Whites In The First Family
Two weeks ago extraordinary attention was placed on the family history of our first lady, Michelle Obama. Her mixed ancestry was found to be a surprise by many Whites in America. Similarly, the European and East African ancestry of President Obama was seen as an exotic mix. For African Americans, mixed ancestry is no surprise; it is part of our history and can be uncovered in most families through traditional genealogy research as well as DNA testing.
The story of Melvina Shields, the great-great-great-grandmother of Michelle Obama who was enslaved and impregnated by a white man is a consistent theme heard in many narratives of African American family history. Noted sociologist, E. Franklin Frazier, explained in “Black Bourgeoisie” that the nearly 600,000 mulattoes in the U.S. in 1860 were mainly the result of the sexual association of white men and enslaved African women. We also see this reflected in the DNA of African Americans. When we test the paternally inherited Y chromosome DNA we find that 3 out of every 10 (30%) African American men have European Y chromosomes while less than 5% of the maternally inherited mtDNA is of European ancestry. This is called sex-bias gene flow and is largely the result of the behavior of many slaveholders and/or their male relatives.
The increased focus by the media on uncovering white ancestry in African Americans is interesting to some but is also disturbing to others, especially when these stories portray mixed ancestry as the reason for African American achievement. It is important to understand all of your family history. However, for most African Americans, including Michelle Obama, we cannot trace our family history using traditional methods beyond the Melvina Shields and others enslaved in the mid 1800s. This is because of the lack of adequate records on the enslaved and why DNA testing offered by African Ancestry is so important and exciting to African Americans.