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American Tapestry Paperback – June 19, 2012

4.1 out of 5 stars 69 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“Extraordinary. . . . A fascinating account of the First Lady’s family. . . . No political [book] has ever looked like this one.” (New York Times Book Review)

“Riveting. . . . A microcosm of this country’s story. . . . The real-life saga of struggle, survival, triumph and tragedy serves as an uplifting companion to Alex Haley’s Roots.” (USA Today)

“Richly detailed. . . . A lushly layered portrait of the nation itself. . . .Swarns weaves a narrative in which massive social changes (slavery, Reconstruction, the Great Migration) and the microscopic details of DNA play equally important roles.” (Boston Globe)

“Swarns has unearthed and disseminated crucial American history here. . . . A remarkable, only-in-America story that Swarns tells with care and thoughtfulness. . . . Her passion for the story is clear and striking. . . . This book is a worthy and significant endeavor.” (Washington Post)

“Swarns paints a vivid, intriguing portrait of people whose struggles, losses, and triumphs speak volumes about the pull of family and the power of American endurance.” (Los Angeles Times)

“A meticulously researched and eloquently written real-life detective story.” (Essence)

“A completely fascinating look at the complex ancestry of one family, African Americans, and all Americans.” (Booklist (starred review))

“Tremendously moving. . . . Swarns provides numerous tales of heartbreak and achievement, many of which essentially make up the American story.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“An engrossing book. . . . Swarns outlines the fascinating journeys taken by various ancestors of First Lady Michelle Obama—the people who, across the generations, helped make her who she is today.” (Library Journal)

“[A] meticulous, detailed investigation into Mrs. Obama’s family tree. . . . American Tapestry holds rewards.” (Denver Post)

“Swarns discovers an interesting world that not only helps to define the First Lady’s personal background but is also an essential piece of the fabric that makes up America’s roots. . . . A great glimpse into America’s multicultural foundations.” (Upscale Magazine)

“[A] layered, scrupulously researched, and wrenching chronicle.” (Publishers Weekly)

“The First Family becomes ever more fascinating—and ever more representative of the nation as a whole—in Rachel Swarns’s terrific investigation into the roots of Michelle Obama. . . . This is a most compelling read and more evidence for our interconnectedness as a people.” (Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Harvard University professor and host and executive producer of PBS's Finding Your Roots)

“A grand, important book that shows how American bloodlines are rarely wholly black or purely white, neither one race nor another. Nowhere is that more true than in American Tapestry, an eloquent history of the First Lady’s family.” (James McBride, author of the New York Times bestseller The Color of Water)

“Rachel Swarns has not only excavated, with painstaking care, the family tree that is Michelle Obama’s, but, with great insight and beautiful prose, has revealed the complex, eye-opening, and disconcerting experiences that are America. This is a work of impressive historical imagination and deep cultural significance.” (Steven Hahn, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Nation under Our Feet)

“Illuminating. . . . Unforgettable in its sweep and movingly told, American Tapestry has the power to reshape our understanding of the phrase ‘descended from slaves.’” (Janny Scott, author of A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother)

“In this tour de force of biological sleuthing, Rachel L. Swarns explodes simplistic notions of life and love in the Old South.. . . . Swarns has bestowed upon all Americans a revelatory understanding of our shared racial heritage.” (Fergus M. Bordewich, author of Bound for Canaan)

From the Back Cover

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.

Epic in scope and beautifully rendered, this is a singularly inspiring story with resonance for us all.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 391 pages
  • Publisher: Amistad; 1st Edition, 1st Printing edition (June 19, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061999865
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061999864
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.4 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (69 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #326,721 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Rachel L. Swarns has been a reporter for the New York Times since 1995, reporting on domestic policy, the presidential campaigns of 2004 and 2008, the First Lady, and the modern American family. She has also worked for the New York Times in Russia, Cuba, and South Africa, where she served as the Johannesburg bureau chief. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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The topic of First Lady Michelle Obama's family history is so historically significant and compelling. Yes, her family history captures the American story in all its permutations. Yes, there are people in her story that exemplify the overwhelming struggles faced by African-American slaves and citizens. Yes, so many of us crave to understand how our ancestors' experiences shaped who we came to be and who we are. And, yes, me must acknowledge our national history for its facts, including the dehumanizing erasure of black Americans' parentage, births, marriages, deaths and lived experiences. It probably wouldn't be a stretch to find more careful documentation of the pedigrees of thoroughbred horses owned by the landed gentry than those of enslaved human beings.

These are the hard realities and they point up the author's passionate commitment to and perseverance in uncovering Ms. Obama's heritage and the frustrating task of taking on the 'peculiar institution' of slavery. Without reservation, she is to be highly commended.
Thanks to an extraordinary high school American history teacher, I have long read widely all kinds of U.S. history, ever driven by attempts at understanding the 'whys' of how things happened. So it gives me no pleasure to comment on the flawed and disappointing fruits of this author's efforts. She was right on to see that Melvinia's experiences are unquestionably at the very heart of the family pedigree.
It is very rare that I experience such deep frustration with attempts to uncover our national history.
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Having been born and raised in the south, I have always been drawn to learning more about this region of our great nation and why any description seems to involve the overuse of the adjective "complex". What makes us so different and why do we have certain characteristics that other regions don't share with us? Why, in my opinion, do we often cling to and embrace more of a revisionists interpretation of our past than to accept the gritty reality of what laid the foundation for future generations?

An American Tapestry goes a long way in providing answers to questions that have been staring us in the face for decades and takes us on a magical tour that ends up in the White House. The institution of slavery is arguably the most sinful and vile act one individual can impose on another. The routine buying and selling of humans, the systematic destruction of what makes families rejoice in their existence and the devaluation of the human soul creates shock waves that did not stop with the Emancipation Proclamation. How did a region transition from this awful precedent and find a new equality? Or did it? What happened to the people who embraced this "peculiar institution" and to those who suffered its bondage? How do you deal with shame?

It is one thing to address these questions and issues but to do it by following a family tree over generations is a challenge most would run from. Thankfully, Rachel Swarns didn't run and she provides us with a clear window on our past and helps us understand how we got from there, to here. Its connection with the First Lady just makes the story even more of a historical thriller. Simply put, this country needed this book. It is rare to see history so carefully researched and presented for current and future generations. I look forward to more of Swarn's work.
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Rachel L. Swarns, in American Tapestry takes the reader through a heart wrenching life and times of a black American family during the late 1800s through the 1900s, in which everyone is going through a turbulent time in our nation. Swarns places the reader in the shoes, of Melvinia, First Lady Michelle Obama's great-great-great-grandmother. The story begins in 1852 with Melvinia living as a 8 year older slave girl in South Carolina and takes the reader through a journey that could have only been seen through her eyes. Pain, love, sorrow and happiness are all expressed in the pages of American Tapestry. The writing expresses many emotions that are felt, with regards to a topic that is still hard for many black Americans to speak of, slavery in the South. Ms. Swarns expounds on the drive and determinations in Mrs. Obama's ancestors that allow them (her) to one day succeed. A few people in every generation, regardless of their background or turmoil face and drive forward against all odds and obtain success, this is the life lesson that is communicated through Mrs. Obama's ancestors, and it is the lesson I found that Swarns wants us to most remember. This is the American Dream, everyone has sought, many have died for, and others are still striving for today.

While there are several mentions of " could have been,... may have" done statements in the book, many of those are the only guidance we may have during a lost time in which few people were concerned about documentation and insuring future generations would correctly understand what was happening.
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