Is President Obama a descendent of the first American slave? According to a team of geneologists, working with Ancestory.com, Obama is an 11th generation descendent of John Punch, an African indentured servant sentenced to slavery. Moreover, these roots come by way of his mother, a white Kansan whose roots contain at least one African forebearer. The New York Times explains:
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. […]
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.
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.
There’s no definitive evidence of John Punch’s enslavement, but the existing records strongly suggest that it was he whose bondage inaugurated the nearly 230-year period of African slavery in America.
If you’re familiar with American racial history, this revelation—that Obama’s white mother descends from a slave—shouldn’t come as a surprise. Consensual interracial relationships are not a new feature of American life, despite the taboo that surrounded them for hundreds of years. And this is to say nothing of the fact that sexual assault (or, at best, sexual coercion) was common among slaveowners, as evidenced by the diversity of skin tones and features among African Americans. The simple fact is that, despite our fairly rigid racial lines, most Americans contain a fair amount of racial diversity in their backgrounds.
Ironically, this discovery makes Obama more ordinary and adds an extraordinary touch to his already-remarkable story: Barack Obama, the first African American president, is also a descendant of the first slave. If this were a movie, I’d mock it as a little too on the nose. But this is real life, and I can’t.