Michelle Obama’s White Family History: Confronting the Historical Reality of Rape in the Lives of Enslaved Women and Girls

—Kidada E. Williams

On June 17, The New York Times ran “Meet Your Cousin, the First Lady: A Family Story, Long Hidden,” an article by Rachel L. Swarns, the author of American Tapestry, a new book that traces Michelle Obama’s genealogy. Two foci of the article that stand out are the “discovery” of Mrs. Obama’s distant white relatives and the discomfort that many of the people whom the author interviewed have about the nature of the sexual relations between the male slaveholders and the women and girls they enslaved. That these issues still surprise some Americans reveals how little most people know about slavery. Swarns’s engagement with the first lady’s ancestral connections to slavery struck a chord with many—and also presents an opportunity to educate Americans on the sexual violence of chattel slavery.

Swarns’s description of her interviews with Mrs. Obama’s black and white kin through her great-great-great grandmother, an enslaved girl named Melvinia, reveal a segregated knowledge of their familial ties to the institution. The white relatives did not know their ancestors were slaveholders but the black relatives knew well their families’ ties to slavery. The interviewees revealed additional differences in their reactions to learning that Melvinia had children with a white slaveholding man named Charles Shields. Shields’s descendants were shocked and looked to Melvinia’s continued residency in Shields’s home and her bearing two more children by him after slavery as evidence of an “obvious love story.” Melvinia’s descendants had less whimsical reactions, suggesting they suspected that there were more sinister historical forces at play in the relationship.

The article’s coverage of the relationship between Melvinia and Shields suggests that many readers will hope that Melvinia’s relationship with Shields was consensual. Swarns indulges these fantasies in describing sexual relations like those between Melvinia and Shields as “forbidden liaisons across the racial divide.” What the author and some of her interviewees share with many Americans is a limited understanding about how integral rape and sexual coercion were to the enslavement of black women and girls.

Although slavery is accurately described as an economic system, it was not the mere theft of labor that made slavery horrible. Slavery was horrific because of what masters, societies, and governments did to steal that labor, which included purchasing Africans, transporting them across the Atlantic against their will, and then stripping them and their descendants of many of the rights and protections generally offered to human beings in a society. Beyond this, violence was so inherent to slavery that most enslaved people who related their experiences of bondage in slave narratives or in WPA interviews addressed it. One specific type of violence that was discussed by many enslaved people, but is unknown to many Americans today, is slaveholders’ rape and sexual exploitation of black girls and women.

Slaveholding men tapped into a long tradition of systematic rape and sexual coercion as weapons of subjugation. Sexual violence is an effective tool in subjugating groups of people because it scythes through the social fabric of a community, affecting not only the physical bodies and emotional souls of direct victims but also the social and cultural ties of their families and communities. White men’s use of rape, to satisfy their sexual lust and as a tool in conditioning black girls and women to accept chattel slavery, were so much a part of the daily lives of most enslaved girls and women that it is likely that Melvinia and her enslaved relatives knew it well. Indeed, this violence became so ingrained in the cultures of racial subjugation that it took the changes of the nation’s political and legal cultures brought on by the civil rights movement to stop many white men from embracing a tradition of assuming and asserting sexual authority over black women and girls.

One of the most important references for historical knowledge on rape and sexual coercion in slavery is Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs’s illumination of “the trials of girlhood (her initiation to sexual exploitation and the threat of rape by her master at the age of fifteen);” “perilous passage of a slave girl’s life (her master’s escalation of his efforts to get her to consent to sex and use of physical violence when she continued to resist);” “ties and links to life (the ways the birth of her children made her want to live and fight);” and “continued persecution (ongoing sexual stalking that finally made Jacobs take flight),” ignited in women’s historians a fire to investigate women’s unique experiences of slavery (see suggested reading list). [JN1] Mining other narratives, historians discovered an astonishing amount of information on the commonality of sexual violence against enslaved girls and women, which included not only rape but also sexual coercion—extorting sexual consent by offering favors or using threats.

Although enslaved people left a rich history of the rape and sexual exploitation of women and girls, individual members of the slaveholding class rarely documented it. Publicly, they denied any sexual relations. Privately, many who acknowledged master-slave sex, spun tales of lascivious Jezebels and helpless men who could not resist flagrant sexual offers. Historical records—slave narratives; a large mixed race population; courts that refused to punish white on black rape; congressional testimonies; some slaveholders’ diaries and journals—tell a different story.

Is it possible that Melvinia stayed with Shields of her free will and that she and Shields shared mutual love and affection? Yes. However, one could ask, if Shields really loved Melvinia and didn’t need to assert more patriarchal authority over her than was typical of relationships between whites, then why he didn’t teach her to read and write or free her and her children before abolition? The racialized power dynamics created by slavery and Jim Crow makes it difficult to ignore the fact that few black women and girls could refuse sex with white men without risking punishment, rape, or death.

African Americans resisted rape and sexual coercion the best they could. Families tried to shield girls by teaching them to avoid white men and boys. Women fought back, ran away, and consented to sex to avoid physical injury or death. Men retaliated against the known or suspected perpetrators, to which white men responded with such deadly force that some women and girls avoided telling men about rape to save their lives. Despite any attempt of resistance, the racial hierarchy meant that blacks could not stop rape and sexual exploitation from occurring. White men’s widespread beliefs about black women’s and girls’ sexual availability—and laws and customs that upheld their right to treat black people in virtually any way they wanted to—prohibited black people from testifying in court. The most then that blacks could do was to help victims heal.

When slavery ended, whites handled their historical knowledge of the history of sex between white men and black girls and women in ways that resonate in Americans’ collective memories of slavery today. The white men who abused enslaved women and girls continued to treat black females as sexual prey, which made it possible for them to use rape as a force in establishing and upholding Jim Crow. Similarly, the white women who turned deaf ears and blind eyes to white men’s exploitation of women and girls continued to do so, often telling themselves and anyone who would listen that the sex was consensual. When slavery and Jim Crow became taboo, others ended sexual predation and silenced discussion, which allowed this knowledge to slip from the white American collective memory. When presented today with evidence of slavery’s and Jim Crow’s sexual horrors, many whites are shocked but others, especially those engaging their ancestors, dissemble or look for romantic love.

Like whites, blacks dealt with their historical knowledge of sexual violence and slavery in ways that echo with what people know today. Some freed people’s feelings of shame and fears of reprisal led many to silence discussions about white-on-black rape and the parentage of children born of coercive sex. Nevertheless, the fact that African Americans had to live with the consequences of coerced sex during slavery and Jim Crow meant that more of them passed on knowledge to their descendants. Some cannot bear to imagine an ancestor being enslaved and subjected to systematic rape and avoid the issue. But others who engage black history are more proficient in their knowledge of slavery and have better understandings of rape as a weapon of racial subjugation.

Edward Ball’s NYT review quoted Mrs. Obama as saying of her family’s history of slavery that, “A lot of times these stories get buried, because sometimes the pain of them makes it hard to want to remember.” As difficult as it may be for Americans to engage the sexual terror women and girls faced in slavery, it is important that we do so. The failure to call by name the likely rape or sexual exploitation of enslaved women and girls and to confront with historical truth fantasies of romantic love between masters and slaves dishonors enslaved people’s struggles to maintain their humanity and dignity. There are also larger implications. If the history of sex between white slaveholding men and the black girls and women they enslaved can be stripped of historical truth and spun into “obvious love stories” or “forbidden liaisons,” then the next logical step—especially for slavery’s past, present, and future apologists—is the fallacy that slavery wasn’t a horrible institution.

Kidada E. Williams is the author of They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I. She is Associate Professor of History at Wayne State University where she teaches African American history. You can follow her on Twitter @kidadaewilliams.

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