American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama | Wilson Center
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American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama

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Webcast Recap

Michelle Obama's family saga is a remarkable, quintessentially American story—a journey from slavery to the White House in five generations. Yet, until now, little has been reported on the First Lady's roots. Prodigiously researched, American Tapestry traces the complex and fascinating tale of Michelle Obama's ancestors, a history that the First Lady did not even know herself. Rachel L. Swarns, a correspondent for the New York Times, brings into focus the First Lady's black, white, and multiracial forebears, and reveals for the first time the identity of Mrs. Obama's white great-great-great-grandfather—a man who remained hidden in her lineage for more than a century.

American Tapestry illuminates the lives of the ordinary people in Mrs. Obama's family tree who fought for freedom in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars; who endured the agonies of slavery, the disappointment of Reconstruction, the displacement of the Great Migration, and the horrors of Jim Crow to build a better future for their children. Swarns even found a possible link to the Jewish Reform movement.

Though it is an intimate family history, American Tapestry is also the collective chronicle of our changing nation, a nation in which racial intermingling lingers in the bloodlines of countless citizens and slavery was the crucible through which many family lines—black, white, and Native American—were forged.

Rachel L. Swarns has been a correspondent for the New York Times since 1995. She has written about domestic policy and national politics, reporting on immigration, the presidential campaigns of 2004 and 2008 and First Lady Michelle Obama and her role in the Obama White House. She has also worked overseas for The New York Times, reporting from Russia, Cuba and Southern Africa where she served as the Johannesburg bureau chief.  She currently writes about demographics, social trends and the modern American family. Prior to joining The New York Times, Ms. Swarns worked for The Miami Herald, where she reported from Haiti and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, covered the L.A. riots and the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew. She started her journalism career at The St. Petersburg Times. Born in New York City, she received her B.A. in Spanish from Howard University. She received her M.A. in International Relations from the University of Kent in Canterbury, England.