In a reminder of the complexity of racial identity, genealogists Monday announced that President Barack Obama is probably a descendant of the first American slave — on his mother’s side.
Prior to the discovery, it was believed Obama’s African heritage came exclusively from his father, Barack Obama, Sr. His mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was white.
Obama, America’s first African American president, is likely the 11th-great grandson of John Punch, an African indentured servant who lived in Virginia in the 1640s. After attempting to escape, Punch was sentenced to remain enslaved for life. Some historians consider Punch to be the first American slave, and there is no question his case helped pave the way for slavery.
Punch married a white woman, who passed her free status to their children. The family’s surname changed to Bunch, and over time, the family became prominent landowners in Virginia. The marriage was not unusual; interracial marriage was not frowned upon until the late 17th century, and did not become illegal until the 18th century. By that point, the Bunch family was passing as white.
“Two of the most historically significant African Americans in the history of our country are amazingly directly related,” said Joseph Shumway, a genealogist for ancestry.com, who conducted the research. “John Punch was more than likely the genesis of legalized slavery in America. But after centuries of suffering, the Civil War and decades of civil rights efforts, his 11th great-grandson became the leader of the free world and the ultimate realization of the American dream.”
While Obama’s exact lineage from Punch cannot be determined due to the scarcity of records, both Shumway and Elizabeth Shown Mills, an expert on genealogy, said the records and DNA analysis strongly indicate that Punch is Obama’s ancestor.
“A careful consideration of the evidence convinces me that the Y-DNA evidence of African origin is indisputable, and the surviving paper trail points solely to John Punch as the logical candidate,” Mills said.
Aside from the remarkable tie between the nation’s first slave and first African American president, the discovery is a reminder of just how arbitrary racial groupings are to begin with. It is estimated that a third of white Americans have some recent African ancestry, and a majority of African Americans have some white ancestry. That doesn’t even begin to address the complexity that comes once we start adding Native American, Asian American, Pacific Islander, and other “racial” groups.
Most scientists also believe that all humans can trace their heritage back to Africa, and that all of us are descended from about 15,000 people who survived the Toba supereruption. Whatever some may claim about the sharp divide between racial groups, the truth is that these dividing lines are very fuzzy, and very meaningless.
Image Credit: Dunham Family