4 Myths About Thanksgiving

4 Myths About Thanksgiving

LET US BREAK BREAD TOGETHER: ‘The First Thanksgiving,’ painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris. Is this an accurate portrayal of the holiday’s origins? (Image: Wikipedia)

Turkey, honey baked ham, candied yams, collard greens, casseroles, rice and gravy, corn bread, rolls, dressing, cranberry sauce, macaroni and cheese, sweet potato pie, carrot cake, pound cake, chocolate cake… When I think of Thanksgiving I think of food, family, fellowship, and laughter; but most of all, I think of food. Most of us do. But is that why we celebrate Thanksgiving? 

What are we celebrating? What should we be thinking about? As Christians, we are encouraged by our churches to use Thanksgiving to be reflective about the many blessings that God has bestowed upon our families, friends, and loved ones, how God has given us health, favor, grace, mercy, and even performed miracles on our behalf. But shouldn’t we do that all the time? Is this why we celebrate Thanksgiving?

Is Thanksgiving as we know it a myth? Years ago, elementary schools taught that we celebrate Thanksgiving to remember the Pilgrims and the Indians in a time when the Pilgrim travelers were doomed to die as the winter months approached and they did not know how to survive in a new land. We learned how the Indians were hospitable to the strangers and fed them, befriended them, and taught them the way of their land. We learned that the Pilgrims and the Indians ate a large meal in the late 1690s, which has been recorded in history as the first Thanksgiving. Since then, Americans have made it a tradition to take a day around that time of year to remember the sacrifice, the food, and the friendship that got them through. That’s touching, but we know now that the story is largely inaccurate.

Maybe if we consider some of the myths that are associated with Thanksgiving, we can get a better understanding of what this national day can be in our lives.

Myth 1: “The first Thanksgiving” occurred in 1621.

Harvest celebrations were ancient traditions for both the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. In fact, the Bible mentions entire festivals around harvest time. Most African cultures also celebrate the harvest. While the “first Thanksgiving” idea is not historically true, it is true that we should use this holiday as a special time for celebrating what God has placed in our lives as we open the season with prayer and praise.

Myth 2: The colonists came seeking freedom of religion in a new land.

Actually, the people who came on the Mayflower were seeking religious freedom only for themselves. They didn’t know or really care to know how the native people worshipped; they showed little concern for the Indians’ freedom of religion. Unfortunately, it’s easy to be selfish about our own rights while overlooking other people’s needs. Today, however, each of us can use this Thanksgiving holiday to thank God that we all have the freedom to worship Him. (This might even be a time to reflect on how religious freedom is still opposed in some countries today.) The bottom line is that today in the United States we do have the freedom to worship God and to give Him thanks for all He is. Use this Thanksgiving to do that!

Myth 3: The Pilgrims invited the Indians to share their food and celebrate the first Thanksgiving.

Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag Indian tribe, was concerned that the English colonists might be preparing for war. He led 90 men to investigate the sound of gunfire from the Plymouth colony. When it turned out that the gunshots were from hunters gathering food for the harvest celebration, Massasoit and his men returned with five deer and many turkeys–probably more than the colonists were able to provide!

Perhaps that is why the poor turkey is still the favorite bird of Thanksgiving today. In fact, another myth says that the Pilgrims and Indians feasted on turkey, potatoes, berries, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and popcorn. The menu actually included venison, wild fowl, corn porridge, and mashed pumpkin.

But whether you celebrate with turkey or tofu (pooh!), make sure that this Thanksgiving you celebrate with others. They may be family or friends. You may even organize a group to help serve turkey dinners at a shelter. The food doesn’t matter. (OK, maybe tofu does.) The main thing is to celebrate God and enjoy time with family, friends, and others who are special in your life.

Myth 4: The Pilgrims and Indians became great friends.

Sadly, history proved otherwise, as within a generation the English colonists fought against the Indians to take their land. Today, Native American people often see Thanksgiving as a reminder of the legacy of betrayal and mistreatment their ancestors suffered. That pain is real as is the pain that many people feel today who are rejected or lonely or have found abuse or violence in their lives. Jesus calls on us as Christians to display brotherly love. This Thanksgiving, take time to look around at those who are suffering and to lend a hand where you can. Maybe there is a kid at school who needs a friend, or an older person who needs some help. The pain of that “first Thanksgiving” relationship cannot be changed. But you can use this Thanksgiving to help ease the pain of someone else.

As Christians, we are called to uphold truth, but more importantly, we are called to love humankind. This Thanksgiving, take time to show love to your fellow brothers and sisters by volunteering at a soup kitchen or food pantry. Follow the example of the Native Americans and be generous. This Thanksgiving, above all (tofu aside), make sure you love your neighbors.


What Is Black Community?

What Is Black Community?

Depending on whom you ask, the question of what most defines the African American community varies. Some will point to strides made toward racial integration. Others will point to the establishment of our own culture, traditions, and institutions that distinguish us from other races. And depending on whom you engage in this debate, most will admit, there are significant cultural and class divisions among African Americans. Creating a sense of community among African Americans is challenging, but imagine attempting this when the prevalent identifier was slavery.

In his book A Nation Within A Nation: Organizing African American Communities Before the Civil War, scholar John Ernest offers an insightful view of how African Americans to establish their identities before the civil war. This is a unique view since most accounts of this time in history focus on how the Civil War changed our status and sense of community. Ernest presents a view of the oft-overlooked organizations that were pushing for the establishment of an African American community well before the Emancipation Proclamation.

Ernest, a professor of American literature at West Virginia University, presents a historical account of how five types of social organizations — the church, Masonic lodges, conventions, schools, and the media/press — got their start. He traces how each attempted to meet the unique needs of the African American community.

One of Ernest’s most striking observations is that our forefathers held two key approaches on how the establishment of community should be accomplished. Some believed that African Americans should fight to assimilate into the majority community, and that finding acceptance there was the ultimate measure of progress. Others, smarting from their experiences with severe racism, believed that creating a new community — i.e., a nation within a nation — was the best approach.

What’s fascinating to consider is that the African American is still divided along those lines. What’s more, the tension between those two mindsets still polarizes our community. Those who fight to be accepted among the majority, which in our time is still white Americans, are often accused of being disloyal to their heritage. Those who fight to establish their own culture are often accused of being separatist, or in the most severe cases racists themselves.

Ernest also highlights the painful fact that from our earliest history, oppression was the most common connection among most African Americans. Even free African Americans faced oppression, opposition, and racism. Many of the organizations formed during that time were built on freedom from that oppression.

A Nation Within a Nation, although focused on the past, whispers to our current conditions. What would our culture be like if the oppression of our ancestors was removed from our current community? How would we then define ourselves? This book made me wonder if a common denominator could ever be found for African Americans. It also made me wonder about the efficiency of trying to define ourselves by a single idea.

But don’t expect answers to those questions in this book. Ernest writes the book in true historian style, only presenting information without his personal beliefs. His writing has the density of academia, so this is not a quick read. In my opinion, this is the best approach. So much our history has been interpreted for us by pop culture or presented in snapshots. It’s refreshing to be able to read such rich history without a filter and with all the weightiness it deserves.

I think the most enjoyable aspect of this book is the discussion that has arisen among those in my African American community. This is a topic that needs to be revisited, and A Nation Within a Nation provides a great springboard for beginning that important dialogue.

Puritans and Propaganda

Puritans and Propaganda

HOLY HIP-HOP CONTROVERSY: Rapper Propaganda’s blistering critique of Puritanism’s racist history has some Reformed listeners crying foul.

Rapper Propaganda created a tornado of criticism with the recent release of “Precious Puritans” on his new album Excellent (available here). In the song, Propaganda reminds his audience to increase their cultural intelligence by caring about the black experience in America and to recognize the fact that, like the Puritans, we all have blind spots and need to have our minds constantly renewed (Rom. 12:2) by God’s word. The song also challenges those who uncritically treat the Puritans as a protected class that stands outside of the Bible’s command to “test everything” (1 Thess. 5:21).

For those who may be unfamiliar, Puritanism was a Christian reform movement that arose within the Church of England in the late 16th century. The movement spilled over into New England well into the 17th century and had a significant influence on the mores of America’s founding. Theologically speaking, the Puritans were committed to the doctrines of grace that emerged from the Protestant Reformation, with their particular emphasis on the intersection of sound doctrine and personal piety. In recent years, many young white Baptists and non-denominational evangelicals have been looking for substantive, theologically driven, analytic approaches to personal piety rooted in a tradition they found lacking in their own backgrounds. Thirsting for depth and history, these “new-Calvinists,” with the help of well-known pastors like John Piper, have found spiritual enrichment by studying the Puritans.

“Precious Puritans” simply raises a caution about loving the Puritans too much because, although they had sound doctrine on issues like personal piety, that tradition was complicit in perpetrating injustice against Africans and African Americans during the slavery. The song opens with these words:

Pastor, you know it’s hard for me when you quote puritans.
Oh the precious Puritans.
Have you not noticed our facial expressions?
One of bewilderment and heartbreak.
Like, not you too pastor.
You know they were the chaplains on slave ships, right?
Would you quote Columbus to Cherokees?
Would you quote Cortez to Aztecs?
Even If they theology was good?
It just sings of your blind privilege wouldn’t you agree?
Your precious Puritans.

They looked my onyx and bronze skinned forefathers in they face,
Their polytheistic, god-hating face.
Shackled, diseased, imprisoned face.
And taught a gospel that says God had multiple images in mind when he created us in it.
Their fore-destined salvation contains a contentment in the stage for which they were given which is to be owned by your forefathers’ superior image-bearing face. Says your precious Puritans.

The song continues to highlight ways in which the black experience in the Puritan tradition is mishandled within white conservative evangelicalism. However, instead of leaving it simply at critique and dismissal, like we might find among some black liberation theologians, Propaganda ends the song by confessing that he is no less flawed than the Puritans, as his wife can attest, and offers praise to God because “God really does use crooked sticks to make straight lines.” That is, Propaganda is calling for humility in recognizing that, in the end the noetic effects of sin are present in the Puritans, in himself, and the rest of us. As such, what is to be praised is not any class of men but the providence and sovereignty of God that He fulfills his mission through messed up people. (Check out the video for “Precious Puritans” below.)

What’s been so odd to me is the tribalist attacks from those who fear that Propaganda is in some way throwing the Puritans under the bus to never be read again. A lamentable example of this is a blog post by Professor Owen Strachan, Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College. In his post, Strachan suggests that the song might be dangerous because he wonders “if Propaganda isn’t inclining us to distrust the Puritans. He states his case against them so forcefully, and without any historical nuance, that I wonder if listeners will be inclined to dislike and even hate them.”

Is this a slippery slope? Does testing and critiquing leads to this? Did Martin Luther’s comments about Jews incline people to hate him and reject him? Or John Calvin’s execution of Michael Servetus? Or Abraham Kuyper’s racism? Or Jonathan Edwards slave owning? I could go on.

The answer, of course, is “yes” and “no.” Those who would reject the Puritans because of their white supremacy will themselves struggle to find much of anyone in Western Christianity to embrace. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God in some way (Rom. 3:23), including all of those we hold in high esteem. There is an obvious “no” because this is not how the Bible teaches Christians to engage in cultural and historical analysis. We are to eat the meat and spit out the bones. This includes those who are both inside and outside the tribe. There is much meat in the Puritans but there are also massive bones.

Propaganda’s point is that if white evangelicals do not talk about the bones of their heroes they run the risk of doing great harm to people of color. Many of us are beginning to wonder why white evangelicals do not seem to care much about this and seem willing to trade off “honoring” their forefathers for their own comfort over doing what is necessary to build racial solidarity. Some of my liberation theology friends, in the end, would see Strachan’s critique as a dismissal of acknowledging the importance of caring about how the Puritans are presented to African Americans and would constitute a racial microaggression or a micro-invalidation.

The largest concern is the seemingly tribal nature of many of Propaganda’s Puritan-loving critics. Could this be an example of confirmation bias? As Jonathan Haidt explains in the book The Righteous Mind, confirmation bias is “the tendency to seek out and interpret new evidence in ways that confirm what you already think” (80). In general, according to Haidt, we are good at challenging statements made by other people but when it comes to one’s own presuppositions facing opposition the tendency is to protect it and keep it. Therefore, “if thinking is confirmatory rather than explanatory … what chances is there that people will think in an open-minded, explanatory way when self-interest, social identity, and strong emotions make them want or even need to reach a preordained conclusion?” (81). In this sense, Propaganda broke a tribal code: never critique anyone within the tribe.

Strachan considers the Puritans “forefathers” and in a tribalist way, some would argue, seeks to protect their legacy. Had Propaganda dropped a track critiquing Roman Catholics, Jeremiah Wright, Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, or preachers of the prosperity gospel, he’d be called a hero. During my seminary years I was rebuked once for mentioning Martin Luther King Jr. in a sermon because of his sins. Why? Because King, like the others, are outside the tribe and are fair game to be critiqued in any form. Since they are not “one of us” there is no expectation of extending grace. Grace is reserved for those with whom we agree.

RHYTHM AND POETRY: Propaganda’s latest album, ‘Excellent.’

I experienced this tribal protectionism when I challenged Doug Wilson’s poor historiography of the antebellum South. Theologians Carl Trueman and Scott Clark experienced this recently when stating that complementarianism is not a “gospel issue.” The bottom line is that the Bible provides a model for the importance of confessing the sins of our fathers (Neh. 9:2) and testing everything (1 Thess. 5:21). Why? Because if we do not hold those in the past accountable to God’s Word we will repeat their sins. “Precious Puritans” is the iron that sharpens us. It keeps us from making the Puritans a golden calf. Racism and white supremacy is the other Reformed tradition so we need regular reminders to hold God and his Word in high esteem over the works of mere men.

After reading Strachan’s post I was left wondering if he had ever read Joseph Washington’s books on Puritans and race (Puritan Race Virtue, Vice and Values, 1620-1820: Original Calvinist True Believers’ Enduring Faith and Ethics Race Claims, Anti-Blackness in English Religion 1500-1800, and Race and Religion in Early Nineteenth Century America, 1800-1850: Constitution, Conscience, and Calvinist Compromise). In light of Washington’s research, what Propaganda did in this song is minimal. Candidly, it is difficult for me to see why Propaganda’s song stands out in light of the thousands of pages of published writings of Puritan white supremacy that seems to have had no effect on people treating them as a protected class. In the new Calvinist world, there seems to be a growing trend that you can have “hard-hitting exhortation” as long as it is directed at those who are not beloved within the new-Calvinist tribe. The best critique of Strachan’s tribalism comes from Pastor Steve McCoy, so I will not repeat his excellent points here but McCoy concludes that Strachan completely misses the point of Propaganda’s song.

Lastly, it seems that as a rapper himself, Strachan would not expect much “nuance” in a genre that normally uses hyperbole as a rhetorical device. After all, it is a rap song. Since when does anyone expect “rhythm and poetry” (a.k.a. RAP) to have nuances and qualifications? I wonder why Strachan is not treating the song according to its genre.

Strachan’s defensiveness of his forefathers, who get it right, demonstrates exactly why Propaganda needed to produce this song. In fact, perhaps we need more rhythm and poetry to help us test and confess. If artists like Propaganda are not given freedom to call us to critique our theology and culture, we cannot achieve true racial solidarity in the kingdom. Songs like “Precious Puritans” keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.

The Trouble with Voter ID Laws

The Trouble with Voter ID Laws

As Election Day draws near, one of the most hotly contested battles isn’t just over the economy or foreign policy; it’s over the fundamental right to vote itself. This year we have seen an upsurge in voting-related laws being proposed and passed. As is too often the case, these new laws disproportionately work against people of color, as well as low-income populations.

Christians have a legacy of electing leaders, and we have a responsibility to protect this right for all our sisters and brothers. The early church decided that it would be good for them to “choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn responsibility over to them” (Acts 6:3). Indeed, we are to “select capable men from all the people — men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain — and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens” (Exodus 18:21). When we exercise the right to vote, we participate in a history passed down to us from both our political and spiritual forebears.

But this year, new laws seek to selectively impair voting capacity of a subset of the population by reducing polling hours and by requiring photo IDs. Some estimates suggest that in Pennsylvania, for instance, 9 percent of registered voters do not own a driver’s license and that nationwide these percentages could add up to approximately 22 million otherwise legally eligible voters being disenfranchised at the polls this year. Yet there have only been ten instances of in-person voter fraud in the nation since the year 2000. Ten.

What’s Wrong with Showing an ID?

One may wonder why obtaining a simple driver’s license is such a big deal. Doesn’t everybody need one anyway? But as it is less common to drive in urban settings, these populations are less likely to need driver’s licenses. And car ownership itself is a privilege of economic status that many of us in the middle-class strata take for granted. In fact, most other interactions that require a driver’s license are also habits of privilege (cashing a check, making purchase returns, renting a car, boarding a flight). Alternative forms of photo ID (like passports, government IDs, and college IDs) are also upper-middle-class documents.

It’s true that some types of non-driver’s-license photo ID are available for free, but they often require documentation like birth certificates and Social Security cards that can cost a significant amount of time and/or money to obtain. A simple task that is supposedly a right of citizenship quickly becomes a multi-day bureaucratic saga that requires energy and time away from work, often when one can’t afford either.

Those that use public transportation are especially burdened when original documentation, photo ID, registration, and actual voting all happen in different locations with restricted hours of operation. And in the meantime, local taxes that fund such public services are voted down by those least likely to need those services.

Homelessness makes the situation all the more difficult. It becomes almost impossible to establish residency, provide a mailing address, or show proof of identification. Yet a mailing address is often necessary to receive voter ID cards that individuals have to show on Election Day (regardless of photo ID requirements). All the while, those with the privilege of ease of access to voting can influence policies on housing, welfare, and social services, to the exclusion of those whom the policies actually affect.

Injecting Race Into the Race

In addition, these issues are conflated with race. Nationally, more than one million black residents and half-million Latinos live more than 10 miles away from locations issuing valid photo IDs. In Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, driver’s license offices “that are open more than twice a week are located largely away from rural black populations.”

Legislation has also targeted such options as early voting for individuals who aren’t able to make it to their polling places on Election Day. In the process of overturning these laws, some compelling stories have come to light (this court case in particular), but often at the expense of privacy and dignity. Ohio State Representative Alicia Reese notes, “Citizens have come up to me asking why, as a voter, have I been called lazy? Why, as a voter, have I been called a criminal because I want to go vote? As a voter, why are they making it more difficult because I work two shifts and I want to get to the board of elections to vote but I don’t want to lose my job in the process? Why in Ohio is the vote under attack?”

What is more, the proponents of these laws seem to be well aware of the laws’ nuanced and biased consequences, allowing the swirl of myths and fear mongering from a select few to confuse their motives. Pennsylvania State Representative Mike Turzai exclaimed that the new voter ID law “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania — done.”

In a recent case regarding their voter ID law, the state of Texas argued that “poverty is not a protected classification under the Constitution,” and if “minority voters are disproportionately indigent,” they are nevertheless not being racially discriminated against. But a lack of intent to discriminate does not ensure a lack of discrimination. Indeed, a national survey demonstrated a correlation between those supporting Voter ID laws and those harboring negative attitudes toward people of color, which wasn’t simply explained by party affiliation.

It’s important to note that many proponents of voter ID laws are not intentionally trying to be discriminatory on the basis of class or race. But when we view the world from only one perspective, we tend to forget that the prevailing system favors the privileged in our country. Those that support voter ID laws are often the same folks who equate poverty with laziness, and blackness with criminal behavior, without ever digging into a deeper understanding of the subtle, often subconscious biases that we all maintain.

Troubling Consequences

It is ironic that as we send troops overseas to “defend freedom and democracy” abroad, we create ways to hinder our own democratic process at home. Shouldn’t we laud an increase in voter turnout rather than trying to suppress it? Shouldn’t we want more citizens to become engaged in electoral proceedings, not fewer? How does decreased participation enhance the democratic process?

Perhaps there is a fear that by allowing more voting opportunities the “wrong” policies will be enacted. But if one’s policies are good and righteous, won’t they appeal to the majority of voters? We must remember that “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people” (Proverbs 14:34).

If voter ID laws were purely about preventing voter fraud, the entire country would benefit from this added security. But if one political party makes gains from voter suppression, what does it say about that party’s platform? Clearly not that it is formed with the benefit all citizens in mind.

What does it say if one has to silence the voice of the people in order to win a seat in government? Could this be a sign that one’s policies are no longer benefiting the majority of one’s constituents? In some cases, I think it might. But rather than adjust their policies or “sell” voters on their positions, some politicians seek to increase the barriers to voting for their opponents.

A Troubled History at the Polls

Discrimination and intimidation at the polls is nothing new. Our country’s voting history is fraught with poll taxes, literacy requirements, racial gerrymandering, and voter intimidation (all of which were legal in our lifetime — or at least our parents’). Indeed, as I describe, many of these injustices are still practiced in one form or another today.

Both modern and historic laws use carefully coded language to allow for legal discrimination, without ever explicitly mentioning race. When poll taxes were legally in use, they often came with a grandfather clause that allowed citizens whose ancestors had voted in the years before the civil war (you know … before the abolition of slavery) to forgo the tax.

The implications for such a legacy are profound. Years of disenfranchisement leads to a foundation of legal precedent and accumulated power that perpetuate disparity and injustice. It’s no coincidence that that the Senate is still 96 percent white. As Christians, we know God says to “choose some wise, understanding and respected men from each of your tribes, and I will set them over you” (Deuteronomy 1:13), but some groups are still embarrassingly absent from our leadership.

What effects might this disparity have on controversial or racially veiled legislation moving forward? Even assuming no intentional prejudice, surely we can’t presume that homogeneous legislatures have full understanding of the needs of their constituents of color.

The Truth About Voter Fraud

As Christian voters we have an obligation to “discern for ourselves what is right; let us learn together what is good” (Job 34:4). It’s true that there are cases in which voter fraud has been a problem, but these cases most often occur in the context of absentee voting, a scenario that is not at all helped by the requirement of a photo ID at the polls.

While some of the new legislation has been struck down, others remain up for debate and it’s important to inform ourselves about the effects of the legislation. If you haven’t registered for this year’s election, do so. And educate yourself about the ID requirements in your state. If you’re already registered and ready to go, help some who aren’t in that same position. On Election Day, join with other believers to unite around the communion table as a way of practicing our common bond in Christ amid our theological, political, and denominational differences. And on that day, consider giving of your time to make sure every citizen can cast a vote safely and legally.

What do you think of voter ID laws? Share your view in the comments section below.

Michelle Obama, This Is Your Life

Michelle Obama, This Is Your Life

AMERICA’S FIRST LADY: Michelle Obama dancing with her husband at President Obama’s inaugural gala on January 20, 2009. A new book shares the history of her multiracial family tree.

While Alex Haley’s groundbreaking book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, may have not been the first attempt to bridge history from the coasts of Africa to American slavery to modern-day life in America, it certainly galvanized widespread  interest in African Americans tracing their roots back to their enslaved ancestors and beyond. Since then, scholar and educator Henry Louis Gates Jr. has become Haley’s heir apparent, generating new interest in tracing roots with the additional tool of DNA testing with his PBS show African American Lives and most recently Finding Your Roots. Finally, the proliferation of genealogical research websites such as Africanancestry.com has also made genealogical research more accessible than ever before.

With the scrutiny of the lineage of the nation’s first black president who has more of a direct connection to Africa than many African Americans, very little attention was paid initially to the lineage of Michelle Obama. However, Mrs. Obama’s lineage is likely more representative of average African Americans who may know some of the history of their grandparents in America but have little knowledge of their connection to their enslaved roots or African beginnings. In 2009, a genealogist discovered that Michelle Obama was the great-great-great granddaughter of Melvinia Shields (a former slave) and a white man. New York Times reporter Rachel L. Swarns wrote about the discovery and was later convinced to expand the article into her new book American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama. Swarns traces the ancestry of Mrs. Obama all the way to Clayton County, Georgia, where I have lived for several years.

Earlier this summer, Clayton County officials unveiled a monument dedicated to Melvinia Shields in Rex, Georgia, where Melvinia lived when she gave birth to Mrs. Obama’s great-great grandfather Dolphus Shields. Both black and white family members took part in the ceremony, although Mrs. Obama was not present. While Mrs. Obama declined to be interviewed for the book (as a policy, she is not interviewed for any books, Swarnes said), Swarnes interviewed Mrs. Obama’s family members including her aunt, uncle and others and explained just how all of these people, both black and white, spanning several states, are related. In fact, she traced Mrs. Obama’s maternal and paternal roots, spinning a rich history that is surprisingly relevant today.

One of the book’s recurring themes is how tenuous civil rights can be, particularly for American black people. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, during the era of Reconstruction, blacks were given unprecedented freedom and access to representation in government, both locally and nationally. Jefferson Long became the first black man to represent Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served less than three months before leaving his seat in 1871. Swarnes noted that it would be over a century before another African American represented Georgia again as segregationists and Ku Klux Klan members began implementing schemes and laws rescinding the rights of African Americans. In 1908, “blacks were effectively barred from the ballot box altogether when whites amended the state constitution to require voters to pass a literacy test and own property. … They also had to own forty acres of land or property valued at $500.” As I read example after example of civil rights reversals, I was reminded of the contemporary controversy surrounding the recent implementation of voter ID laws throughout the country that many believe will effectively disenfranchise black voters. In fact, Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network launched a “Voter Engagement Tour” this summer to travel to various states where new voter ID laws have been enacted to educate voters about their full rights.

With all the debate about marriage, whether it’s for white people or gay people or any people, I was interested in how marriage was presented Swarnes’ book. A successful marriage has always been a difficult feat, though there is a tendency to romanticize the marriages of yesteryear. Dolphus Shields was married four times. Fraser Robinson II, Mrs. Obama’s paternal grandfather, left his wife and children in Chicago after nearly seven years of marriage around 1941. In fact, when he enlisted in the Army on March 26, 1941 at 28 years old, he was described as “separated without dependants.” He did, however, ultimately reconcile with his wife around 1950. Mrs. Obama’s maternal grandparents Purnell Shields and Rebecca Jumper Coleman separated after having seven children. The couple lived separately, blocks away from one another in Chicago, although they never divorced.

The black church and the historical impact of religion were also apparent in this work. What has been deemed as “Christian” has certainly changed throughout history. In the 1800s, “one Methodist minister told his congregation that ‘catching and returning runaway slaves to their masters is a Christian duty binding upon any church members.’” I wonder if the church (First Baptist Church of Crystal Springs in Mississippi) that recently refused to allow a black couple to get married at their church would have supported such a stance had it been in existence then. Dolphus Shields, who was a deacon, helped to found Trinity Baptist Church and another church in Birmingham, Alabama, that still exists today. Lavaughn Johnson, for whom the First Lady is named (her full name being Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama), was deeply religious, becoming the first African American woman to manage a Moody Bible bookstore.

As I read American Tapestry, I considered how genealogy is also a persistent theme in the Bible. The lineage of Jesus included Rahab the prostitute, King David the adulterer, the less-than-supermodel Leah, the wise King Solomon, Joseph the dreamer and many other interesting people. Slavery, wars, famine, government takeovers, and more served as backdrops. I believe genealogy in the Bible, as it does in American Tapestry, demonstrates that human beings are essentially the same from generation to generation despite modern innovations, shifting cultural sensibilities and evolving laws through the years. As there is nothing new under the sun, we will always need a Savior to help us resist temptation to be inhumane toward each other and achieve our highest human good. Remembering from whence we came as individuals, families, and nations can help remind us that we’re all part of an evolving legacy of human struggle, hope, and redemption.