They say you won’t get anywhere in life until you know where you’ve come from.
But for the countless number of African-Americans in this country, the simple act of knowing one’s history is a complicated and painful notion. Painful in the sheer sense that through the bondages of slavery, we have been literally stripped of our roots, and can only trace back to an era of America’s past that most of us would prefer to believe never existed. But it did exist, and it was ugly, and it’s about time we start facing that reality.
A little over two years ago I sat down with Megan Smolenyak from Ancestry.com as we began to track my own personal lineage. In what was one of the most shocking and revealing experiences of my life, I discovered that my own great-grandfather was a slave in rural South Carolina. But what was even more troubling than this horrid confirmation was the fact that my great-grandfather “belonged” to the family of Senator Strom Thurmond. A United States senator, whom I have interacted with, has his family ties with ownership of my own family. What an astonishing concept.
Last week, Ancestry.com released an even more shocking discovery. It too contained a complex story of people sold as property, treated as objects and violated in every sense of the word. But what this newly released research also portrays is the irony and potential for progress in our country if we begin to embrace our past. It’s the remarkable story of our first lady Michelle Obama and her great-great-great grandmother Melvinia Shields, a woman born into slavery, valued at $475 and most likely forced to give birth to three “mulatto” children.
Despite the despicable, vile constraints of slavery, one of Shields’ children eventually went on to own a carpentry business, his own home and established two churches. And in a final twist of irony, this son passed away 14 days before a descendent of his was born. This descendent is now the First Lady of the United States.
Obama, like her trailblazing husband, has not shied away from proudly acknowledging her African-American heritage. And at the same time she has openly discussed some of the nuances and struggles we as Black people have endured and continue to battle. During the days of the campaign she was actually attacked for highlighting some of these blatant issues. But this is a reality that we cannot continue to deny. The ramifications of slavery – including mental oppression, unequal access to fair housing, jobs and education – cannot be dismissed.
Yes, we have achieved greatly. We finally have a Black first family. We are progressing daily. But let’s not forget that there are only a few generations that separate Michelle Obama from the shackles of enslavement. Just as I was amazed to discover my own incredible past, we should all collectively study our nation’s true historical saga so that we may continue to progress beyond it. Progressing beyond it means openly and honestly tackling the plethora of ramifications that it produced so that we may counter produce more Michelle Obamas for years to come.