The New York Times previewed a study on Monday that was later made public by the genealogy site, Ancestry.com, that suggests but does in no way definitely proves that Obama may be “descended from one of the first documented African slaves in the United States. ”
As the splashy headline the Times used (“Obama Has Ties to Slavery Not By His Father but His Mother, Research Suggests”) indicates that ancestor — one America’s first black slaves — is allegedly on his white mother’s side of the family.
The Times noted that the Ancestry.com study was “lacking definitive proof” but gave the story its mainstream media seal of approval anyway. While its influence is greatly diminishing in the new media age, The New York Times still serves as an assignment desk for many in the legacy media, and a multitude of organizations followed the Times in reporting on Obama’s “slave” roots. National outlets like CNN featured the story on television.
The conversation that ensued is significant because it directly helps Obama with black voters, some of whom think Obama — who, until now (and allegedly so, at that), did not have any direct ties to black slaves — does not fully share with them the experience and history of being “Black in America.”
That Obama may actually be linked to one of the country’s first black slaves — and through his mom, no less — gives him a bit more credibility with black voters, whose turnout Obama will need if he is to win reelection.
In fact, Obama’s lack of definite ties to the shared experiences of America’s black community — which inextricably have links to America’s original sin of slavery — has been a constant source of insecurity in his life, as he attended foreign schools abroad and elite prep schools (Punahou) in Hawaii — far from the shared “black experience” in America.
This insecurity drove Obama, as he was evolving to become the politician he is, to embrace scholars like Derrick Bell, the godfather of “Critical Race Theory,” and head to Chicago’s South Side and Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church in order to have firmer — and more authentic — ties to the black experience in America.
Still, in 2006 — two years after Obama won his Illinois Senate seat and was considering running for president — the liberal black columnist Stanley Crouch wrote a column titled: “What Obama Isn’t: Black Like Me On Race.”
Crouch observed that one “fascinating subplot” of Obama’s 2004 Illinois Senate race between Obama and Alan Keyes was how “Keyes was unable to draw a meaningful distinction between himself as a black American and Obama as an African-American.”
After all, Obama’s mother is of white U.S. stock. His father is a black Kenyan. Other than color, Obama did not – does not – share a heritage with the majority of black Americans, who are descendants of plantation slaves.
Crouch then wrote that “when black Americans refer to Obama as ‘one of us,’ I do not know what they are talking about,” and he asserted Obama has not “lived the life of a black American.”
The New York Times story helps Obama with blacks who may still harbor some of Crouch’s sentiments about Obama’s “blackness.”
According to the Ancestry.com claims, Obama’s family tree on his mother’s side allegedly “stretches back nearly four centuries to a slave in colonial Virginia named John Punch.”
As the Times explains:
In 1640, Mr. Punch, then an indentured servant, escaped from Virginia and went to Maryland. He was captured there and, along with two white servants who had also escaped, was put on trial. His punishment — servitude for life — was harsher than what the white servants received, and it has led some historians to regard him as the first African to be legally sanctioned as a slave, years before Virginia adopted laws allowing slavery.
The Times then again concedes there is no definitive proof:
But the research left open a question: Was John Punch, the slave, a Bunch ancestor? Because records have been destroyed, there is no definitive proof.
Two independent genealogists, Elizabeth Mills, who specializes in Southern genealogy, and Johni Cerny, who specializes in black ancestry, both said, “there was no way to be certain of the Punch-Bunch connection” but said Ancestry.com made a solid case.
Still, the Times details how Ancestry.com came about their conclusions:
The Ancestry.com team used DNA analysis to make the connection, and it also combed through marriage and property records to trace Mr. Obama’s maternal ancestry to the time and place where Mr. Punch lived. The company said records suggested that Mr. Punch fathered children with a white woman, who passed her free status on to those children, giving rise to a family of a slightly different name, the Bunches, that ultimately spawned Mr. Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham.
Despite not having “definitive proof,” Ancestry.com made its conclusions based on similar surnames and the Bunch family’s having sub-Saharan African heritage:
The surnames were similar. There was DNA evidence showing that the Bunches had sub-Saharan African heritage. And a very small number of Africans were living in Virginia in the mid-1600s. All that convinced the team that the nation’s first black president was descended from Mr. Punch.
Obama’s fate in 2012 may be determined by how enthusiastically black voters turn out to the polls for him.
As CNN noted, a recent Gallup Poll found 89% of blacks supported Obama while 5% supported Romney. But in 2008, Obama received 95% of the black vote while 4% voted for John McCain.