A remarkable history of First Lady Michelle Obama’s mixed ancestry, American Tapestry by Rachel L. Swarns is nothing less than a breathtaking and expansive portrait of America itself.
In this extraordinary feat of genealogical research—in the tradition of The Hemmingses of Monticello and Slaves in the Family—author Swarns, a respected Washington-based reporter for the New York Times, tells the fascinating and hitherto untold story of Ms. Obama’s black, white, and multiracial ancestors; a history that the First Lady herself did not know.
At once epic, provocative, and inspiring, American Tapestry is more than a true family saga; it is an illuminating mirror in which we may all see ourselves.
In this layered, scrupulously researched, and wrenching chronicle, New York Times reporter Swarns takes readers to South Carolina rice plantations, small Georgia farms, and the industrial magnets of Birmingham and Chicago as she weaves robust portraits of first lady Michelle Obama's ancestors. At the core of this family saga is slave girl Melvinia, mother of Dolphus Shields, the first lady's maternal great-great-grandfather. Melvinia never disclosed the paternity of either of her mixed-race sons, and Swarns's research runs up against the inherently hidden aspect of sex across the color line in the slave-holding South. Generations later, the former Michelle Robinson's family remained unclear on the details of her ancestry a subject rarely discussed since the past was obscured by a present-day struggle, and "the experience of bondage was so shameful and painful that they rarely spoke of it." Though Swarns makes little of Obama's reaction to these revelations, she shows that the branches of the first lady's family tree are populated by admirable and fallible people propelled by the currents of race and history, reflecting a core aspect of the African-American experience.