Commentary: Tracing Michelle Obama’s roots — and yours

By Tony Burroughs
Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Tony Burroughs is a professional genealogist and author of “Black Roots: A Beginners Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree.” He taught genealogy at Chicago State University for 15 years.

(CNN) — Last week a New York Times article reported that Michelle Obama’s great-great-great grandparents were a white man and a slave whom he impregnated. This story highlights the growing importance of genealogy in America.

Some of the comments posted online were from people skeptical that the full story of Michelle Obama’s ancestry will ever be known.

One said, “The concept that records simply don’t exist beyond the mid-1800s for so much of her family is so telling about the legacy of slavery we’ll never shed.”

Another said, “Where in Africa did Michelle Obama’s ancestors come from? What was their tribe? When were they enslaved, and what were their experiences as individuals? What happened to these human beings after they were brought in chains to America? These things will very likely never be known.”

While these may be the common perceptions of the public, they are not the views of sophisticated genealogists.

Most people don’t have a clue about all the documents that exist, and that the paper trail never ends. The amount of paper that exists in libraries, archives and historical societies is mind-boggling. Much of it isn’t catalogued, so the owners don’t even know what they have.

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