After covering Michelle Obama during her first year in the White House, New York Times reporter Rachel L. Swarns said she jumped at the opportunity to chronicle the first lady's family history.
"As the first African American first lady, people were enormously interested," Swarns said.
And, Obama, a descendant of the South, proved an interesting subject to research and write about. In the two years that she spent on the book, American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama, Swarns traveled to graveyards in Alabama, courthouses in South Carolina, libraries in Illinois and a myriad of other places, poring over any information available about Obama's relatives, deceased or alive.
"What was most compelling to me was that you can really see the story of this country through the lens of her family,” Swarns said. “You have slavery, emancipation, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, migration… It's the first lady's story, but so many people see their own stories in it."
Swarns appeared Dec. 8 at Prince George’s Community College in an event that was organized by four local chapters of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society. As researchers and genealogy buffs, they were eager to learn about Swarns' experiences researching Obama’s life and to share theirs.
Charles Howard, president of the James Dent Walker chapter in Washington, D.C. and immediate past president of the national organization, said he felt Swarns did an admirable job tracing the first lady's history.
"For a nongenealogist, she was able to review a wide variety of source materials, including the ones we most often use–vital records, census documents, land records, news articles and court records,” Howard said. “One of things I was most impressed with was how she was able to uncover so much in such a short period of time."
What emerged from Swarns' research is a story that traces Obama's lineage starting with her four grandparents and moving backwards through their family history. On her maternal side, a central figure was her great-great-great grandmother Melvinia, the Georgia slave girl who bore the sons of a White man that she chose never to identify. Melvinia never left Georgia, even after freedom came her way. On Obama’s paternal side, the book details her great-grandmother Phoebe, who dreamed of a better life and struck out from Villa Ridge, Ill., a small farming town, just before her 20th birthday.
The author readily admits that she is not a genealogist but says that she found herself completely drawn into the process of researching Obama's family history.
"I'd never done this kind of historical research in terms of records as a journalist before or as an individual, and I just loved, loved, loved it. I never imagined that I would find myself so mesmerized by it," Swarns said.
Because the first lady will not give interviews for book projects, her thoughts are not reflected in Swarns’ work, though the author did interview several relatives.
Swarns said some White relatives found discomfort in discussing or even thinking of an ancestor as a slaveholder, especially with a Black woman writer. Others, both Black and White, preferred to embrace a "culture of silence," and had no interest in dredging up the past. Some chose not to discuss the past as a way "to protect and shield their children from the difficulties of the past."
Even though those encounters created a few problems, Swarns said she forged ahead, recovering information from as many sources as possible, including records and historical documents. The fact that some of the information will never be made available and that many questions will remain unanswered served more as a revelation for her than a deterrent.
"It just made me more keenly aware of how important it is for us to talk to the older people in our families before it's too late,” Swarns said, “and also for us to share what we know with our children and grandchildren."
The publication of Swarns' book, which has received positive reviews, has stoked an already white-hot interest among African Americans in researching their genealogy. The publication of Alex Haley's Roots, in 1976, stirred the pot, generating curiosity about family lines that created a rebirth of family reunions and like gatherings.
Swarns learned something about herself during her research. During a trip to the Newberry Library in Chicago, the author was looking through a book of voter registration records from North Carolina in the 1860s. She was attempting to trace the first of Obama’s relatives in that state to have registered to vote.
“Unfortunately, I didn't find any of her relatives listed there, but I did find my great-great-great-grandfather, who registered to vote in [North Carolina] in 1867, two years after slavery ended,” she said. “And, it is the oldest record that I have now for that side of the family, my father's side
of the family."
As Swarns reflects on her journey through Obama's family's past, she hopes that her book will inspire people to talk more openly about slavery and its legacy and to look into their own family stories.
"I wrapped up this research feeling that we all have amazing stories in our families. All we have to do is start digging to find them."
To view additional family photos and obtain tips for tracing your family's history, visit the author's website at http://rachelswarns.com/.
American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama} was published by Amistad Books. It is available at bookstores, on Amazon.com and as an ebook.