As Barack Obama campaigned for the presidency in 2008, critics charged that he was not “black” enough – that is, that his ancestry did not lead back to US slavery. As the son of a Kenyan man and white American woman, he was assumed to know little about black American lives. But now it appears that our president does have at least one slave ancestor…on his mother’s side. Yes, his mother’s side. The white Kansas woman turns out to be (at least in terms of the one-drop rule) a black woman passing as white.
Researchers have traced Obama’s mother’s family to a slave named John Punch who lived in 17th century Virginia. Punch had a relationship with a white woman, with whom he had children. Those children (and their descendants) passed into white society, obscuring their African ancestry.
If Obama’s mother’s ancestry is traced to a black male, and if we adhere to the one-drop rule, then there is now no question about Obama’s “blackness”: he is “African American” via both his father and mother. And his ancestry is complicated – including Europeans as well as Africans –which makes him just like other American black people.
But the news of Obama’s ancestry tells us something else: the racial divide that has characterized so much of our history did not start with the first European colonist. And racism – including the violence that historically besieged any black man accused of sexual relations with a white woman – is not an inherent human trait. John Punch was not prevented from having children with a white woman. As far as we know, the woman and their children did not suffer unduly because of their connection to an African man. In fact, they became free, white landholders in early Virginia.
On the other hand, Punch was punished for trying to escape indentured servitude. His punishment included whipping and enslavement for life. Historians believe this was the start of slavery as it came to be known in our nation. Whether the enslavement of John Punch was the start of US slavery is not the most important idea. What is important is that his life demonstrates that we (or our ancestors) created the racial hierarchies that plague us today. And anything that was created can be uncreated.
Many people have looked to Barack Obama to solve our racial problems or as a symbol of our racial progress. If we take the lessons of his ancestry to heart, they may be right.