Barack Obama’s Sixth Cousin: I Love the President But Not Genealogy

You don't need to know your genealogy to know yourself

The siren song of Ancestry.com.

Beware the siren song of Ancestry.com. Getty Images.

Thanks to Ancestry.com, I discovered I am President Barack Obama’s sixth cousin, once removed through his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. Mr. Obama’s great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Armwell Holloway, born 1777, had a younger brother who produced my mother’s limb of the tree.

As a white blonde and a proud Democrat who lives in Manhattan, the connection with POTUS initially thrilled me, especially because I was raised in Indiana where most of my family votes Republican. “Obama sympathizes with ISIS,” bellowed a spirited in-law at Thanksgiving.

But as I learned more about my famous kin, who is only 13 years older than me, I felt not relief at understanding my alienation, but instead inadequacy. This leader of the free world won the Nobel Peace Prize; I helped eradicate bed bugs at my job at a senior center. Mr. Obama lives in the White House and vacations in Hawaii; I rent a one-bedroom in Inwood and vacation in Indiana.

So I sought less sainted stock, shelling out $99 more for Ancestry.com’s DNA kit, knowing I was German. According to my saliva test, however, I am 36 percent Scandinavian, 20 percent British, 12 percent Irish, and 1 percent African with no mention of Germany. Unlike the irritating spokesperson in the Ancestry.com ad, who cheerfully switched from lederhosen to kilts, I needed an aquavit.

I had clung to the weak threads of my supposed background, even learning to bake zwetschgenkuchen. I gathered tips from my native-born clients who argued about rum versus sugar as the best way to sweeten plums in the traditional German cake. When they devoured my samples, I felt a blast of serotonin and pride. For years, I had witnessed similar pride during Fifth Avenue parades celebrating Italy, Ireland, etc. But without a definite homeland with all its food and finery—culture—who was I?

My brother Nick received different results from his DNA test. According to a map, his family migrated from the Fertile Crescent, present day Syria and Iraq. My report didn’t highlight those regions. I wondered: Did our parents attend a key party? Nick assured me he took the test when it was less precise. But my mind churned disturbing possibilities. Not only was I mostly Scandinavian and not completely German, I was related to Mr. Obama but not my brother.

In a nation of immigrants, genealogy is seductive, the activity trails only porn as an Internet activity. But distant kin, I realize, have nothing to do with me or my potential. I am never going to be as important as cousin Barack, despite our connection. Nor should I expect invites to Stockholm from newfound family. The more I snooped into the past, the worse I felt, since Ancestry.com didn’t provide explanations for what I unearthed—just a cold string of facts. My true reality existed in my own sensible shoes. It always had.

That’s when I logged out of the shadows of forefathers to get a life.

Barack Obama’s Sixth Cousin: I Love the President But Not Genealogy