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A mixed-race lineage more complicated than imagined: On the implications of President Obama's possible link to a slave

Author Erin Aubry Kaplan has written a thoughtful piece for the Los Angeles Times on a fascinating recent genealogical find: According to researchers at, President Obama may likely be a descendant of the first black man to be defined as a slave in the early American colonies - and not via the African side of his family.

Aubry writes about how according to genealogists, there's a good chance that Obama could be "the 111th great-grandson, to be exact" of John Punch, who in 1640 became the first black person to be defined, legally, as a slave. But as it turns out, Punch would have been an ancestor of Obama's white mother from Kansas, not his black father from Kenya.

If the researchers are correct, the nation's first mixed-race president would have a lineage more complicated than anyone might have imagined, with complicated implications. Aubry writes:

Mixed parentage is nothing new, but Obama was unique in that he seemed to bypass the common black American experience of slavery and miscegenation that was responsible for the majority of American black folks who look like him. That was politically important because it meant Obama was, for the majority of white voters, a guilt-free black man. His existence wasn't a reprimand, a reminder of slavery and inequality and all those burdensome things associated with "regular" black people and black names like Washington or Jackson or even Robinson, the maiden name of Obama's wife, Michelle.

Obama didn't get a pass, exactly, but his background was a big part of the public fascination that lifted him just high enough above the fray to allow him to succeed. At the height of his popularity he seemed to offer a clean slate, a new black reality arriving in the White House as official affirmation of the possibility of a post-racial age.

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