A New York Times reporter carefully tracks the complex genealogy of Michelle Obama.
Originally emerging from Swarns’ reporting for the Times, this intensive research work pursues numerous Southern ancestors on both maternal and paternal sides who eventually ended up in Chicago by the 1930s looking for new opportunity. The key forebear here, the “mystery of Michelle Obama’s roots,” is a slave woman named Melvinia, who worked on a farm in the mid 1800s in Jonesboro, Ga., where she eventually bore several children whose father was white. After the Civil War, Melvinia stayed on in Jonesboro and had several more biracial children, until she moved away in the mid 1870s. Her older son, Dolphus, became a Baptist deacon and a successful citizen, while his grandson Purnell, having relocated with his mother to Chicago in the 1920s, plunged into the integrated South Side’s scene of swinging jazz. On the other side, Swarns follows the intriguing life’s wanderings of Mrs. Obama’s great-grandmother, Phoebe Moten, born in 1879 in Villa Ridge, Ill., the daughter of sharecroppers and freedmen who had joined the general exodus north during or after the Civil War to flee the blighted opportunity and increasing racial violence that characterized the South. Yet the hope of finding a measure of freedom and prosperity in cities like Chicago didn’t always occur, as in Phoebe’s case: She and her husband, James, an itinerant minister, and their numerous children struggled to reach the middle class only to be dragged down again by racial antagonism and the Depression. Swarns provides numerous tales of heartbreak and achievement, many of which essentially make up the American story.
Elegantly woven strands in a not-so-easy-to-follow whole, but tremendously moving.