American Tapestry by Rachel L. Swarms :The story of Michelle Obama’s Ancestry


Photograph of Michelle Obama's paternal line g...

Photograph of Michelle Obama’s paternal line great-grandfather, Fraser Robinson, Sr. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

American Tapestry by Rachel L. Swarns, is the story of First Lady, Michelle Obama’s ancestry. If you’re looking for a story about the First Lady’s life, you won’t find it in this book. What you will find is her family tree, and fascinating stories about her relatives.

The author, a New York Times reporter, did extensive research before writing this book. She used census records, photographs, oral histories, and interviews with many of Mrs. Obama’s relatives.

A genealogist, Megan Smolenyak had discovered a connection between a white slave owner, Henry Shields and Mrs. Obama’s great-great-great-grandmother, Melvina. Together they had a son, Dolphus. The author uncovered a funeral program of the son, Dolphus, and a photograph.

Swarns collaborated on an article about this discovery in the New York Times, and did further historical research to write this book.

The author follows four families in the South who eventually migrate to the North. From these families, comes Mrs. Obama’s great grandparents
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A History Lesson

This is not an easy book to read. There are at least 30 characters to keep track of. Sometimes, you have to go back and reread their connections to each other, but if you persevere you uncover a fascinating story.

The book is in Three parts: Part I —Migration [to the North], Part II—The Demise of Reconstructions and the Rise of Jim Crow, Part III—Slavery and Emancipation.

Not only is it Mrs. Obama’s story, but the story of black people after the Civil war to the present day. Highlights include: black migration to the North, Reconstruction, sexual exploitation, lynchings, people being discouraged from voting, segregation, and passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1963. White and black people intermingle throughout the book.

The oral history was handed down in bits and pieces. Former slaves wanted to put the past behind them. The slavery experience was so painful and shameful that the first generation of freed slaves didn’t want to talk too much about it with their children.

Interesting characters

The author starts out with, Phoebe Moten Johnson, Mrs. Obama’s paternal great grandmother. She decides to escape her dull farm life, in Villa Ridge, Illinois, and gets on a train to seek her fortune. She ends up traveling to four different cities before she ends up in Chicago.

To tie the stories together, there is some speculation on the author’s part. This is about Phoebe:” “Swarns admits that “[n]one alive today knows the precise pace or number of stops that [Phoebe] made on her journey. There are gaps in her story, countless unknowns. …”

There are many other fascinating characters in this saga: Fraser Robinson, Sr., a man who accomplishes a lot even though he loses his arm after a tree falls on him when he’s a child. For a time, he moves in with a white family, friends of his father, and watches as black people lose rights they were granted after the Civil War.

Mrs. Obama’s relatives, like many African-Americans, migrated from the South to the North because there were more opportunities. They did a variety of jobs including: carpentry, coal mining, church ministry, household helpers, and railroad workers.

The author quotes Mrs. Obama’s aunt, Francesca Gray who states that in the black version of the American dream “ you dream a little bit at a time.” It is about black Americans striving toward the pursuit of life, liberty, happiness and property.

I would recommend this book because it gives an insightful look at what the black experience may have felt like after the Civil War to the present day. We learn how the American dream was accomplished by people at a clear disadvantage. Mrs. Obama’s family are the main characters in this book, but they represent the black experience in America for the past 150 years.

You can find this book on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and on various websites.

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