Michelle Obama’s Slave Ancestry, Ann Romney’s Atheist Immigrant Father & Presidential Identity Politics

The recent news, emerging from the new book American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama, by New York Times reporter Rachel L. Swarns, finally provides in a detailed history how the First Lady‘s ancestry, like that of millions of other African-Americans who have had ancestors who were both white slave-owners and black slaves.

In fact, through the two years of her in-depth research, Swarns discovered that in the families of all four of Mrs. Obama‘s grandparents there have been ancestors from a wide variety of cultures and nations, including Irish immigrants and Native Americans of the Cherokee tribe.

In the case of her maternal grandfather, his great-grandfather was Henry Wells Shields, a northern Georgia farmer who owned slaves, including a girl by the name of Melvinia, who was eight years old when she came to live and work on his land  in 1852. Eight years later, it was his son, Charles Marion Shields, who at the age of about 20, had a child by Melvinia. Their son, Dolphus Shields was thus mixed-race, and is the great-great-grandfather of the First Lady and the great-grandfather of her mother, Marian Shields Robinson, who lives in the White House as part of the First Family.

Swarns also discovered that the painful legacy of slavery so affected the subsequent generations of the First Lady’s families that many members did not discuss the issue or pursue details about their white slave-owner and black slave ancestors. As the first presidential couple with both the racial ancestry and choice of identity as  African-Americans, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama are culturally and politically significant simply by being the President or First Lady.

The President’s mother, of white European descent, was married to his Kenyan father, who had no family history in the U.S. of slavery or otherwise. While the President experienced racism as a black man due simply to his appearance, he did not further carry the family legacy of American slavery.

During the 2008 campaign, and following his election, these facts opened a dialogue among many African-American historians and commentators about the President’s “blackness.” It was suggested that as a result of his wife’s family history including African-American slavery, many white and black voters would find her having had the more “authentic” experiences of those whose families had struggled for generations against racism in the U.S. than that of her husband, President Barack Obama.  Neither Obama ever mentioned or addressed such speculation and it is difficult to determine what, if any, political affect the then-candidate’s wife ancestry had on the electorate.

As Rachel Swarn’s assiduously-researched American Tapestry shows, however, the tracing from slavery to the White House in just five generations is an astounding story with important historical significance for any American recognizing the collective interest in overcoming racism.

Certainly there have been numerous examples in the past of  ethnicity, ethnic identity, religion and religious identityof candidates’ and Presidential wives being either exploited, denied or manipulated to serve the political purposes of their husbands’.

And given the fact that were this year’s Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to be elected, he would be the first Mormon to serve as Chief Executive, it is likely that the media will seek to investigate the posthumous conversion to that faith of his wife’s father. 

The 2012 Presidential Election’s two candidates, President Barack Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney, and their wives, represent seemingly rare racial and ethnic demographics, yet in many way quintessentially American, that they all serve as a window into and starting point for more in-depth consideration of the entire subject of American racial and religious identity.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, for example, both had great-grandfathers who shared the same number of polygamous wives – five each.

See this article about this first time in history when two first-generation Americans are running against each other for President.

Ann Romney’s father represents an unusual demographic not only for having been an immigrant from Wales but as an avowed Atheist. Yet neither her ancestry nor that of Michelle Obama have been the first to draw public interest and questions.

This is the first in a series exploring the political and cultural significance of the Irish and French Catholic heritage of Jacqueline Kennedy, the Irish Catholic and German immigrant background of Pat Nixon, Eleanor Roosevelt‘s rarely-discussed Irish immigrant great-grandparents, Mamie Eisenhower‘s Swedish immigrant grandparents, Florence Harding‘s denial of German and alleged Jewish heritage and Edith Wilson’s exploitation of her remote Native American ancestry.

Exclusive First North American Serial Rights licensed by Carl Anthony Online to the National First Ladies' Library.