Ever since Barack Obama became the first African American president in 2008, his first term has been fraught with debate about where he was born, whether or not he’s an American citizen, if he’s Muslim and “so on and so on and scooby, dooby doo-bee, oh sha sha.” Sorry, got carried away with Sly’s lyrics to “Everyday People” written by Stone in 1969 for inclusion on his “Stand!” album. Amazingly, the words are still relevant today.
There is a yellow one that won’t accept the black one
That won’t accept the red one that won’t accept the white one
And different strokes for different folks
Sly and The Family Stone’s music reflected society at the time.
There was Woodstock, the Vietnam War, student anti-war protests, African American students demanding Black Studies curriculum at universities, and the beginning of computers and the Internet. Today we have Coachella 2012, the Afghanistan War, the Occupy Movement, Android phones and ancestry.com.
What is so fantastic about technology in the 21st century is that we can all trace our ancestry back to a past that has often eluded us. By searching databases and documents that have been meticulously uploaded to the Internet by the Provo, Utah-based company ancestry.com and DNA testing, genealogists were able to trace President Obama’s family history back to the first African enslaved person in America, John Punch.
The finding was so profound because the connection between Punch and Obama was not from the President’s father’s side, which is Kenyan, but from his mother’s side, a white woman born in the Midwest.
Stanley Ann Dunham was married to Barack Obama, Sr. for a brief period. An anthropologist, Dunham raised her son in Indonesia and Hawaii, far from Hugh Gwyn’s farm in the Virginia Colony where John Punch worked in the17th century.
Punch was an indentured servant who lived in Northampton County in 1640. Punch and two other servants – Victor, a Dutchman and James Gregory, a Scotsman – ran away to Maryland to escape their servitude. Slavery did not exist in the colony at the time and the labor was performed by indentured servants – Black and White – who served for a period of time before being freed. According to the Minutes of the Council and General Court of Virginia on July 9, 1640, the punishment meted out to the runaways was thus:
“the court doth therefore order that the said three servants shall receive the punishment of whipping and to have thirty stripes apiece one called Victor, a dutchman, the other a Scotchman called James Gregory, shall first serve out their times with their master according to their Indentures, and one whole year apiece after the time of their service is Expired. By their said Indentures in recompense of his Loss sustained by their absence and after that service to their said master is Expired to serve the colony for three whole years apiece, and that the third being a negro named John Punch shall serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural Life here or elsewhere.”
The decision by the court to punish the three indentured servants differently, the White runaways received extended terms of their indenture and the Black man John Punch was sentenced to enslavement for the rest of his life, was the beginning of slavery in Colonial Virginia.
The most interesting point to me of this discovery of President Obama’s implied relationship to John Punch through his mother’s roots is that we are all extremely complicated. Although, the proof is not definitive in the Obama-Punch connection, the researchers are pretty certain the genetic markers uncovered in their research and the small population of Africans from the sub-Saharan region living in Virginia at the time leads them to conclude that President Obama is most likely a descendant.
As more and more Americans access the databases on ancestry.com, they’ve just uploaded the 1940s U.S. Census records; I have no doubt that many of us will discover our mixed heritage and embrace it. After all “we got to live together,” no matter what our perceived differences are.