In 1865, as the brutal institution of slavery in America had officially ended, a new life for Melvinia, a young newly freed slave, began. Hers was to become another of the countless yet treasured narratives of African-Americans who survived the miseries of slavery. And as the events of Melvinia’s life unfolded thus began the ancestral history of Michelle Robinson Obama. In the new book American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama (Amistad/HarperCollins Publishers, $27.99), Rachel L. Swarns uncovers the family history of the first African-American first lady of the United States, the first in that role to be the descendant of slaves. At the same time, she reveals the complexities of Black life in America. For American Tapestry not only reflects the lives of four generations of a Black family, it also reflects the cultural and political history of Black America.
Swarns has been a reporter for The New York Times since 1995; and in 2009, she co-wrote an article about the familial roots of Michelle Obama , which would become the genesis for her chronicling the family’s saga. The story begins with Melvinia, who was Mrs. Obama’s great-great-great-grandmother. “I took the first lady’s grandparents as far back as I could,” Swarns said in a recent discussion with Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad , director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. “I looked at four generations of people that emerged from her family and explored ‘where did it all begin.’”
Though the book explores intimate details of the first lady’s ancestors, Swarns described the book as “hard history.” Having taken Swarns about two years to research and write the book, American Tapestry is about how reflective the lives of the people of one family was of American history. “It’s hard history because it’s hard for people to talk about,” said Swarns. “Many people would rather look away; having conversations [about the past] was not — and is still not — easy.”
The Network Journal caught up with Swarns after the evening at the Schomburg Library for a brief conversation about her book, which is receiving well-deserved attention. “The title, American Tapestry, reflects the many strands that make up Mrs. Obama’s family tree and our nation,” says Swarns. “Her ancestors were Black, white and in-between. Some claimed Native American ancestry, as well.” Swarns says in her aim of digging deeper into the first lady’s life, she hoped to tell the story of her ancestors across the generations and, by so doing, tell the story of all Americans. Swarns adds that one of the most startling discoveries, or one particularly surprising item, she came across in researching the book was that she was able to identify Mrs. Obama’s white ancestors and to tell the story of her Black and mixed-race ancestors who had front-row seats for some of the most important moments in American history: slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, migration, the Depression and more.
“My book is really a look at the sweep of American history through the lens of Mrs. Obama’s family,” says Swarns. “All of us have ancestors who, like Mrs. Obama’s forbears, have contributed to America’s story. It would be wonderful if more people could dig into their own family trees to unearth
those amazing stories.”
* Photo credit: Bob Gore, Photographs & Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library