ANALYSIS:Michelle's family story points to a hidden side of the Irish-American experience
TO AMERICANS, Barack Obama will always be known as their country’s first black president. For that reason, many Americans were surprised by his visit to his ancestral home in Moneygall on Monday.
But the adoring reception he received there had little to do with his skin colour. He was the president of the United States. He was an extraordinarily charismatic politician in fine form. And he was another American exploring his roots in Ireland. That he was a black man seemed irrelevant.
Though Obama’s visit reinforced the sense of close ties between Ireland and the US, there are reasons to doubt the strength of his roots here. Genealogists say that he is probably at most about 5 per cent Irish and his closest relative in Moneygall is only an eighth cousin. However, Obama’s embrace of his Irish identity expresses a deeper truth about Irishness in the US today, which some commentators have described as an “optional ethnicity”. For recent Irish immigrants to the US, particularly the undocumented, being Irish is a powerful and inescapable force in their lives. But most of the millions of Americans who claim Irish identity have ancestors who emigrated two or more generations ago, as do I. For us, being Irish is a choice we can make, usually one among many.
Enda Kenny recognised this when he introduced Obama at College Green by extending a welcome to all Americans claiming to be Irish “whether by blood, or by marriage, or by desire”.
For Obama, choosing to be Irish ensured an enthusiastic welcome in Ireland and may have brought some political benefits back in the US. But it also spoke to his appeal as an individual who offers hope for a post-racial future in which Americans can hold multiple identities (black and Irish) and can choose which identities to adopt and in what circumstances.
Yet, while most white Americans today can choose their ethnic identities, most non-white Americans do not have the same options.Obama knows this well. Indeed, he wrote perceptively in his autobiography, Dreams from my Father, about his adolescent confusion over his own racial identity. Even though he barely knew his Kenyan father, most other Americans treated him only as “black”.
In choosing to embrace his Irish roots along with his African ones, Obama is more the exception among African Americans than the rule. And his choice is more easily accepted in Ireland than in the US, where the Washington Postexpressed surprise over "his Irish – yes, Irish – roots".
Obama’s ability to choose Irishness also reflects the fact that he can embrace an ancestor through his white mother. For many African Americans with Irish roots, the story is different.
Lost in the discussions over Barack Obama’s Irish roots was the fact that Michelle Obama too could trace her ancestry back to Ireland. While Barack’s roots go back to Falmouth Kearney, who emigrated from Moneygall to seek a better life in America, Michelle’s can most likely be traced to Henry Shields, an Irish-American slaveowner who had children with a slave he purchased named Melvinia. (Megan Smolenyak, the same genealogist that traced Barack’s roots to Ireland did the same for Michelle. While the available evidence points to Henry Shields as her ancestor, it has not been confirmed by DNA testing).
Michelle’s story is hardly unusual; in fact, one would be hard pressed to find any African American descendants of slaves in the US today who cannot claim white ancestors, largely as a result of the widespread rape of black women during slavery. Given that many American slaveowners could trace their roots back to Ireland, it’s likely that many African Americans today can claim to be as Irish as Barack Obama.
Alex Haley, who famously wrote of his African ancestry in his book Roots, also traced his heritage back to an Irish-American slaveowner. Yet, for Michelle, it's likely that choosing to be Irish was less attractive than for Barack because her family story points to a history of slavery, exploitation and rape.
It is a very different story from the American dream that Obama celebrated in his College Green speech, in which he spoke of Falmouth Kearney and others like him as finding the US “a place where you could make it if you tried”. This different American story of oppression speaks not just to the past but also to the deep racial inequalities in the present-day US, where the median household income of blacks is roughly 60 per cent that of whites, and black men are 11 times as likely to be imprisoned as white men.
Obama spoke movingly about the contributions that Irish and Irish-Americans made to the cause of racial equality in the US: the positive reception that black abolitionist Fredrick Douglass received in Ireland and the hundreds of thousands who fought against the slaveowning south in the Civil War.
But he didn’t mention the New York City draft riots of 1863, when Irish-American rioters targeted blacks or conflicts between Irish-Americans and African Americans in the controversy over bussing students to integrate schools in Boston in the 1970s. Nor did he mention Irish-American slaveowners such as his wife’s likely ancestor, Henry Shields.
No one should have expected Obama to dwell on such dark realities on a day that so beautifully celebrated the relationship between Ireland and the US but such facts are also part of Irish-American history.
In his speech, Obama drew on his Irish roots and celebrated the history of past Irish-American relations to inspire his audience to consider a better future. The promise that Obama spoke of, one of being able to achieve a better life for one’s self, speaks to the enduring appeal of the American dream. That Irishness has become a choice for many Americans such as Obama attests to that dream’s reality. But that deep racial inequalities persist, regarding African Americans in particular, indicates that America’s post-racial future has yet to be achieved.
Daniel Geary is the Mark Pigott lecturer in US history at Trinity College Dublin