Commentary: Obama’s Mother’s Complicated Ancestry

Obama’s white mother’s slave ancestry suggests once again that our racial classifications are bunk.

Posted: 08/03/2012 11:21 AM EDT
Stanley Ann Dunham and Barack Obama

(Photo: Facebook)

Despite President Obama being Black, his back-story is more complex than that of many African-Americans because his father is Kenyan. That means that, though he grew up facing the bigotry shown to many Blacks in the United States, what Obama didn’t have in his direct lineage was a history pockmarked by slavery — or so everyone thought. A new study from a group of genealogists shows that not only does Obama have a history of slavery in his direct family line, he’s actually related to America’s first slave. Giving the story even another layer of strangeness is that the president’s slave ancestry exists on his white mother’s side.

 

We’ll allow Ancestry.com, the company that made the incredible finding about Obama, to explain more deeply:

 

President Obama is traditionally viewed as an African-American because of his father's heritage in Kenya. However, while researching his Caucasian mother, Stanley Ann Dunham's lineage, Ancestry.com genealogists found her to have African heritage as well, which piqued the researchers' interest and inspired further digging into Obama's African-American roots.

 

In tracing the family back from Obama's mother, Ancestry.com used DNA analysis to learn that her ancestors, known as white landowners in Colonial Virginia, actually descended from an African man. Existing records suggest that this man, John Punch, had children with a white woman who then passed her free status on to their offspring. Punch's descendants went on to be free, successful land owners in a Virginia entrenched in slavery.

 

John Punch became a slave after trying to escape temporary indentured servitude in 1640. It was then that he was sentenced to slavery for life, thus becoming America’s first slave. And the rest, as the clichéd saying goes, is history.

 

While this is to most people a fascinating bit of info for their next trivia night, what this piece of history also is is more evidence that America’s quest to define race is silly. As we’ve said before, according to geneticist Mark Shriver at Morehouse College, the majority of African-Americans (58 percent) have at least 12.5 percent European blood, and nearly 20 percent have at least 25 percent European blood. Similarly, many so-called white Americans, as Obama’s mother proves, can have African ancestry that you’d never be able to see based on looks alone.

 

It’s time to stop pretending that Americans can be defined by a few racial categories that can encompass everyone. When our first biracial president who considers himself Black but can trace his roots back to a Kenyan father and a white mother who descended from the first Black American slave, you know things have gotten a lot more complicated than any set of modern racial definitions can handle.

 

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

 

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