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35 of 43 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars So important and so poorly written, July 5, 2012
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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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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 7, 2012 5:41:52 PM PDT
smooches says:
thank goodness...some concrete discussion about the strengths and weakness' of this work...what may seem picky to some, says thoughtful observation to me...

Posted on Aug 10, 2012 11:27:35 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 10, 2012 11:30:34 PM PDT
Your insights as to apparent flaws and irregularities, and unaddressed lack of genealogical organization, are useful. Thank you.

Today, this author was interviewed about this book on the PBS Newshour. The interviewer, Gwen Ifill, didn't indicate the problems that you mention. However, some of the author's comments and answers offered some clarification about your findings. I submit that the difficulties that she encountered are characterized by the last sentence in your next-to-last paragraph, "Perhaps it just isn't doable." While she might have followed your protocol of prefacing her presentation, I infer from your findings and her related comments that she is a journalist who needed a historian's guidance--and probably didn't seek it. She mentioned the basic lack of documentation of American slaves and her gap-filling by researching slave descendants--and slave owner descendants. She cited some examples of the guesswork that influenced her compilation of her stories. Hopefully, she'll receive enough feedback like yours and persuade her publisher to support a revised edition, or a second edition. That said, because I've been alerted by your comments, I will be prepared with adjusted expectations and thus enjoy the book as is. Thank you.

Posted on Aug 11, 2012 2:31:19 PM PDT
dana m says:
i scanned your post quickly and read your criticism about forebearers--...i stopped there...ok you had a great history please stop boring amazon readers.

Posted on Aug 28, 2012 4:24:54 AM PDT
From the very first page I started highlighting in green the obvious mistakes or mischaracterizations that I found in this book. Your entire critique is exactly my assessment. That said, I still find it worthwhile reading and there are some good insights and historical documentations. I agree that the speculation is bothersome and clearly keeps this book from being the scholarly work that it could have been. I haven't finished the book yet and there is one thing the author does--keeps me reading. So I guess that's a good thing.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 28, 2012 4:27:10 AM PDT
Your post answers some of my questions and problems with the book. Thanks. I'm going to try to find that interview.

Posted on Sep 23, 2012 2:41:34 PM PDT
Doxy says:
Forebears is an acceptable variant of fore bearers. What's the deal here?

Posted on Feb 14, 2013 6:07:33 PM PST
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on May 10, 2013 3:12:36 AM PDT
[Deleted by the author on May 10, 2013 3:14:40 AM PDT]
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