought had been obliterated in the crucible of slavery, is first and foremost a welcome gift for the first family, especially for Michelle’s mother, Marian Shields Robinson, and the Shields family line. And for anyone still naïve enough to believe in the myth of racial purity, it is one more corroboration that the social categories of “white” and “black” are and always have been more porous than can be imagined, especially in that nether world called slavery. As I have learned since embarking upon my African American Lives series (for PBS), never before are more African Americans determined to ferret out the names of their slave ancestors, and never before have more resources, especially online, been available to facilitate these searches. But, be prepared. To paraphrase the Bible: seek; but fasten your seat belt as to what ye may find. For those of us fortunate enough to lift the veil on our family’s slave past and identify our actual ancestors, these genealogical searches often yield startling results—two in particular. The first shock? That Cherokee Princess that family lore says is your great-great-grandmother most probably never existed. The sad truth is that the overwhelming percentage of African-American people have very little Native American ancestry in their DNA.

A Harvard colleague of mine likes to say, “DNA don’t lie.” And the Reverend Eugene Rivers likes to say that “DNA has freed more black men than Abraham Lincoln.”

More here.