There's the funny (Star-Trek-evoking) name Tribble, and they could forefront some old lady in Georgia who acknowledges that it's hard "to face this kind of thing." And there are those others who "have declined to discuss the matter beyond the closed doors of their homes, fearful that they might be vilified as racists or forced to publicly atone for their forebears."
Said forebears were slaveholders, though the common ancestor was the child of an interracial union that occurred after the Civil War, the former slave who was impregnated lived until 1938 and never said it was rape, the father was probably not the owner but his son (a man "of modest means" who had grown up with her), and some of the descendants say things like "To me, it’s an obvious love story that was hard for the South to accept back then."
The NYT reminds us that former slaves tended to avoid talking about slavery, and: "This willful forgetting pervaded several branches of the first lady’s family tree, passed along like an inheritance from one generation to the next." That is, Michelle Obama herself has nothing to say about her white ancestry.
Why bring this up now? One answer is that there's a book coming out this week — "American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama" — and this article is adapted from it. But that doesn't explain why the NYT would publish a long article and feature it, with a slide-show, in the middle top of its front webpage.
I can't stop myself from presuming that the editors believe this is a story that will help Barack Obama get reelected. But why would this work? Why delve into racial bloodlines? We've been talking about racial bloodlines with respect to Elizabeth Warren (the Senate candidate with a dubious claim to a small percentage of Cherokee ancestry). But that issue isn't helpful to Warren.
I'm going to theorize that the NYT — like some people on Obama's campaign — would like voters to occupy their minds with the subject of race and, especially, to inhabit the emotional narrative of America's trajectory out of a shameful past. This subject is, at the very least, a distraction from the present-day economic woes that plague Obama's second-term ambitions. But it also has the potential to restimulate the 2008-style "hope," which, for many voters, seemed to imbue Obama with the power to heal America's lost-festering racial wounds.
We're not healed yet. And it's not too late to give up the hope that Obama was the answer... even if the dream of racial healing seems to have deteriorated into hackneyed partisan electioneering.