Oh, Melvinia!

Posted on 12. Oct, 2009 by in Uncategorized

old-slave-womanA grad student once asked how my last name came to be Murphy.  It was after hours and we were in a packed on-campus pub in central London.  My classmates and I were using cheap liquor to forget another eye-crossing day of theory and lecture so it was a plus to chit-chat with the guy whom we had already marked as a cutie. Until he wanted to talk about rape over red wine and reverie.

I remembered this exchange while reading last week about Michelle Obama’s earliest known maternal ancestor.  Her name was Melvinia Patterson-then-Shields, by transfer of ownership, and we meet her at 6-years-old.  I can’t recall the last time a First Lady’s family history made news but to my mind, the hunt for a slave, no pun intended, is the news.

Even this spray of literary deodorizer:

While she was still a teenager, a white man would father her first-born son under circumstances lost in the passage of time.

couldn’t stop a smile from competing with my critical eye.  A slave had been named not in a moldy academic journal, an historical novel or a segregated-by-default ethnic studies course, but on the front page of the paper of record.  It was like Melvinia, drowned while toiling in the muck of anonymity, had been rescued and made to sit on a porch with a fan in one hand and a mint julep in the other.

But I also bristled (What is there to explain? Why are you going there?) when the article attempts to explain Melvinia’s bi-racial children–to say nothing of those she miscarried. (The rate is 15-20% for a healthy adult woman, today; it must have been higher for enslaved girls and women in the 1850s.)

During slavery, sex between master and slave is typically rape.  Love unions, particularly in the American south though less so in French/Caribbean-influenced New Orleans, would have been rare, not to mention, punishable by law and custom.

2798fSo why does Melvinia’s article omit that point?  Why does it leave open the possibility that she found love with the unknown white father(s?)? Because that, too, is what I hope for my own Melvinias.

Perhaps human wiring leads us to fantasize the least likely scenario, as I do, behind the Scots-Irish and English surnames in my family line. No child of rape or other illicit union, or witnesses to either, wants to revisit how they came to be.  Silence can be a respectful shield.

Especially for my mother’s and grandmother’s generation, looking at your mulatto grand or great-grandparent’s conception is like sensing your way down a dark street. Don’t look left or right, ain’t nothing good growing in those alleys.  Just keep straight.  And of course those generations took their conception stories, if they knew them, straight to their graves.

But, human wiring, I want details.  I want to know who I come from but I’ve settled for the broad stroked history class version–and I expect the white descendants of my Scots-Irish and English branches to have read the same general notes.  It’s not like slavery and colonialism hooked up for a one-night stand; several centuries of the two entwined, birthed modern-day Europe and the Americas.

So I stiffened when that young Englishman asked me, in a slightly pint-laced tone, to explain our common lineage. It felt like a Little Lord Fauntleroy setting up the servant girl who shares his father’s face to describe how she came to be a bastard.  Innocence did not become him.

I instinctively blushed and became defensive.  The question only highlighted his forebears’ success at indoctrinating the myth of apartheid and by extension, white purity–the sacrificial altar at which their mixed race siblings and cousins were sold, hidden, or stripped of their inheritance and legal rights. I don’t recall what I said but I answered generally (“Oh, immigrants from here moved there…”) and briefly (“I’m gonna go see what my girls are up to…”).

My second thought would come later.  At least he had asked and perhaps, with less defensiveness on my part and more conversation, we could finally unearth the details of who, when and where, together.

I expect that in a few weeks time, the New York Times will introduce the country to Michelle Obama’s distant relatives, the white descendants of the Shields of Georgia.  Some of them are probably working the phones even now, calling each other to say, “I think we’re related to the First Lady.”

Call me naïve but I can see, in the hunt for Michelle Obama’s ancestor, the beginnings of a national project to reunite the blood lines of black and white Americans with southern roots.  Would such an endeavor be useful to the country? Especially now, when discord over healthcare and government intervention has renewed racial mistrust?

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