One People, All Colors
BIG STONE GAP — America is often described as a melting pot, a nation where different ethnicities and cultures have assimilated into a cohesive union.
In her recently published novel, Washed in the Blood, author Lisa Alther, a Kingsport, Tenn. native, focuses on this notion by exploring the early history of the southern Appalachians and chronicling the story of several generations of a multi-ethnic family who lived in the region.
The book begins with the arrival of Diego Martin, a hog drover who came to the region with a Spanish exploring party in the 16th century. Martin is abandoned by the expedition's leader in the wilderness, but is rescued by "friendly natives." Alther's book chronicles Martin's descendants through the early 20th century as they struggle to survive and gain acceptance in a racially charged era.
Alther discussed this and another of her recently published books during the Melungeon Heritage Association's gathering last weekend.
She told those gathered that she had researched the novel for 10 years, beginning in 1996; the book was published last fall.
The novel focuses on the racial mixing that occurred in the region, though Alther said she abstained from using the term "Melungeon," noting that through her research she has concluded that there is no such thing as the "Melungeon Story." Each family whose ancestors made their way inland from the coast to the mountains has stories of the different ethnicities that were absorbed along the way, she said.
"As a result, if we considered the people on Newman's Ridge with the standard Melungeon names as the Melungeons, it seems to me that they're just the tip of the iceberg, that there are Melungeon-like groups all over the eastern third of the United States," she said.
A description of the novel on Alther's website notes that the Southeast "was not a barren wilderness when the English arrived at Jamestown. It was full of Native Americans, other Europeans, and Africans who were there for various reasons."
"As the explorers and soldiers and settlers and their servants of varying ethnicities . . . arrived at the coast and as they worked their way inward, they collided with the native tribes and they mixed and mingled, as people always do, and the result was, as the years went by, some racially ambiguous people," Alther explained. She ventured that those who appeared to be Native American or African or white joined their respective communities, but those whose ancestral origins were uncertain or those who did not want to leave family or friends created their own communities in locations considered undesirable by Europeans — swamplands or ridgetops. Here, they kept to themselves and were largely excluded and stigmatized by the surrounding communities. She said it was assumed these individuals had African ancestry, no matter what their real ancestry might have been.
These communities existed into the 20th century, she explained, with about 200 of these ethnically ambiguous groups located in the northeastern and southeastern U.S.
Through the characters in her book, Alther explores how these different ethnic groups could have blended, as well as what happened to them at a time when discriminatory laws regarding race were being implemented.
Alther has published six novels, including Washed in the Blood. Most recently, she published the narrative history, Blood Feud: The Hatfields and the McCoys: The Epic Story of Murder and Vengeance. She also has a collection of short stories, Stormy Weather and Other Stories, that will be published in September.
MHA thanks the Coalfield Progress for permission to reproduce this article from the July 6, 2012 edition.