Knowing from the start she would not be able to interview the current first lady, Michelle Obama, journalist and author Rachel L. Swarns knew it would be a challenge to write a book about her genealogy.
“You don’t really ask the first lady for her DNA,” said the author during a talk Monday, June 25, at the Birmingham Public Library (BPL) downtown.
Despite setbacks, Swarns finished her first book, titled American Tapestry, which was published out last week.
The author came to Birmingham yesterday to thank the archives department at BPL – where she did some of her research – and to read from her newly printed book.
Swarns talked to an audience of about 35 very interested people, a few of them which have helped her with her research.
Swarns is a correspondent for the New York Times, covering domestic and national politics. She has also written about immigration, covered two presidential campaigns (2004 and 2008) and written on the role of the first lady at the Obama White House.
The author visited Birmingham before during her research, which started officially in 2008. Here, she found evidence that ended up being instrumental in her discoveries about a family that is very much like many American families.
American Tapestry, she explained, “is not a story about the dead. It’s a story about the living. It’s a sweep of American History.”
Several ancestors traced to the first lady lived in Birmingham. In fact, it was by looking at the records of Baptist churches in town records that Swarns encountered a Birmingham local who not only remembered Mrs. Obama’s great-great-grandfather but had his funeral program.
Not only that, Swarns said, but “the city directory has listings of people who used to live in Birmingham with information about their occupation and address. That way you could track a person as they moved from place to place and changed occupations.” Also, the property directory “described buildings with detail, the roof, the heating it had,” said the author. “You have a wonderful resource here.”
But even though public archives provide a lot of information, Swarn’s research was often fruitless. It was after an unavailing endeavor (“a two-hour hunting,” as the author put) at a Birmingham cemetery that Swarns recovered the inspiration she needed to finish the book. She suddenly realized that she “could not think of a better place to be doing that researching American history.”
The fact that the presidential family does not provide interviews or cotton swabs with their saliva full with their genetic makeup was just one of the challenges Swarns encountered. Any research about slave descendants and mysterious white ancestry would be difficult.
Records of African American slaves were not kept thoroughly, and last names changed a lot, as families settled down in different parts of the country. Swarns used Civil War pensions, destroyed property affidavits and voter registration directories to track down possible ancestors. She also had access to members of Mrs. Obama’s family, who did help her in her research.
“I used 21st century technology to solve 18th century mysteries,” Swarns said about her research with DNA to test her hints of who she thought could be related to Mrs. Obama.
Surprisingly or not, the author came across evidence of Mrs. Obama white, Irish descent. Photos and written documents prove that Mrs. Obama’s mother’s side has white and even Cherokee heritage.
Swarns said that she looked in archives and courthouses in the South, talked to Mrs. Obama’s family members in the North and found that the first lady has “a fascinating family.”
“Some of them worked as slaves in rice plantations in North Carolina, others in smaller cotton plantations in Georgia,” she said. “Some were mixed race and free people, some were Irish and others were runaway slaves.”
Countless hours scanning archive documents, interviewing and writing about Mrs. Obama ancestry resulted not in the genealogy of one ancestry, but in an archetype of American families.
“This is not the story about one family,” said Swarns, “it’s the story about many.”
Helena Corzan is a Weld Local correspondent and has also contributed to the Second Front news and politics blog. Send your feedback to email@example.com.
To learn more about author Rachel L. Swarns and her new book, check out these links
Learn more about Swarn’s and her bio of the first lady at her web site, http://rachelswarns.com.
Swarns was assessed by the New York Times Sunday book review.
NPR offered this report on the book a few days ago on “All Things Considered” at www.npr.org.
Swarns talks about the book in this 2-minute video at www.vimeo.com.