March of history

by Michael O. Allen on November 17, 2008

I found this story, From slave cabin to White House, a family rooted in black America, published by the Times of London, over the weekend and could not get over it.

As an immigrant to this country, I cannot claim to know what African-Americans who have slaves for ancestors must feel at this barrier-shattering historic moment. I know how I feel and the hope it gives me about the future of my children in particular, about our society in general, and especially the world.

I have been trying to collect my thoughts on all that, which I’ll share in a future post.

Meanwhile, it is interesting that the Times, a British newspaper, published this story about Michelle Obama’s family. I have not a read a comparable piece of journalism in an American newspaper.

Over almost four centuries, countless Africans were chained in slave ships for the dreaded “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic. Although there is no definitive total, Unesco estimates that 14,270,000 Africans were sold into slavery in the New World. By the time of the American Revolution, one out of five people in the Colonies was a slave, and the majority of people in South Carolina were black (African-Americans now make up about an eighth of the US population). So many slaves were shipped to South Carolina’s Lowcountry that the region is sometimes described as the Ellis Island of African-Americans – a reference to the immigration station in New York harbour that processed tens of millions of new arrivals from Europe – and that Mrs Obama can trace her family back to this area shows the extent of her African-American roots. Her husband has called her “the most quintessentially American woman I know” and her lineage could displace that of Alex Haley, the author of Roots, as the model of the African-American experience.

The Friendfield Plantation dates to 1733 when John Ouldfield received a 630-acre land grant along the Sampit River. James Withers, a wealthy brickmaker, indigo planter and rice farmer from Charleston, bought the property the following year and it remained in his family until 1879. Before the civil war, rice cultivation in South Carolina made plantation owners immensely rich – the port of Georgetown even shipped its “Carolina Gold” to China – and the convention is that slaves provided only labour, but recent academic research has revised this view. In her book Black Rice, Professor Judith Carney argues that slaves from the “Rice Coast” of West Africa taught their owners much of how to grow the crop. An early newspaper advertisement in Charleston, for example, offered for sale 250 slaves “from the Windward and Rice Coast, valued for their knowledge of rice culture”.

History does not record how Jim Robinson arrived on the Friendfield Plantation. Research by The Washington Post shows that he was born in about 1850 and suggests that he lived on the plantation as a slave until the civil war. The 1880 census describes him living near the plantation’s white owners as an illiterate farmhand with a three-year-old son, Gabriel. A second son, Fraser, Mrs Obama’s great-grandfather, was born in 1884.

I won’t talk here about the role of the British in the slave trade. Instead, I want us, as we reckon with this historic moment, to recognize where this march of history has brought Michelle Obama, her children, her us, and our nation.

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