35 of 43 people found the following review helpful
So important and so poorly written
, July 5, 2012
This review is from: American Tapestry (Paperback)
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. Here are some of the reasons this book disappoints:
1) The book would benefit from a preface declaring her specific intentions of what she wanted to accomplish; her plan for walking readers through a complex topic, who she consulted (particularly knowledgeable, skilled historians), and how she went about this work. It would add much weight to her work. Much of the blame falls on her editor for this omission.
2) Jumping around in time and place is vastly confusing. This includes clearly identifying people and relationships, context, times and places. Again, where is the organizing framework?
3) The simple addition of 'paternal' great-grandfathers and 'maternal' great-great grandmothers, etc, would give readers some anchor to hold onto.
4) Careful editing would avoid errors in the basics of good writing. A singular example (which may seem picky)is the incorrect use of 'forebears.' The accurate word is 'fore-bearers.' The point is what journalists should know: errors in the fundamentals of writing (spelling, grammar, sentence structure, etc.)can lead readers to question the strength and soundness of the author's main ideas. This is no small thing.
5) Repeated speculations about slavery, especially Melvinia's experience with her owner Henry Shields and her son Dolphus's (a free black man) relationship with his white half-brother 'Mack' Shields, miss the point. Examples: 'was Melvinia coerced and raped? Cherished? Treated as a loved family member?' Consider Annette Gordon-Reed's magisterial 'The Hemingses of Monticello,' a rich comprehensive analysis: the stark reality is that NO enslaved woman could consent to sexual exploitation; the master-slave power dynamics virtually prohibited any fantasy of consent. Affection? So what? If it didn't translate to relational equality, what meaningful difference does 'affection' make??? Dulphus Shields was acutely aware of these power dynamics as well.
I so wanted this to be a powerful and significant work, and in so many ways it is. I so wanted to get to the 'whys.' Perhaps it just isn't doable.
Make no mistake: this is an immensely significant work. Read and immerse in the realities of Michelle Obama's family heritage. The First Lady embraces and honors her family history, setting a deeply admirable example that hopefully will ease those descendants of slave owners and our nation's ongoing healing about our history.
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