Why Geneology Can Be Painful

The New York Times seems obsessed with using the Obamas to educate its readers about America's racial history. So it was no surprise to me that when the paper recently filled out Michelle Obama's family tree, it summed up the findings as "the complicated history of racial intermingling, sometimes born of violence or coercion, that lingers in the bloodlines of many African-Americans." I'm not picking on the Times for making everything about the president a teachable moment on race. (I do the same thing every week, only I use myself as the lab specimen.)

But I found the piece alienating. It presented Michelle's lineage as an ineluctable five--generation march to the White House, without seeming to account for any of the real human struggles behind the genealogy. The article's tone was so bloodless, not unlike the "begats" section in the Bible: "Now the more complete map of Mrs. Obama's ancestors—including the slave mother, white father and their biracial son, Dolphus T. Shields—for the first time fully connects the first African-American first lady to the history of slavery, tracing their five-generation journey from bondage to a front-row seat to the presidency." Where's the acknowledgment that such discoveries could unleash strong, ungovernable feelings in the living relatives, even if that includes the first lady, who has ceded her right to privacy?

Black people know, intellectually, that they come from bondage, but it's another thing to confront the details of those ties and explore them emotionally. It's kind of like This Is Your Life, but only the bad parts. I learned this firsthand after I worked with Ancestry.com this summer to track down my own roots. The company has collected millions of bits and pieces of our collective story from slave-ship logs and trading records to church memberships and emancipation records. But when genealogists researched my family, they couldn't find anything earlier than the 1910 census. Before that we were either property (and many of those records have been lost or destroyed) or beneath the government's notice. Even after 1910, records for African-Americans were shoddily kept. What the state of South Carolina did with my father's birth certificate is a complete mystery. Whole centuries of my history are lost to me simply because of the color of my skin. That makes me really, really angry and sad. I had braced myself to be upset by the discovery of my family's slave history, but I certainly wasn't prepared to get a whole lot of nothing. It's trippy and heartbreaking—dreading the past, while at the same time grieving for the personal history you'll never know.

So if you're going to go digging around, looking for anyone else's roots and writing about them on the front page of a newspaper, you need to examine the emotional surround, too. The Times goes out of its way to explain many of the paradoxes of slavery, yet somehow neglects to say why "as his [Shields] descendants moved forward, they lost touch with the past." Not to quibble, but they're glossing over a lot of upsetting history in that sentence. So many African-Americans were too traumatized by events earlier in their lives to discuss that sad personal history readily with their children and grandchildren—something I've seen in my own family. I've heard different explanations for my great-grandfather's move from Florida to Connecticut: the KKK was after my great-uncle or perhaps there were simply better opportunities and less discrimination in the North. Though no one was eager to fill in the blanks, silence never erased the damage. As a long-dead white man once famously wrote: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

I respect the Times's urge to tell the world the story of our past. It's a wonderful feeling to know who you came from; when I saw my great-grandfather's signature on that century-old census form, I wept for joy. It's amazing how a digitized image of a piece of paper can make you feel like a legitimate part of the world (especially when you have more than one friend who can actually trace his roots back to the Mayflower). I suspect Michelle may have felt a bit of that too. But let's tell it like it was—200 years of struggle; hard work; memories, good and bad; failures; and resurrection. Despite the historic election of Barack Obama, discrimination and racism still exist and they are still tied to the color of our skin and linked to our country's past. The more honestly and completely our story is told, the easier the present is to bear or celebrate.