Saturday, March 03, 2007

A black person descended from slaveowners? Tell me something new


The New York Times reports that Barack Obama's "white maternal ancestors once owned slaves." But the notion that a black American has slaveholding ancestors should hardly surprise anyone. In fact, a significant percentage of American blacks probably have at least one slaveowner as an ancestor. That is because male slaveowners in the South were notorious for taking sexual advantage of female slaves. Indeed, by impregnating black women, they could increase their property, because slave status descended with the mother and the slaveowner owned the children born to his slaves. After emancipation, interracial sex continued, but it was now discouraged in order to preserve a spurious notion of racial purity. In aid of this strategy, Southern states passed laws defining who was white and who was black. The appellant in Plessy v. Ferguson, Homer Plessy, was a white skinned man who was one-eighth black. He was therefore black by law in Louisiana, although he would have been legally white in several other states.

The only thing mildly interesting about the story is that the Times article traced Obama's slaveholding ancestors through his white mother, while most American blacks are probably descended from slaveowners through their African-American parents. The other interesting fact is that because Obama only had one parent born in the United States, he actually may have been less likely than most American blacks to have a slaveholding ancestor.


""The other interesting fact is that because Obama only had one parent born in the United States, he actually may have been less likely than most American blacks to have a slaveholding ancestor."

Given the realities of widespread slavery in Africa, that "fact" strikes me as a bit dubious, unless maybe you meant a white slaveholding ancestor.

It amazes me how we focus so much on common, insignificant trivial characteristics. I don't care what Obama's great-grandma did, I don't really care about his race; I do care about him as a politician, his views, track-record, him as a person. It is no mystery how widespread slavery was, but what the heck does that have to do with Obama. Loose 'facts', as brett pointed out, are hardly the kinds of things a newspaper should be printing. Now, if they reported something about Obama's voting record, that's more like news.

Virtually all Americans, regardless of their race or ethnicity, have ancestors who owned slaves. Many African Americans who researched their family trees would be shocked to discover that have black as well as white ancestors who were slave owners. In the United States, free blacks as well as whites owned slaves (one of the South’s biggest slave owner was a freed black man notorious for his harsh treatment of his slaves). The percentage of free blacks who owned slaves was small, as was the percentages of whites who owned slaves, but the intricacies of the genetic pool guarantee that virtually everyone is related to them. African Americans who traced their heritage back to Africa would discover that virtually all their African ancestors were involved in the slave traded. The African tribes ran the “supply side” of the Atlantic slave trade. The ancestors of Hispanic Americans owned both black and Indian slaves. American Indian tribes practiced slavery both before and after the European discovery of America. The Cherokee Nation, for example, recently voted overwhelmingly to revoke the tribal citizenship of about 2,800 descendants of Cherokee slaves.

Clearthought, yes - and given that it is not uncommon for Americans to be descended from slaveowners, this tidbit of news is not even interesting as gossip.

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