With election season in high gear, publishers are releasing book after book about the Obamas. In genealogy circles, the one getting the most coverage is Rachel Swarns’ American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multicultural Ancestors of Michelle Obama, because Megan Smolenyak pointed out the book’s “considerable holes” and over-reliance on “family lore and flimsy evidence.” But there is another new Obama book venturing into genealogical territory, Barack Obama: The Story. It has gotten much attention for the embarrassing letters David Maraniss excerpts to show how a young Obama’s romantic and intellectual pursuits shaped him. But as Jill Lepore argues in a recent New Yorker review, the book’s more provoking questions are about to what degree genealogy made the man.
That Obama’s Kansan mother and Kenyan father should have met at all at the University of Hawaii requires Maraniss to trace both lines to get at the roots of the Dunhams’ wanderlust and the Obamas’ Westernization. “The genealogy of any family involves countless what-if moments,” Maraniss writes. “That is how history works, the history of families as well as the history of nations and movements. Along with with the rational processes of biology and geography, of politics and economics, there come seemingly random connections that spin out profound and unintended consequences.” But, as Lepore points out, are Maraniss’ intentions to make biographical or genealogical connections?
Weird stuff happens. What does it mean? . . . In biography, order is to be found in the journey of life; in genealogy, in lines of descent. In biography, the boy is father of the man. In genealogy, the boy is a leaf on a branch on his family tree . . . [his] origins are inescapable . . . Inheritance is destiny.
In the first case Obama actively works to reconcile his unique identity, arriving at the proud conviction that “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” In the other, with no regard for the man’s agency in how to receive his legacy, “ideological pseudo-historians” (Maraniss) use the genealogical line Obama knew the least to argue that his values are un-American and we’re “being governed according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s” (Dinesh D’Souza).
Let’s take a step back from the incendiary issues of Obama’s real or purported political goals to acknowledge which connections we make in our own lives. Did you forge your own identity, or was it handed to you? I believe that we do genealogy because of the joy in discovering exactly what were the random connections that spun out the most profound consequence of all — us! But in our day-to-day lives, it’s our mental biographies, re-written in the aftermath of each new experience, that record our evolving sense of self.
To me the biography vs. genealogy argument underlying Maraniss’ book deserves more consideration than whether American Tapestry was a correct and complete genealogical study. The latter discussion may make us better genealogists, but the former will make us more thoughtful people.