Barack Obama is now American "royalty" twice-over. He is the first President of the United States who happens to be black. And with the discovery of his genealogical ties to John Punch, the first African bondsman in America, Obama can trace his family lineage back to the genesis of that most cruel and peculiar institution known as chattel slavery.
As I wrote about here, the "discovery" of President Obama's blood ties to the beginnings of slavery in the United States are part of a broader political and cultural moment. The United States is renegotiating and struggling with how race is central (or not) to American identity. As the United States becomes more black and brown, Whiteness is figuring out--as it always has--the ways in which it can adapt and evolve in order to maintain its dominant position.
Genealogy is one of the "technologies of race" where science helps to situate people individually, collectively, and relative to one another in the service of Power.
For example, Henry Louis Gates' various DNA escapades are largely about fashioning a new and more cosmopolitan and "global" understanding of race and the Black Atlantic.
The efforts to trace Michelle Obama's lineage back through slavery and to white-wash the rape of her ancestors is a dishonest ploy to write the (black) First Lady back into an approved and sanitized version of the American story. Shows such as Who Do You Think You Are? are parallel efforts to play on the hard times myths of white ethnics, so that in a time of increasing racial diversity white folks can use their own family stories as leverage against the particular and unique justice claims made by people of color.
Ancestry.com's discovery that President Obama was descended from John Punch through his white mother's family line is also a teachable moment for a country that is blindly ignorant of how chattel slavery was and remains central to the American story.
Like many whites in the 17th century, Punch entered the country as an indentured servant. As slavery was evolving, racial lines hardened. White elites created a system that privileged "whites" and marginalized "blacks." These were decisions made by individuals working in the service of a particular set of political, social, and economic interests. Oftentimes, there is a tendency by some to naturalize slavery as something that was unavoidable; alternatively, many apologists deploy the intellectually lazy claim that these white elites "were products of their time." Sure they were, and who cares?
The abolitionists and others who fought against the slave regime were products of their time as well.
[This moment will also produce the normal complaints whenever we confront white supremacy's legacies in the present or dare to talk about the TransAtlantic slave trade and the Black Holocaust. Some white folks and others will defensively howl, "every society had slaves, get over it!" The reply here is always an easy one.
First, chattel slavery in the Americas and across the Black Atlantic was unprecedented in human history. Second, if America is so exceptional, unique, and noble, why ought we hold ourselves to such a low standard where "if everybody else did it, then it must be okay?"]
In all, Barack Obama's ancestry is a reminder that slavery was a process where American, and in particular Southern society, moved from one where some people happened to be slaves, to a slave society where the majority of blacks were held as human property. This legacy of the color line is still with us today as seen through disparities in wealth, income, life expectancy, social mobility, health outcomes, and incarceration rates.
As a practical matter, this discovery will likely have little impact on how President Obama is viewed by either his supporters or opponents. The President has been racialized by the White Right since the 2008 campaign, and he will be further "blackened up" as the 2012 race continues. The discovery of Obama's connections to slavery will do little to hurt with with a crowd that already sees him as anathema to American ideals, a black brigand and usurper, and hates the very fact that a person of color (and his family) is in the White House as anything other than as a janitor or chambermaid.
For his supporters, especially those in the black community, Obama's African-American ancestry (which can now be traced all the way back to the crucible and smelting pot of race in the United States) will make him no less popular or beloved. The President identifies himself as a black American by experience, affinity, and birthright. With this discovery, Obama now simply has the blood and soil DNA bonafides which link him back to the African-American founders of this country. And no, his "relationship" to John Punch will not make President Obama any more likely to speak directly about the particular needs of black and brown folks in the United States.
I do have two fleeting thoughts however. As observers such as Shelby Steele, Randall Kennedy and others pointed out during the 2008 Presidential Race, part of Obama's appeal is that he was not one of those "angry blacks" who can trace their lineage back to White America's national sin of black enslavement and mass murder. Obama was the "safe black" who did not remind white voters of their collective shame and guilt--and thus did not fully activate feelings of white racial resentment. Will the discovery of President Obama's ancestry challenge this bargain?
Perhaps I have seen Batman The Dark Knight Rises too many times? (four as of yesterday) But, in taking a cue from Commissioner Gordon's advice to
Nightwing a young detective, there are few coincidences in life. Why was this information released about President Obama's genealogy now? Who wins and loses by making such a revelation so near election day?