Tuesday, February 24, 2015

American Enough: The Surprising Genealogical Trail of President Barack Obama

 by Nomad

President Obama
Looking into the President's family history is like looking at a snapshot of American history, as far back as the first decades of its colonial period when the disgraceful practice of slavery was being rationalized and legalized.


Back in 2012, several news outlets, including the New York Times, mentioned one interesting side-note about the Barack Obama story. Since his father was Kenyan and his mother was white, it had been long assumed that Obama had, unlike most African Americans no connection to the dark history of slavery. Apparently, this was not the case. 
At least not, however, on his father's side, but on his mother's, it's another story.

The Twist
In fact, if the findings are correct, there was a strong likelihood that Obama's family history was deeply rooted in the story of colonial slavery. While researchers admit their findings are not definitive, they believe that, 
Mr. Obama’s mother had, in addition to her European ancestors, at least one African forebear and that the president is most likely descended from one of the first documented African slaves in the United States.
In fact, the evidence “strongly suggests” that the Obama maternal line stretches back nearly four centuries to a slave in colonial Virginia named John Punch. whom historians consider "first official slave in the English colonies."

The NYT article explains how, through the use of DNA analysis and by combing through marriage and property records, a private family history research company was able to link his mother's family, Dunham, to Mr. Punch. The research found 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,
The Ancestry.com group traced two major Bunch family branches, one that lived as white and stayed in Virginia for generations and another that left for the Carolinas. In North Carolina, the Bunches were recorded as “mulatto” in early records, and their descendants are also the president’s cousins.
The research team spent two years tracing the line from the mixed-race Bunch line as it continued to be recognized more and more as white. Eventually the line became prominent landowners in colonial Virginia.

As the research explained:
Mr. Obama descends from the Virginia branch, which eventually migrated to Tennessee, where his great-great-great-great-grandmother Anna Bunch was born. Her daughter Frances Allred, who was born in 1834, moved to Kansas. Four generations later, in 1942, with the family still in Kansas, Mr. Obama’s mother was born.
Ultimately though the theory is tantalizing it is also inconclusive. The records which could absolutely resolve the question of the Punch link were destroyed a long time ago.
For this reason, the research team carefully worded their findings after consulting two independent genealogists. Both said that while the results could not be certain, the case the research team had made was "solid."

Despite this necessary crumb of doubt, modern DNA science does suggest that the Bunches had a sub-Saharan African heritage. The Ancestry.com paper said the Bunches’ particular DNA profile was common in Cameroon. Records show a very small number of Africans were living in Virginia in the mid-1600s.

Mr. John Punch, however, was not just any black slave. If the research is accurate then President Barack Obama would be a descendant- actually the 11th great-grandson-  of the first enslaved African in America.
  
From Servant to Slave
The very early settlers that came to the New World brought with them, in addition to their high frilly collars and Puritanism, a rigid class system as well. The well-to-do may have arrived by their own means but there was another class of immigrant who paid for their passage across the ocean by becoming a indentured servant or a agricultural laborer. 
The terms of the indenture varied but it was always seen- at least for Christian Europeans- as a kind of limited contract. 

Of course, the line between servitude and slavery (and even the later wage slavery) has always been debated by historians.
Historians say there was a trade in human labor, of both whites and blacks, during this period in American history. There were also some free African-Americans. Beginning around 1617, indentured servants were bought and sold, as were debtors, in the Chesapeake Bay region, said Ira Berlin, a University of Maryland professor and expert in the history of slavery. But while those people were in an “unfree condition,” he said, historians cannot pinpoint a date for the beginning of the slave trade.
American historian John Hope Franklin points out:
“The status of these first Negroes is not at all certain. In all probability the first were, as in the case of Virginia, servants bound to masters for a definite number of years. The desirability of a permanent labor force led to the establishment of slavery by custom before it was firmly entrenched by legal recognition.“
Most historians agree that by 1640 there existed both free blacks and enslaved blacks. The institution of slavery evolved over time with the Slave Codes which eventually gave slave holders absolute power over their permanently indentured slaves. 

The Puritan Principle
By 1682, Virginia had legislated slavery into a formally recognized institution based not on the color of a person's skin but by religion.
“Act I. It is enacted that all servants [...] which shall be imported into this country either by sea or by land, whether Negroes, Moors, mulattoes or Indians who and whose parentage and native countries are not Christian at the time of their first purchase by some Christian [...] and all Indians, which shall be sold by our neighboring Indians, or any other trafficking with us for slaves, are hereby adjudged, deemed and taken to be slaves to all intents and purposes any law, usage, or custom to the contrary notwithstanding.”
The connection between Christian faith and slavery shouldn't surprise us. In fact, the acceptance of slavery was always part of the Puritan baggage, arriving with the earliest New England settlers. This religious rationalization for slavery was related to something called Puritan Hebraicism

This was a principle of the Puritan sect which sought to return to a stricter version of Christianity based on Old Testament teachings. According this thought, a slave -based not on the color of skin per se-  was as divinely acceptable as Jewish slavery of the Old Testament. 

A professor of history and renowned writer on the history of slavery, Winthrop Jordan characterizes this early legislation :
“as early as 1641 the Puritan settlers were seeking to guarantee in writing their own liberty without closing off the opportunity of taking it from others whom they identified with the Biblical term, ‘strangers.'"
Of course, the idea that some of us are masters and some of us are slave is deeply entrenched in the history of humanity. (Even the Greek philosopher Aristotle approved.) The Puritan rationalization was, historians could argue, more of a matter of cynical expediency (from economic necessity and chronic labor shortage)  than any religious precept.
Whatever the case, based on this religious excuse-making, other laws were eventually written in 1641 and I643 which effectively changed the status of the slave, not as a temporary servant, but as a form of property.  
American historian John Hope Franklin points out:
“The status of these first Negroes is not at all certain. In all probability the first were, as in the case of Virginia, servants bound to masters for a definite number of years. The desirability of a permanent labor force led to the establishment of slavery by custom before it was firmly entrenched by legal recognition.“
That then leads us to the story of Mr. John Punch.

Fugitives on the Run
Around 1640, it was recorded that one indentured servant from Virginia, Mr. John Punch, an African,escaped from his place of employ along with two white servants. These three had been working for a farmer named Hugh Gwyn, Gwyn was a man of considerable influence, being a wealthy landowner, a justice of the peace in 1641 Later, Gywn became one of the few members of the House of Burgesses, representing Charles River County (which would become York County in 1642).

The Virginia House of Burgesses was the first legislative assembly of elected  representatives  in North America. The assembly- a crude form of government- was in fact established by a joint stock corporation, the Virginia Company, which had been chartered by James I on 10 April 1606.

In this light, the powerful landowners with their plantations and their slaves and the men who wrote and enforced the laws were essentially one and the same. Hugh Gwyn was, in other words not the kind of man, you'd want to cross.

The fugitive trio fled north to Maryland where they were later found and put on trial. In July of 1640, the Virginia Governor's Council sentenced the two white servants to return to their indentured status with an additional four years of servitude.  

However, for John Punch, in addition to the whipping the court sentenced him to serve out the remainder of his life as a servant without any chance for freedom. The distinction between white justice and black justice is clear by the language of the court's judgement. John Punch was ordered to "serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural Life here or elsewhere."  (His "assigns" presumably meant Gywn's sons or anybody willing to become Punch's new master.)
  
(Interestingly, the laws in Virginia in 1662 established that the status of child born to slave and free entirely depended on the status of the mother. This could explain how Mr.Punch's line transitioned from slave to free citizen. The name of John Bunch’s wife is not known, but the fact that his great-grandchildren were able to freely marry white neighbors suggests that she was white.)

For this reason, the court's sentencing of John Punch marks a shift from servitude to slavery. One writer, John Russell, gave this definition of slavery of this place and period.
The difference between a servant and a slave is elementary and fundamental. The loss of liberty to the servant was temporary; the bondage of the slave was perpetual.
Servants could- at least in theory- look forward to a time free of bondage. A slave could not. And his children could not.

On this basis, many historians consider Mr. Punch the colonies first legally- recognized negro slave.
The fact that President Obama, the first black president, can be linked to this man is rather stunning when you think about it.

Who is American Enough?
To make the allegation that President Obama is not American, in the literal or figurative sense, is ridiculous and a testimony of the ignorance and desperation of his opposition.
If the research is true, his maternal line incorporated both the white and black experience in a very real way.

Attempting to claim that Obama is "the other" - or to go back to the Puritan label "a stranger"- is clearly based on his skin color. Nothing else. That's why it is more than just offensive. It is ignorant. Obama's family on his mother side has been in the country long before the country was even formed. 
It's fair to say that President Obama's heritage encompasses the entire American story. 

Kansas Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp recently asserted that the president was "not a man educated in our American system." Would he say the same thing about Canadian-born Ted Cruz? Cruz's father was a Cuban who fought alongside Fidel Castro. Is that the kind of education Huelskamp is referring to?
What does the phrase "American system" even mean?
Would Mr. Huelskamp say the same thing about junior United States Senator from Florida Marco Rubio who himself is a second generation Cuban American? Or what about Governor Bobby Jindal? From which school did he get his education in being American?  

The question ultimately boils down to who has the authority to decide who is American enough to be president? 
That's easy to answer. The president supplied us with the proper response in the State of the Union address. It is up to the American people to determine. And they did decide.. two times.

Ironically, researcher found another irony  about the Ms. Dunham’s Bunch ancestors. In addition to being related the first official slave, the line also had a son who fought on the side of the rebel Confederacy in the Civil War.

How American is that?


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