Does Accuracy in History Matter? The Case of 'American Tapestry' and Michelle Obama's Ancestors

Perhaps many reading this will consider me a relic to place so much weight on accuracy. If so, I suppose it's an occupational hazard as a genealogist's worth is measured largely in credibility, but what do you think?
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I reviewed American Tapestry, a book about Michelle Obama's ancestors by Rachel Swarns, a couple of weeks ago, but with the release imminent, a number of articles associating me with the book have appeared, necessitating some clarification. In 2009, I spent eight months researching the first lady's family tree back four or five generations on all branches. A portion of my findings found their way to the front page of the New York Times in an article by Ms. Swarns and Jodi Kantor, while considerably more of my discoveries were shared online. And as can be seen from these blue flags indicating snippets of my research, quite a bit also turned up in American Tapestry, which is why I'm uniquely situated to comment on the book.

American Tapestry by Rachel Swarns includes many details first unearthed by Megan Smolenyak in 2009 (as shown by post-its)

In my previous review, I shared my disappointment that so little new information had been uncovered during the past two years and my bafflement over the exclusion of more than a third of Mrs. Obama's ancestry, including the minimal attention given to southern Virginia, the region that holds more of her heritage than any place else. And that, I thought, was that, but a recent article by the author has unexpectedly pulled me back to remark further.

It Wasn't Me!

In preparation for the book's release, Ms. Swarns published a piece in the New York Times featuring the use of DNA testing to confirm the long-suspected link of Dolphus Shields (a second great-grandfather) and his mother Melvina to the Shields family that once owned Melvina. In short, the father of Dolphus appears to have been Charles Marion Shields, whose mother inherited Melvina from her father's estate. To many, this is no surprise. It is, in fact, a depressingly familiar tale to those of us who dwell in the genealogical world.

For a number of reasons, the emphasis on this part of the first lady's family history has led to the impression that I was involved. Perhaps it's because some kindly recall my original research or are aware of my long-time involvement with genetic genealogy. During the last election cycle, I traced Barack Obama's roots to Moneygall, Ireland, so the Irish origins of this Shields family may have caused some to assume that I had done the same for his wife. But in spite of the fact that my research is evident throughout and Ms. Swarns briefly mentions me as "the genealogist who discovered Melvinia and Dolphus Shields and many other ancestors of Michelle Obama," I did not participate in this book. In essence, my original research produced a road map that the author followed, but I didn't go on the journey with her.

It's true that as the co-author of a popular book on genetic genealogy, I'm well-versed in how to use DNA testing to confirm or refute whispered family tales, and as an Irish-American genealogist, I enjoy ferreting out previously hidden Irish heritage in the family trees of notables, but this case is different. I'll confess that I was sorely tempted to delve into genetic testing to solve the Shields and other family riddles. After all, I've done it on my own and a number of other families, ranging from the Haleys (of Roots fame) to Cory Booker's, but in those instances, the principals were aware of the testing. And though I'm a strong proponent of genetic genealogy, I ultimately could not make my peace with DNA testing a sitting first family by proxy (that is, by testing distant cousins). As to Mrs. Obama's apparent Irish heritage, it cannot be ignored that the circumstances are entirely different from her husband's, so my usual tendency to celebrate such a discovery is considerably dampened, even though my own mother was also a (non-related) Shields of Irish ancestry.

How Much Speculation Is Okay?

There's a curious parallel between my presumed participation in this book and my biggest concern about American Tapestry, and that's that they both involve our tendency to jump to conclusions -- and that, in turn, affects accuracy. If something seems plausible and comes from what's regarded as a reliable source, people will often believe it - which explains why media outlets from three countries have reached out to me as I've been writing this. In my case, the misunderstanding is easy to rectify, but what about the book which will leave a far more permanent imprint?

I alluded to this concern in my earlier review when I mentioned "areas of confusion and leaps of faith" and noted "an element of wishful thinking and embellishment that wasn't necessary given how fascinating the first lady's family story is on its own merits." Since then, Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family, has raised similar issues in his review:

Another problem is the heavy use of plot points that "probably" happened. In the absence of letters and written remembrance, Swarns relies too much on the conditional mood. Characters "would have," "could have" and "may have" done things, until speculation becomes a stylistic tic.

At what point does such intensive speculation become misleading and how much responsibility does the writer of a book of this nature have to accurately portray events? Being so well acquainted with Michelle Obama's family tree, I immediately spotted places where the author ventured off the road map and into fields of family lore and flimsy evidence. For instance, a chapter titled "Exodus" explores the Moten branch's escape from slavery -- not surprisingly, one of the more compelling chapters of the book. Just one problem: she never proves that it happened.

A browse of the end notes reveals that the "substantiation" is a combination of family lore provided by one individual and an 1870 census record. This 1870 document records a child in the family as having been born around 1863 in Illinois, suggesting that they may have been in this free state before Emancipation -- but there's no mention of the multiple documents for this same person indicating that she was born in Kentucky, which was a slave state at the time. So is the story true or not? It's hard to say.

One of the most frustrating aspects of genealogical research is that proof often eludes us, and family lore is a shaky edifice upon which to construct our history (the fact that this same chapter discusses possible Cherokee heritage, again based purely on family lore, should cause even non-genealogists to raise an eyebrow). So does this mean this story shouldn't be included? Not necessarily, but is it reasonable to lavish an entire chapter on an alleged escape from slavery, leaving readers the impression that it actually happened?

While I've scratched my head over the recent trend of trying to hold public figures like Marco Rubio and Elizabeth Warren accountable for the veracity of inherited family lore (you'd be surprised how many Americans are convinced that they're part Cherokee or that their names were changed at Ellis Island simply because Grandpa said it was so), it seems sensible that anyone writing a family history book for public consumption should make every effort to aim for the truth. Why would the standard be higher for those who unwittingly inherit embellished tales than for those who write books about them?

Of Strivers and Schmucks

Edward Ball also remarked on another pattern I noticed in the book:

A drawback of the book is that Mrs. Obama's ancestors are presented as having an obsession with uplift. They seem always to be seeking and striving. ... Personal journeying is not what ordinary folks, swamped with work and kids and grief and laughter -- and weighed down by the additional burden of racism -- have tended to do. Striving is a sentiment we like to project back onto the dead.

While I agree with Mr. Ball, I think the author is simply following a trend I wish we could find a way to put the brakes on. Having worked on a number of TV shows, I'm struck by the frequent sanitization of history and herofication of our ancestors. As someone who mucks about in genealogy on a daily basis, let me tell you the truth. Some of our ancestors were noble and worthy of our admiration. In fact, many of those grim-faced forebears captured in sepia make us look like wimps by comparison. But just like us, some of them were total schmucks, and frankly, those relatives can often be the most interesting, so I would like to see Ms. Swarns and others find the courage to share more balanced renditions of our predecessors' stories going forward. Ancestor worship is not a requirement.

Perhaps many reading this will consider me a relic to place so much weight on accuracy. If so, I suppose it's an occupational hazard as a genealogist's worth is measured largely in credibility, but what do you think? Does accuracy in history matter or is it just a quaint notion?

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