Hiding the White Branch in the Black Family Tree

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Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, was promoting her memoir Tuesday about growing up in Wyoming when she told MSNBC anchor Nora O'Donnell about one surprising part of her research:

"One of the things I discovered is that Dick and Barack Obama are eighth cousins," Lynne Cheney announced.

She explained that going back eight generations, the vice president and the Illinois senator have a common ancestor. The two are related through a French immigrant on Dick Cheney's father's side, and Obama's mother's side of their respective families.

While that information might have been an eye opener for a lot of white Americans, it didn't raise many eyebrows when we floated the news past a few African Americans outside Los Angeles.

"I just think that the whole thing is stupid," Norma Batiste said. "If they were related, so what?"

A lot of black Americans have similar reactions. Many are ambivalent about having white ancestors, and they don't spend much time hunting for them.

Los Angeles journalist Gayle Pollard-Terry says that growing up, she always wondered why her mother would never admit where her fair skin and straight hair came from.

"My mother didn't tell me until I was well into middle-aged that her grandfather was white. She talked about it a little bit after Strom Thurmond's daughter, Mrs. Williams, came forward," Pollard-Terry said.

Pollard-Terry says that the revelation by Essie Mae Washington Williams that she is Strom Thurmond's daughter, made it easier for her mother to acknowledge that her own grandfather was white. But it didn't make her any more interested in including him in the family tree.

"It was almost as if she was embarrassed that our family had white blood," Pollard-Terry said.

Valencia King Nelson is the founder of Afrigeneas, the world's largest Web site for black genealogy. She says that Lynne Cheney's casual announcement that her husband has a black relative is a sign of progress.

"Earlier on, would it have been a better-kept secret? Probably so, in some circles," she said.

Now, she says, most Americans are more relaxed about their ancestry and their avid research has resulted in a lot of pairings that would have been considered strange in the past.

"I don't think it's strange at all," she says. "As you know, we call come from one source, and we're just better able to explain what that source is."

That source is East Africa, where a certain part-African presidential candidate's father was born, and where a future family reunion just might include a white guy named Cousin Dick.

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