The New York Times did an interesting story on Michelle Obama’s mixed-racial ancestry (h./t. Jessica), one that is also revealing of the unwillingness of most whites to fully face and thoroughly assess the rape and sexual coercion of black women by white men–likely hundreds of thousands of times, over 350 or so years of our 400+ year history. It may, perhaps, be a weak start toward that assessment. (There is, to my knowledge, no major social science book on this subject.)
The story begins with some genealogical research by the Times and genealogist, Megan Smolenyak:
In 1850, the elderly master of a South Carolina estate took pen in hand and painstakingly divided up his possessions. Among the spinning wheels, scythes, tablecloths and cattle that he bequeathed to his far-flung heirs was a 6-year-old slave girl valued soon afterward at $475. In his will, she is described simply as the “negro girl Melvinia.” After his death, she was torn away from the people and places she knew and shipped to Georgia. While she was still a teenager, a white man would father her first-born son under circumstances lost in the passage of time….Melvinia Shields, the enslaved and illiterate young girl, and the unknown white man who impregnated her are the great-great-great-grandparents of Michelle Obama, the first lady…
During our very long slavery history, well more than half our total history, young people were sold away from their parents, and were listed and treated just like cattle, as here. Notice too the timid language here” father” and “impregnated,” for the rape and sexual coercion that confronted a great many black women during slavery.
The Times continues a bit later with one of two passing references to this coercion:
While President Obama’s biracial background has drawn considerable attention, his wife’s pedigree, which includes American Indian strands, highlights the complicated history of racial intermingling, sometimes born of violence or coercion, that lingers in the bloodlines of many African-Americans.
Well, again we get the very tame “intermingling,” followed by the awkward “sometimes born of violence,” since “usually born of violence or coercion” would be more accurate. In the slavery era most black women were owned and controlled by white men. The word “pedigree” here seems more than a little inappropriate since it is more often used of animals like dogs (h./t. Jessica).
The Times then adds this:
When her owner, David Patterson, died in 1852, Melvinia soon found herself on a 200-acre farm with new masters, Mr. Patterson’s daughter and son-in law, Christianne and Henry Shields. It was a strange and unfamiliar world. … In Georgia, she was one of only three slaves on property that is now part of a neat subdivision in Rex, near Atlanta. …. It is difficult to say who might have impregnated Melvinia, who gave birth to Dolphus around 1859, when she was perhaps as young as 15. At the time, Henry Shields was in his late 40s and had four sons ages 19 to 24, but other men may have spent time on the farm.
There is no discussion of the literally totalitarian system in which black women were usually at the mercy of whites, especially white men, for their material survival. The could be beaten into subservience, including into coerced sexual relationships at any age. This was true during slavery, and often true under the near-slavery of Jim Crow segregation that lasted nearly to 1970.
One son of hers, Dolphus Shields, was listed on census forms as “mulatto” (a derogatory term in origin and use) became a carpenter and church-founding deacon in the city of Birmingham, Alabama.
As for his ancestry, Dolphus Shields didn’t talk about it. “We got to the place where we didn’t want anybody to know we knew slaves; people didn’t want to talk about that,” said Mrs. Heath, who said she assumed he had white relatives because his skin color and hair texture “told you he had to be near white.” …. But as his descendants moved forward, they lost touch with the past.
One of these was his distant granddaughter, Michelle Obama.
The Times asked some leading scholars to comment on this story, and among the acute comments were these:
Henry L. Gates: “Some of this inter-racial sexuality was voluntary, we now know, but far more was coerced, a reflection or a result of a profound imbalance of power. Because of a confluence of factors — the illegality of miscegenation, the prevalence of sexual abuse and rape as the source of these relationships, infidelity, guilt, shame, and disgrace — both black people and white people had a certain interest in keeping these relationships in the dark, as it were.
Annette Gordon-Reed, a visiting Harvard law professor : “That we’ve just started speaking openly about the complexity of black ancestry doesn’t surprise. … There’s also a lot of white Southern anxiety in denials of these tangled blood lines. Acknowledging them requires admitting what went on in the South. . . . Some of those planters really were living like polygamous patriarchs of old with wives and concubines and bunches of kids. That’s the truth of early American history.
Once fully instituted, the two-centuries-plus years of slavery arrangements became much more than a machine for generating wealth. They constituted a well-developed system for the social and sexual control of men and women. During slavery, and later under legal segregation, many African and African American women were sexually coerced and raped by white men, including white sailors, slavemasters, overseers, and employers. Such sexual violence symbolized white male power to everyone in local communities. Under the North American system the children resulting from coerced sexual relations were automatically classified as black, even though they had European ancestry. Indeed, it is estimated today that at least three-quarters of “black” Americans have at least one “white” ancestor. No other U.S. racial group’s physical makeup has been so substantially determined by the sexual coercion and depredations of white men.
Numerous surviving narratives from enslaved women have accounts of such sexual exploitation by white men. For example, in 1850 a prosperous Missouri farmer, Robert Newsom, bought Celia, then a fourteen-year-old, and soon thereafter attacked her. Over the next five years, Newsom sexually attacked her many times, fathering children by her. In summer 1855, when Newsom came to Celia’s cabin to attack her again, she hit him with a stick, and he died. In a travesty of justice, Celia was convicted in a Missouri court of the “crime” and hung in December 1855. Black women typically had no redress for such brutal crimes against them.
One of the most oppressive aspects of U.S. racism lies in this coercive sexual reality, which weaves itself through various manifestations of systemic racism to the present. White men often coerced and raped African American women with impunity during the country’s first three centuries. We clearly much more research and deep discussion of these issues.