American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama

American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama

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by Rachel L. Swarns
     
 

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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

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Overview

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.

Editorial Reviews

Booklist (starred review)
“A completely fascinating look at the complex ancestry of one family, African Americans, and all Americans.”
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
“The First Family becomes ever more fascinating—and ever more representative of the nation as a whole—in Rachel Swarns’s terrific investigation into the roots of Michelle Obama. . . . This is a most compelling read and more evidence for our interconnectedness as a people.”
James McBride
“A grand, important book that shows how American bloodlines are rarely wholly black or purely white, neither one race nor another. Nowhere is that more true than in American Tapestry, an eloquent history of the First Lady’s family.”
Steven Hahn
“Rachel Swarns has not only excavated, with painstaking care, the family tree that is Michelle Obama’s, but, with great insight and beautiful prose, has revealed the complex, eye-opening, and disconcerting experiences that are America. This is a work of impressive historical imagination and deep cultural significance.”
Janny Scott
“Illuminating. . . . Unforgettable in its sweep and movingly told, American Tapestry has the power to reshape our understanding of the phrase ‘descended from slaves.’”
Fergus M. Bordewich
“In this tour de force of biological sleuthing, Rachel L. Swarns explodes simplistic notions of life and love in the Old South.. . . . Swarns has bestowed upon all Americans a revelatory understanding of our shared racial heritage.”
New York Times Book Review
“Extraordinary. . . . A fascinating account of the First Lady’s family. . . . No political [book] has ever looked like this one.”
USA Today
“Riveting. . . . A microcosm of this country’s story. . . . The real-life saga of struggle, survival, triumph and tragedy serves as an uplifting companion to Alex Haley’s Roots.”
Boston Globe
“Richly detailed. . . . A lushly layered portrait of the nation itself. . . .Swarns weaves a narrative in which massive social changes (slavery, Reconstruction, the Great Migration) and the microscopic details of DNA play equally important roles.”
Los Angeles Times
“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.”
Essence
“A meticulously researched and eloquently written real-life detective story.”
Booklist
"A completely fascinating look at the complex ancestry of one family, African Americans, and all Americans."
Denver Post
“[A] meticulous, detailed investigation into Mrs. Obama’s family tree. . . . American Tapestry holds rewards.”
Upscale Magazine
“Swarns discovers an interesting world that not only helps to define the First Lady’s personal background but is also an essential piece of the fabric that makes up America’s roots. . . . A great glimpse into America’s multicultural foundations.”
Washington Post
“Swarns has unearthed and disseminated crucial American history here. . . . A remarkable, only-in-America story that Swarns tells with care and thoughtfulness. . . . Her passion for the story is clear and striking. . . . This book is a worthy and significant endeavor.”
The New York Times Book Review
…a fascinating account of the first lady's family…No political memoir has ever looked or sounded like this one: the book spans several generations of Mrs. Obama's people and reads like a panorama of black life.
—Edward Ball
The Washington Post
…Swarns has unearthed and disseminated crucial American history here. The journey, over a few hundred years, from house slave to White House is a remarkable, only-in-America story that Swarns tells with care and thoughtfulness…In Mrs. Obama's DNA is both the best and the worst of America, a narrative and a heritage that we need to know and acknowledge. Whether we like it or not, Swarns forces us to take a hard look at that heritage. For that alone, this book is a worthy and significant endeavor.
—Martha Southgate
Publishers Weekly
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. Agent: Philippa Brophy, Sterling Lord Literistic. (June)
Library Journal
New York Times correspondent Swarns outlines the fascinating journeys taken by various ancestors of First Lady Michelle Obama—the people who, across the generations, helped make her who she is today. The author not only presents these accounts but also interleaves them with the story of how she uncovered this information, which began with research for an article she wrote on the subject for the Times. Swarns discovered an ancestor, a slave named Melvinia who had two mixed-race sons. She identifies the descendants, including Michelle Obama and distant relatives who had no idea they were related to the nation's First Lady. Of course, records, no matter the skill in finding them, can tell only so much, and Swarns is very careful to distinguish the known facts from possible explanatory or additional details (e.g., the possible story behind Melvinia's mixed-race pregnancies or likely reasons why a post-Civil War black child might not have been sent to school). VERDICT The result is an engrossing book that demonstrates a lot of research, dedication, and care. Recommended to all readers interested in biographies that employ genealogical research, as well as readers in African American heritage and history. [See Prepub Alert, 12/16/11.]—Sonnet Ireland, Univ. of New Orleans Lib.
Kirkus Reviews
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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780061999871
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
04/09/2013
Pages:
391
Sales rank:
565,412
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.20(d)

What People are saying about this

Janny Scott

“Illuminating. . . . Unforgettable in its sweep and movingly told, American Tapestry has the power to reshape our understanding of the phrase ‘descended from slaves.’”

Fergus M. Bordewich

“In this tour de force of biological sleuthing, Rachel L. Swarns explodes simplistic notions of life and love in the Old South.. . . . Swarns has bestowed upon all Americans a revelatory understanding of our shared racial heritage.”

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

“The First Family becomes ever more fascinating—and ever more representative of the nation as a whole—in Rachel Swarns’s terrific investigation into the roots of Michelle Obama. . . . This is a most compelling read and more evidence for our interconnectedness as a people.”

Steven Hahn

“Rachel Swarns has not only excavated, with painstaking care, the family tree that is Michelle Obama’s, but, with great insight and beautiful prose, has revealed the complex, eye-opening, and disconcerting experiences that are America. This is a work of impressive historical imagination and deep cultural significance.”

James McBride

“A grand, important book that shows how American bloodlines are rarely wholly black or purely white, neither one race nor another. Nowhere is that more true than in American Tapestry, an eloquent history of the First Lady’s family.”

Read More

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