Friday, October 16, 2009

Michelle Obama's Roots

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Everyone who pays attention to the news has heard about last week's headline regarding First Lady Michelle Obama's roots. (Detailed coverage by the NYTimes can be found here.) I've been thinking about this issue for a while, trying to figure out why it's so touching. Of course, as the writers and commenters say, it is a truly American story, emblematic not only of our country's sad history of slavery and miscegenation but also of triumph. Look how far we've come, from a (probable) non-consensual union between a white slaveowner and his slave, which represents the many cruelties of slavery that ended not yet 200 years ago, to the most esteemed position in the country: the White House.

But I also saw within this story other important themes close to my heart. The not-knowing of roots (a relative of Michelle's great-great-great grandmother Melvina, the slave who bore four mulatto babies wrote "don't know" in the blanks for the names of her parents on her death certificate, suggesting Melvina likely didn't know her own heritage). Melvina shared her last name, Shields, with her owners. What may have been her African name? No one can be certain who on the plantation impregnated her, so her son Dolphus, Michelle's great-great grandfather, probably didn't know who his father was. What do these mysteries and pains of heritage remind me of?

An adoption story, in which roots are a mystery, shielded from the adoptee as s/he takes a new name and family when adopted. Adoption's getting better--transparency is more often a goal than it was before--but the history is there.

I hope people will see, with this story as an example, how important it is for people (incl. adopted people) to know their roots.

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