Review: Michelle Obama's 'American Tapestry' a resonant history

Her husband's family history became the narrative underpinning of his political rise — the white mother from Kansas, the black Kenyan father, the Midwestern grandparents who helped raise Barack Obama.

But for as long as we've known Michelle Obama, she has been simply, irrefutably black — the first descendant of slaves to reside in the White House; a daughter of working-class South Side Chicago.

"American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama" offers up a more complicated story. New York Times reporter Rachel L. Swarns mines 170 years of history to connect the president's wife to her African, Native American and Irish roots.

Swarns traces the family tree of Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama through her four grandparents, whose families migrated to Chicago from Alabama, Kentucky, North and South Carolina.

The book grew out of a New York Times' article Swarns wrote in 2009 about the family's "five-generation journey from bondage to a front-row seat to the presidency." Swarns backtracks through the family line to its maternal matriarch, a slave girl named Melvinia, who gave birth to three mixed-race children. The oldest would become Michelle Obama's great-great grandfather.

The genealogical research was difficult. Swarns had no letters or journals to draw on; many blacks of that era were illiterate because slaves were not taught to write or read. Census records didn't help much; slaves were counted only as property. And living relatives of Michelle Obama seemed to have little to contribute in family lore or memories.

Still, Swarns paints a vivid, intriguing portrait of people whose struggles, losses and triumphs speak volumes about the pull of family and the power of American endurance.

The notion of a black American with hidden white forebears should not come as a shock to readers. Rustle through almost any black family's tree and you'll find a "red-bone" fellow or "high yellow" girl, whose freckles, green eyes or wavy hair testify to race-mixing.

"In the early 1900s the color line could be blurry," Swarns writes. "People didn't always live neatly on one side or the other. Many occupied the space in between, not entirely white, not entirely black."

Based on their fair skin, facial features or wavy hair, census records classify as "mulattoes" several of Michelle Obama's ancestors. Swarns doesn't try to impose a sociological perspective on that. Nor does she suggest that this newly-unearthed legacy helped to shape Michelle Obama. Instead she takes a storyteller's approach, fleshing out dozens of characters and situating them in history.

Sometimes factual gaps cause Swarns to overreach: She can track people's movements, but she can't discern their motives. She chronicles births and deaths, marriage and divorce, but hearts and minds can't be accessed.

So she strains to fill in what she cannot know, cluttering the stories with so much conjecture — "It is possible… He could have… No one knows for sure…" — that at times the narrative moves too slowly.

We don't require the certainty she seeks, nor the nobility she seems determined to bequeath Obama's family members. There's no need to turn these characters into talking points of history. Their stories will resonate with readers for reasons beyond their links to the First Family.

The book unearths a salacious revelation: The man who fathered a child with the slave girl Melvinia was recently identified through DNA testing as the son of the family that owned her. Was it rape or clandestine romance? Swarns puts the questions to everyone she interviews, but it remains unanswered.

But the brief sliver she shares of Melvinia's life offers a piercing illustration of slavery's toll. Melvinia was born in 1844 on a South Carolina plantation. She was valued at $475 in 1852, when her owner died. She was 8 years old.

Her master passed Melvinia along in his will — like the saddles and looms and blacksmith tools — to his daughter and son-in-law in Georgia. Seven years later, Melvinia gave birth. Her master's son, Charles Marion Shields, was apparently her child's father.

That revelation hasn't gone over well in the newly discovered branch of the first lady's family. Some of Charles Shields' descendants wouldn't let Swarns name them in her book or include his photo.

They were troubled not by the genetic link to Michelle Obama, but by their own familial ties to that shameful era as the progeny of slave owners.

"They are on the right side of history and we are not," one of Shield's white great-grandchildren told Swarns. "I don't think there's going to be a kumbaya moment here."

But this book doesn't need a kumbaya moment. It is not about race and reconciliation, but about ordinary families in their untidy glory, and what we can learn by unearthing their stories.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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