Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Six past American presidents with African blood? (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi
President Warren Harding
Warren G. Harding, the 29th president of the United States who served between 1921 and 1923, is probably the only truly previous “black” president of the United States, if the white historian William Estabrook Chancellor was correct. And he probably was, given the unusually heightened frenzy and flurries of denials—and endorsements—that his 1920 book about the hidden African ancestry of President Harding generated.

Note that I am using the word “black” in its peculiarly American context, which is scandalously hidebound, hopelessly essentialist and, yes, notoriously out of step with commonsense notions of “blackness” worldwide. The American notion of blackness—encapsulated in the so-called “one-drop rule” which I briefly discussed in the first part of this article—conceives of blackness as an inerasable genetic stain, so that the remotest ancestral connection with Black Africa defines one as black. This preposterous logic would make most Europeans “black” since recent DNA evidence suggests that about 75 percent of Western and Southern Europeans have vestiges of African blood in them.

Well, Chancellor’s book, which was published while Harding was alive, asserted that Harding’s great grandmother was an African-American. Several historical sources said all but five copies of the book were bought and burned by Harding’s supporters and by agents of the U.S. Justice Department.

Chancellor also lost his job as a professor of politics and economics at Worcester College in the state of Ohio, where Harding hailed from. Although the book was decidedly a politically motivated screed designed to lower Harding’s standing in White America (in 1920s America, to be called black was a political death sentence), it contained treasure troves of circumstantial evidence that were, and still are, difficult to dismiss with a shrug.

Chancellor, for instance, proved that Harding was educated at Iberia College, a school specifically designed to train runaway slaves. It is also said that Harding’s in-law strongly disapproved of his daughter’s marriage to Harding because he reportedly didn’t want his bloodline to be blemished with what he considered baseborn African ancestry.

Similarly, aged residents of President Harding’s hometown of Marion, Ohio, had sworn affidavits that Elizabeth Madison, Harding’s great grandmother, was African American. And African-American historians claim that Harding himself was never forceful and categorical in his denials of his African ancestry.

According to African-American historian J.A. Rogers, when leaders of the Republican Party, Harding’s party, called on him to refute allegations that he was a closet "Negro," he reportedly said, "How should I know whether or not one of my ancestors might have jumped the fence?"

Significantly, unlike the previous American presidents we have discussed in the first part of this article, there is demonstrable proof that Harding and his immediate ancestors actually had to confront and live with rumors of their alleged suppressed African ancestry. In fact, President Harding’s official biographer, Francis Russell, devoted several pages to this issue in his 1968 book titled The Shadow of Blooming Grove.

He said the official explanation by the Harding family of the factors that led to the birth and maturation of the whispering campaign alleging that his family was “passing” for white when they were indeed black was this: Harding’s great-great-grandfather, Amos Harding, once caught and exposed a man who was cutting down his neighbor’s apple trees and that the man initiated the gossip in retribution. Interestingly, Russell dismissed this explanation as rather wishy-washy and improbable.

The rumors surfaced again with renewed vigor when Barack Obama emerged on the American political scene. In fact, the New York Times, America’s most prestigious newspaper, commissioned Beverly Gage, a well-regarded professor of modern American history from Yale University, to write a piece on the subject.

Writing in the New York Times of April 6, 2008 under the title “Our first black president?” Gage concludes: “[…] many biographers have dismissed the rumors of Harding’s mixed-race family as little more than a political scandal and Chancellor himself as a Democratic mudslinger and racist ideologue. But as with the long-denied and now all-but-proved allegations of Thomas Jefferson’s affair with his slave Sally Hemings, there is reason to question the denials. From the perspective of 2008, when interracial sex is seen as a historical fact of life instead of an abomination, the circumstantial case for Harding’s mixed-race ancestry is intriguing though not definitive.”

This cautious admission of President Harding’s “black” parentage says a lot, especially coming from a white historian from an Ivy League university.

Calvin Coolidge
President Calvin Coolidge was elected vice president and succeeded as the 30th President of the United States when President Harding died in 1923 while on a speaking tour in California. If Harding is the most probable past American president with an African ancestry, Coolidge is perhaps the least probable. However, many African-American historians think otherwise. Auset Bakhufu, author of The Six Black Presidents, claims that Coolidge was, in fact, proud of his African ancestry, a highly implausible proposition given the dishonor in which blackness was held in 1930s America.

Bakhufu claims that Coolidge’s mother was “dark” but that he explained away the darkness of his mother’s skin by attributing it to the fact of her mixed Indian heritage. Bakhufu then relies on this alleged explanation to assert that at the time Coolidge’s mother was born in New England, the American Indians there had all been intermarried with black people.

This interpretive leap stretches my credulity to the limit. It is not clear to me how a person can simultaneously be proud of his ancestry and strain hard to explain it away, thereby denying it outright.

Black American conspiracy theorists also claim that Coolidge’s mother’s maiden name was “Moor” and that Moor used to be the generic name for all black people, especially in Europe. Well, if that logic should stand, then white people whose last names are Black must be part African too!

Dwight David Eisenhower
The evidence proffered to support claims of the African ancestry of Dwight David Eisenhower, America’s 34th president who served between 1953 and 1961, is also weak and speculative. Black American historians allege that Eisenhower’s mother, Ida Elizabeth Stover, was part black and part white, which makes her— and all her descendants— “black,” according to America’s unique racial typology.

But what is the evidence that Eisenhower who, according to his officual biography was an American of German descent, was “black”? According to one conspiracy theorist, “Interviews made during the 50s uncovered some very old people who long remembered referring to Eisenhower's mother as ‘that black Links gal’.”

Another piece of “evidence” is the picture of Eisenhower’s mother on her wedding day published in his autobiography. Someone claimed the woman “would not have been able to eat in restaurants anywhere in the South before the end of segregation.” Well, I saw the picture myself and the woman looked lily-white, as Americans like to say.

Of course, in my studies of American presidential rhetoric, I discovered that Eisenhower was more obliging to African-Americans than many past American presidents. He was, for instance, the first president to deploy federal force to desegregate schools in the South. He was also the first president to invite African-American leaders to the White House, and the first to appoint a black person into an executive position in the White House.

But it’s not a persuasive argument to assert that a president’s complaisance to a historically oppressed people is an outward manifestation of his suppressed genetic relationship to the group.

But why should it matter if any past American president was part African? Why should this interest us in an age when scientists, scholars, and DNA analyses continue to explode the myth of racial exclusivity? Well, it is partly because while these progressive developments are taking place, we are also witnessing what appears like the recrudescence of nineteenth-century scientific racism on the fringes. But that’s a topic for another day.

Another reason why this is important is that America is a nation that is heavily invested in racial symbolisms. It will elevate the sense of self-worth of African-Americans if they can convince themselves (even if they can’t convince others) that some past American presidents share an ancestral linkage with them.

I also think it’s a creative inversion of the logic of one-drop rule. Most so-called black Americans are not simply African; they are an embodiment of a multiplicity of racial identities. They are “black” only because a racist power structure pronounced them so. As Langston Hughes, the eminent “African” American poet, once wrote, "You see, unfortunately, I am not black. There are lots of different kinds of blood in our family. But here in the United States, the word 'Negro' is used to mean anyone who has any Negro blood at all in his veins. In Africa, the word is more pure. It means all Negro, therefore, black. I am brown."

However, even though in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court unequivocally invalidated the one-drop rule, it continues to be employed in self-definition and the definition of others.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Six past American presidents part Africans? (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Talk of the “suppressed” racial identities of past American presidents has been grist in the rumor mills of members of the fringe in America for some time now.

In light of declarations that Barack Obama could become America’s “first black” president, there has been a resurgent buzz of insinuations in the Black American community that six of America’s past presidents were indeed “black,” implying that Obama would only be the first self-identified “black” president but actually the seventh “black” president if/when he wins in November.

Who are these past American presidents who are allegedly “black”? And what kinds of evidence have been proffered to justify the allegations?

Although discussion about America’s closet “black” presidents became more manifest in the black American community after Barack Obama became a serious contender for the American presidency, it actually began to gain currency about four years ago. In February of 2004, a certain C. Stone Brown wrote a widely circulated article for the New Jersey-based DiversityInc magazine titled “Who were the 5 Black Presidents?”

Brown’s article was inspired by three books written on the subject by fringe African American historians: Dr. Leroy Vaughn’s Black People and Their Place in History (Vaughn was actually an eye doctor), Joel A. Rogers’s The Five Negro Presidents from 1966, and Dr. Auset Bakhufu’s Six Black Presidents: Black Blood: White Masks USA. These books claim that at least six former presidents of the United States trace parts of their ancestry to West Africans enslaved to the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries and are therefore “black.”

The past American presidents often alleged to have tints of African blood in their Caucasian veins are presidents Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Dwight David Eisenhower.

Thomas Jefferson
Black American conspiracy theorists claim that Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president and chief drafter of its Declaration of Independence, who served two terms between 1801 and 1809, was black—that is, in the bizarre way “blackness” is defined in America, which I will discuss in some detail later.

The principal evidence that the Black American authors invoke in the service of their gossip that President Jefferson was “black” is an 1867 book on him by a certain Thomas Hazard titled The Johnny Cake Papers. I have not read the book myself, so I can neither independently vouch for the facticity of the claims in the book nor the accuracy of the information quoted from it.

Well, the authors said Hazard interviewed some man named Paris Gardiner who reportedly said he was present during a 1796 presidential campaign rally when one speaker publicly declared that Thomas Jefferson was “a mean-spirited son of a half-breed Indian squaw and a Virginia mulatto father.” (Note that “Indian” refers here not to the people in India in the Asian continent but to the native peoples in the Americas before the European conquest of the territory, and “squaw” is the generic term for all American Indian women).

If we believe this chain of apocryphal testimonies, then Jefferson’s father was half white and half black while his mother was half Native American and half white. By the perverted logic of the “one-drop rule,” which holds that a person with even the vaguest scintilla of African blood in his/her pedigree cannot be considered white, President Jefferson was “black” or at least non-white. As Madison Grant wrote in his racist book, The Passing of the Great Race, “The cross between a white man and an Indian is an Indian; the cross between a white man and a negro is a negro; the cross between a white man and a Hindu is a Hindu; and the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew.”

Another book that the authors reference to support their case that Jefferson was “black,” which I have also not read, is Samuel Sloan’s The Slave Children of Thomas Jefferson. In the book, Sloan is quoted to have said that Jefferson destroyed all of the papers, portraits, and personal effects of his mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson, who died on March 31, 1776. "There is something strange and even psychopathic,” Sloan is quoted to have written, “about the lengths to which Thomas Jefferson went to destroy all remembrances of his mother, while saving over 18,000 copies of his own letters and other documents for posterity."

However, I thought Jefferson should have been more concerned with destroying all records of his father rather than of his mother’s since it was his father who was allegedly a “mulatto.” In any case, historically, the notion of invariable membership in a "racial" group on account of remote genetic connection with the group has scarcely been applied to people of Native American ancestry. The concept has been largely applied to people of black African ancestry. That is why the story doesn’t strike me as credible.

Again, President Jefferson looked as typically Caucasian as any white American I know. Of course, this is not necessarily a guarantee that he doesn’t have a tincture of African blood in his ancestry. But I would have been more persuaded to believe this rumor if its evidentiary proofs were derived from authentic archival records, although archives can be destroyed and/or manipulated too.

The only relationship Jefferson had with a black person, which has been confirmed by historical records and even acknowledged by his own descendants, is that he had affairs with a slave girl named Sally Hemmings on his plantation and had up five children with her. By America’s convoluted racial classification, those children are “black.” So the best or worst thing (depending on where you stand) that can be said about Jefferson, according to extant records, is that he was the “white” father of illegitimate “black” children—in addition to his legitimate “white” children.
Andrew Jackson
President Andrew Jackson, fondly called Old Hickory, was America’s seventh president. In American history, Jackson is remembered for successfully defending New Orleans (the city recently irredeemably devastated by Hurricane Katrina) from the British in 1815 and for expanding the power of the American presidency. African-American historian J. A. Rogers who wrote the Five Black Presidents claimed that President Jackson’s putative father, Andrew Jackson Sr., actually died over a year before President Jackson was born and therefore couldn’t be his biological father.

He further claimed that upon the death of Jackson Sr., the president’s mother moved to a farm where there were African slaves. One of the slaves, Rogers claims, sired President Andrew Jackson. Again, this story stretches one’s credulity to the limit. Apart from the fact that the story is of questionable authenticity, there is nothing in President Jackson’s physical features to suggest an immediate African stemma. But, well, they say appearances can be deceptive.

Vaughn takes his claim of the part African parentage for Andrew Jackson even higher. He cites what he says was an article written in the 29th volume of The Virginia Magazine of History which allegedly stated that Jackson was the son of an Irish woman who married a black man. The magazine also allegedly asserted that Jackson’s oldest brother had been sold as a slave because of his more obvious African features. Other Black American authors cite David Coyle's 1960 book titled Ordeal of the Presidency as having provided evidence that Jackson’s brother was sold into slavery.
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th president, served between 1861 and 1865. He is most remembered for saving the Union during the American Civil War and for emancipating slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation.

J. A. Rogers cites Lincoln's mother, Nancy Hanks, as having once allegedly confessed that Abraham Lincoln was the love child from her affairs with an African man. No independent documentary evidence has been adduced to authenticate the alleged quotation from President Lincoln’s mother.

But other Black American authors eager to prove that Lincoln was “black” reference another book titled The Hidden Lincoln written by a certain William Herndon, Lincoln's alleged law partner, which purportedly averred that Lincoln had a darker than normal white skin, thick negroid hair, and that his mother was Ethiopian. The author is also alleged to have argued that Thomas Lincoln could not have been Abraham Lincoln's father because he was barren from childhood mumps and was later emasculated.

Another indication of the acknowledgement of his “blackness,” according to the authors, was that Lincoln’s political opponents allegedly made newspaper drawings that caricatured him as an African American, and derisively labeled him “Abraham Africanus the First.”

To be continued

Friday, July 4, 2008

From my mailbox

Since the return of my column about two months ago I have received lots of supportive emails from my readers. In the tradition of what I like to call discursive democracy, I have decided to reproduce a few these emails this week. I will publish the rest in subsequent weeks. I thank my readers for keeping faith with this column and for always taking the trouble to write.
You’re my motivation for reading Weekly Trust
I am particularly happy that your incisive column in the Weekly Trust is back. The disappearance of your column had left me with little to look forward to in the print media, especially during weekends. I must confess that your column is the main motivation for my patronizing Weekly Trust.

There is no better time for your return than now; with the American presidential election in the pipeline and the rise of a part African-American who has already made fundamental impacts on American and global political history.

I read your article and agree with your points. Truly we Obama supporters in Africa must come to terms with the fact that even if he wins (which is highly probable) the change he can bring as far as non-Americans are concerned will not likely be fundamental.

However, looking at the power of identity in life generally, we may have some relief, even if only a psychological one, from the hawks in American politics. I mean all these 'war on terror', 'death to America', African inferiority, and many other complex, identity-related crisis can be diffused by the psychological feeling of 'yeah-its-my-brother-on-the-driver's-seat’ mentality. So, you are most welcome back.

Secondly, as a university lecturer and an interested contributor, I will want more details on your journal, the Atlanta Review of Journalism History. Thank you.
Abdullahi S. Bashir (
Department of Information Management Technology,
Federal University of Technology, Yola,
Adamawa State.
To learn about the Atlanta Review of Journalism History and the latest call for papers, go to
Thank God you’re back

Your writing is one of my favourites in the Weekly Trust. I missed your column for months. I thank God you are now back. Keep it up!
Umar Gwadabe (
No 217, Dandago Qtrs. PMB 618, Kano State.
Back with a bang
I must welcome you back from a long sojourn. We really missed your column, but understand you were swamped by an array of academic work in Atlanta. We wish you the best of luck. Frankly, it gladdens my heart that you are back with a bang...the Obama issue is of much interest to the black race. I do hope he secures the ticket of his party and triumphs in the November polls.
We wish you more fruitful years ahead to read your pieces.
Barrister Danlami Alhaji Wushishi (

I write to greet you and to welcome back your wonderful column. All I can say is May Allah be with you and guide you.
Nura Gwanda (
Obama-Clinton ticket: You got your facts wrong
You article titled above was very good. However, I wish to draw your attention to what I consider an error. It is not correct, as you asserted, that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was 'an early opponent of an Obama-Clinton ticket.' The correct position is that Nancy (who is chair of the Denver Convention planning committee) actually thinks the ticket is a good idea. She told CNN's 'Late Edition' in April that such a ticket 'is unbeatable'. I will be glad if you can refer me to any comment she made to the contrary.
By the way, I completely agree with you that the costs of a Clinton vice presidency outweigh its benefits.
Sa'ad (
Thanks for writing. I have my facts right. Check out this link to confirm that Pelosi has always been opposed to an Obama-Clinton ticket: Or you can simply Google "Nancy Pelosi + Clinton-Obama ticket."
Obama will not win
I can see that you are very passionate about Obama, but for me I have not seen any difference between Obama, Clinton and McCain in terms of impacting positively on the development of Africa and Nigeria in particular. And even though I am not on ground to feel the pulse of Obama's surge, I am not certain if he will eventually emerge as the president of the US in November, because of so many factors ranging from race, experience, Jewish connection and a lot more. Anyway we shall wait and see.
Abdul-Rauf Musa (
Hope you won’t stop again
I just finished reading your column on Obama. Honestly I have the same fear about an Obama presidency as you concluded in your article. In as much I love Obama to win the nomination and presidency I still somehow feel that a Clinton-Obama ticket will bring in the change for a more humane American government than an Obama presidency because of the reasons you mentioned in your article. Well, our prayer is that God almighty will give us the one that will spread less evil in the world. Thank you for your change of mind to write for us again after all the persuasion. It is nice of you. Your readers (including yours sincerely) really miss your writings. I only hope you won’t stop again!
Shehu Mohammed (
Fantastic sign tune
Your piece on Obama is interesting reading. I look forward to the concluding parts. And what a fantastic sign tune on your return to your weekly column. As it’s been ages since we last communicated, remember, nevertheless, that you are fondly thought of. My very best wishes, brother. Keep it up. We are proud of you.
Mohammed Rabiu Ibrahim (
Would’ve stopped buying Weekly Trust
I am truly excited and elated that you have resumed your column this week. What a coincidence! I had openly decided to stop buying Weekly Trust as from this Saturday. It was when I bought Daily Trust that I realized how much I missed your column, and that I am more interested in learning from reading the masters than getting the news.
I sent a letter to the editor pleading for the return of your column through, and I copied it to Abdulkareem Baba Aminu ( delivery failure. But it was not published. You may wish to "upbraid" the IT people at Media Trust, though they boast of a new-look website.
Why should we be enthusiastic about Obama?
Your caution that we should not expect too much from Obama in terms of fundamental policy changes, especially in American Middle East policy, was prophetic. In fact, you said Obama, out of “exaggerated patriotism”, may be more hawkish than previous American presidents in his dealings with the Middle East. A few weeks after your article, Obama told a Jewish gathering that he wants Jerusalem to be the undivided capital of Israel! I couldn’t help recalling what you wrote. If Obama will be a worse president than previous American presidents, why should we be enthusiastic about him simply because he is part African? Or am I already suffering from what you called “crisis of rising expectations” even before Obama has a chance to be president?
Sabi’u Umar (
Your article gave me hope
It gladdened my heart when I read your article ''Other Obama's in Black America (II)” in the Weekly Trust of 28th June, 2008.
It shows that someone like me who is an unemployed graduate is feeling what black Americans felt prior to the kind of sacrifice made by people of substance in America such as Martin Luther King, among others. I got a signal of hope from you through your article. Before any change in our country, Nigeria, there must be sacrifice. I gained a lot from you and I wouldn't mind more of your wisdom, sir.
Biliaminu Ayokunle Balogun (