Sat 1 Nov, 2008
Tags: Barack Obama, Historical amnesia, John McCain, Presidential election, Slaveowning
This post addresses the fact that the families of both Barack Obama and John McCain owned slaves. This week, I’ve encountered a number of questions about that slave-owning past and its significance today.
Barack Obama is not descended from American slaves, but his family did own slaves themselves. This is not because his African ancestors might have kept slaves, as people often speculate, although it’s true that Kenya has a long history of slavery. Instead, several members of Obama’s family on his mother’s side were American slave owners.
Two of Obama’s maternal ancestors owned slaves in Nelson Country, Kentucky at the time of the 1850 census. These were George Washington Overall, Obama’s great-great-great-great grandfather, and Mary Grable Duvall, Obama’s great-great-great-great-great grandmother, each of whom owned two slaves. Another great-great-great-great grandfather, Francis Thomas Payne, and his siblings inherited 12 slaves from their father in 1808. Further back, Obama’s lineage can be traced to Mareen Duvall, a major Maryland landowner in the 17th century whose estate listed 18 slaves.
As I’ve mentioned previously, John McCain’s family owned 120 slaves on a 2,000-acre cotton plantation in Carroll County, Mississippi until the end of the Civil War. The plantation, Teoc, was first owned by William Alexander McCain, the senator’s great-great-grandfather. His son, John Sidney McCain, ran the plantation in his turn, and secured an appointment for his own son, also named John Sidney McCain, to the Naval Academy. This was Senator McCain’s grandfather, who became an admiral. McCain’s father, John Sidney McCain, Jr., also joined the Navy and became an admiral, while McCain himself, John Sidney McCain, III, left the Navy and eventually entered politics.
The slave-owning past of Barack Obama’s family is notable primarily because this is not the family background expected of someone who, in the U.S., is considered “black.”
However, this background fits in well with Obama’s personal attitudes and his campaign narrative, particularly his acknowledgment that his personal background does not allow him to fit easily within traditional racial and ethnic categories and the suggestion that Obama personally embodies the reconciliation of conflicting aspects of the American experience.
After the Obama’s connection to slavery was revealed in 2007, a representative of his campaign observed that Obama’s ancestors “are representive of America.” “While a relative owned slaves, another fought for the Union in the Civil War,” Obama spokesman Bill Burton was quoted as saying.
The following week, Obama himself acknowledged his ancestors’ slave-owning, not in written statement but in a campaign speech. Rather than minimizing the role of his family in slavery, he observed that “That’s no surprise. That’s part of our tortured, tangled history.”
The significance of McCain’s family history also speaks to our nation’s troubled history with slavery and race, but in another way.
When McCain was presented with evidence of his family’s slave owning past by reporters, his response was straightforward: “I didn’t know that.” This is quite remarkable, considering that McCain was well aware that his family had owned a cotton plantation in the deep South since before the Civil War, and that his own grandfather had grown up on this plantation. In fact, McCain himself was intimately familiar with this plantation, which was still in family hands, and spent a much time there as a child. As the son of a naval officer, McCain was born overseas and grew up on or near a variety of military installations, but he and his brother visited the plantation frequently, “often for long periods” and staying in the plantation house. In fact, his brother says that when they were children, their father “always thought of Teoc as his ‘blood ground’ and loved visiting there.”
What is perhaps most remarkable, and yet not unusual, about McCain’s lack of knowledge about his family’s ties to slavery isn’t just that he was missing what was in plain sight. It’s that he almost knew: according to the Wall Street Journal, McCain claims that he “grew to adulthood largely unaware of his family’s ties to slavery” (emphasis added).
McCain has explained, quite candidly, that he should have known, or at least strongly suspected:
I knew they had sharecroppers …. But no, I had no idea. I guess thinking about it, I guess when you really think about it logically, it shouldn’t be a surprise. They had a plantation and they fought in the Civil War so I guess that it makes sense.
It may seem difficult for some people to understand how someone could be at all aware of this family history and not be fully conscious of this fact, and not at least make a point of learning those details which would have been easy to come by.
In fact, however, this story is similar to that of the descendants of the DeWolf slave traders chronicled in Traces of the Trade. Katrina Browne, for instance, speaks in the film not only about the country’s amnesia around slavery, but also of a personal amnesia:
What hit me hard was the realization that I already knew this—knew, but somehow buried it along the way.
This phenomenon is not the amnesia in which entire parts of the country have collectively lost awareness of their role in slavery. It is a related problem in which people become aware of a painful family history, but manage to repress it, to the point where they fail to ask obvious questions or stop thinking about it to the extent that they are shocked when they are later confronted with the secret again.
It’s also worth noting that McCain’s family history suggests some of the ways in which the legacy of slavery remains with us today. McCain’s grandfather was managed to get an appointment to the Naval Academy at a time when his family were wealthy landowners, only a generation removed from owning a large number of slaves. In turn, McCain’s father and, later, McCain himself were able to follow the same path, rising to prominence in the Navy and traveling the world, returning periodically to the “blood ground” of their ancestors. One can only speculate about the impact on the McCains of growing up with a large plantation which had been in the family for generations, but the experience seems likely to have encouraged a sense of heritage, belonging, and perhaps even privilege.
Meanwhile, many of the descendants of the McCain slaves remained in the Teoc area. They had taken the name McCain, and struggled to earn a living in the violent Jim Crow South. Among other injustices, we know that McCain’s great-great-grandmother petitioned a court to take legal control of three under-aged girls whom she and her brother-in-law had owned before emancipation. Does the McCain family connection to such a terrible history suggest anything about McCain himself? No, of course not, any more than it bears on the question of whether or not he would be an appropriate figure to issue an apology or reparations for slavery. It does, however, suggest that we may underestimate the immediacy of this history to those alive today.
Today, the black and white McCains join together in family reunions. The black McCains have been told that they have been related to the white McCains since the days of slavery. John McCain’s brother attends these reunions, but the senator himself does not, thus illustrating the tensions in how Americans, even those within the same families, often approach this tangled history today.