Thursday, December 04, 2008

Obama’s slave ancestors

The country is justifiably excited at the thought of a first lady in the White House who is the descendent of a slave.  Michelle Obama’s great-great grandfather, Jim Robinson, born about 1850, lived as a slave on a rice plantation until the Civil War.

So here’s what I’m thinking.  Michelle has a total of 32 great-great-grandparents, just like you and me.  That’s a lot of ancestors, each with his or her own complicated ancestry.   In fact, thanks to the mathematics of ancestry, it’s pretty likely that one of those 32 people is descended from somebody who was on the Mayflower, especially if her family had been in America for a long time.

it turns out that I too have a great-great grandparent who was a slave, (technically, a serf) working under a harsh landlord in the wilds of Lithuania; forbidden to own property, working long hours for no wages, subject to severe punishment if he tried to escape.  Somehow, thanks to changes in the economy and governments, his son Matthias (my great-grandfather) was able to leave the country and eventually settle in America.

Now, here’s another consequence.  We know that Barack Obama has an African father, so presumably there are no slaves on that side of his family (at least not in America).  But what about his mother (and former Mercer Island resident) Stanley Ann Dunham?  Wouldn’t it be likely that, like me, she too had an ancestor (perhaps a great-great grandmother) who had been born a serf?

A quick scan of Wikipedia indicates that Ann was mainly descended from people of the British Isles (where there was no serfdom in the mid-1800s), so I guess it’s unlikely (though not impossible—remember, all it takes is one who was not from there).  But wouldn’t it be ironic if our new President, like his wife, had a serf/slave great-great grandparent – on his mother’s side?

What an amazingly wonderful country!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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good job