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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?

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Comment Preferences

  •  Color me unimpressed ... no pun intended (4+ / 0-)

    but I frankly don't care about ancestors that had no influence on him. If perhaps, his family had cherished and tried to continue the stories, images or history as something to pass on ... well, then I would be interested.

    I don't really care about my own ancestors that I know very little about ... supposedly I have some Crypto Jews, a Spanish conquistador, an Otomi princess and a pony express rider in my blood ... but that does not define who I am and what I think. Besides, records are so spotty that things cold go either wayl

    What I know about Obama is that he is handsome, smart, patient, looks at the big picture and at times is less liberal and forceful that I would like... and he was born in the 50th state to join the union of United States. I am voting for him because of who he is not because he  supposedly had a certain ancestor in the 17th century.

    End of rant ... maybe if I'll go play with my dogs, I'll stay out of trouble.

    "Life without liberty is like a body without spirit. Liberty without thought is like a disturbed spirit." Kahlil Gibran, 'The Vision'

    by CorinaR on Tue Jul 31, 2012 at 02:26:47 PM PDT

  •  I had to look you up before I posted. Hard to (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Cartoon Peril, kaliope, Larsstephens

    believe you've been around here all this time.

    If the plutocrats begin the program, we will end it. -- Eugene Debs.

    by livjack on Tue Jul 31, 2012 at 02:29:47 PM PDT

  •  OT, but BtDK 4 times? Then can U explain why (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Larsstephens

    the Scarecrow was doing that goofy judge / revolutionary tribunal thing?  And were we supposed to notice he was the Scarecrow?

    You have exactly 10 seconds to change that look of disgusting pity into one of enormous respect!

    by Cartoon Peril on Tue Jul 31, 2012 at 02:30:56 PM PDT

    •  BTDKR is the truth accept no substitutes (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Cartoon Peril, Larsstephens

      now you have me being the ghetto nerd I am.

      I think it was just a fun easter egg. there was so much cut out of that movie i hope the dvd/blu ray restores it.

      for example, the police captain's character is really muted and flat--we are given no real reason to feel bad when he is shot down by the the tumbler and talia al-ghul.

      the movie is such a smart meditation on false populism and the dangers of extremism. it is also very literary with all of the winks to Dickens, Kafka, and Dostoevsky.

      Did you enjoy it?  

  •  Short of being a descendent of Nat Turner... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Cartoon Peril, Larsstephens

    ...will be a yawn.

    And even Nat Turner would probably be a noisy but brief kerfuffle by the predictable suspects before the yawn.

    When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative. --Martin Luther King Jr.

    by Egalitare on Tue Jul 31, 2012 at 02:36:17 PM PDT

    •  IMHO Nat Turner should be on the nickel (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Egalitare, Larsstephens

      not Jefferson the slave-holding, debt-ridden, mistress-keeping, Aaron Burr-hating (well, that was okay, I guess), Louisiana-purchasing horny old goat that he was.

      You have exactly 10 seconds to change that look of disgusting pity into one of enormous respect!

      by Cartoon Peril on Tue Jul 31, 2012 at 02:45:47 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  This story shows how chattel slavery not (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sayitaintso, Larsstephens

    inevitable.  I think it was just easy.  White people are free, or freer, black people aren't.  No need for ID cards then!  And after that you can pile on all the racial inferiority myths etc., and  pretty soon you've got 200 years of being able to steal the labor from a huge number of people -- legally and with God on your side.

    You have exactly 10 seconds to change that look of disgusting pity into one of enormous respect!

    by Cartoon Peril on Tue Jul 31, 2012 at 02:36:56 PM PDT

  •  I think this is mostly... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Saint Jimmy, Larsstephens

    ... intended to benefit ancestry.com, with any other effects being decidedly secondary.  They put it out there when the race is getting into full swing so as to get maximum free exposure.

  •  I think this is important. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Larsstephens

    We all descend from slaves, and we all descend from slave-owners. All of us are descendants of rapists and murderers, and of victims of those crimes.
    We are all from Africa, too. A lot of us are from other places, too.
    It's best we recognize this. There is no longer any excuse for seeing a human being as other.
    Joe

    "There is just one way to save yourself, and that's to get together and work and fight for everybody." ---Woody Guthrie (quoted by Jim Hightower in The Progressive Populist April 1, 2012, p3)

    by CitizenJoe on Tue Jul 31, 2012 at 09:32:21 PM PDT

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