One People, All Colors
The notion that Melungeons are in denial about their ancestry misrepresents the history of these mixed-race peoples, says a researcher.
A study published last April in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy — and mass media reports of the study — were "horribly unfair," said Paul Johnson, corresponding secretary and vice president of the Melungeon Heritage Association, which held its 16th union last weekend at Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park.
The DNA study was limited to people whose families were called Melungeon in the historical records of the 1800s and early 1900s in two northeast Tennessee counties, Hawkins and Hancock, on the Virginia border.
The word "Melungeon" was used as a slur to describe a group of about 40 families along the Tennessee-Virginia border as long ago as the early 1800s, but the term has since become a catch-all phrase for a number of groups of mixed-race ancestry, according to reports of the genetics study.
The study concluded that Melungeon families are the offspring of sub-Saharan African men and women of northern or central European origin.
Press reports have claimed that the study's results upset people who claim Melungeon ancestry and say they can trace their lineage to more "exotic" sources, such as Turkish slaves or Gypsies.
One press report quoted the study's lead researcher, Roberta Estes, as saying, "there were a whole lot of people upset by this study. They just knew they were Portuguese, or Native American."
The implication of the report was that, a century and more ago, Melungeons hid their African-American ancestry and that modern-day Melungeons in turn romanticized their origins. The study said that, in the 1800s, Melungeons denied their African-American heritage in order to retain a white identity at a time when laws penalized individuals with African-American blood.
"I find myself disagreeing with the narrative put out there" by reports of the genetics study, Johnson said. "Not to say that that's not a factor. But that people told lies to cover up the truth is horribly unfair, because what they did was tell stories to cover up their ignorance."
"You have generations of illiteracy, and even if they're literate in terms of some reading and writing, what's their historical literacy?" Johnson said of earlier generations of Melungeons. "They probably didn't even know what an African was, but the knew what an Indian was. So they reached for an easy explanation."
Johnson, himself the author of several books, including one related to mixed ancestry, said Melungeons themselves had already affirmed their African-American ancestry.
Johnson's research into his own ancestry produced the book Pell Mellers: Race and Memory in a Carolina Pocosin.
In the core Melungeon area of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, "the general response was, there's really nothing new here," Johnson said of reaction to the study. "The affirmation of African-American ancestry was made by Melungeons to outsiders as far back as the 1890s and in 1848."
Those Melungeons, Johnson said, listed Native American, English, African and Portuguese lines in their ancestry, a result of the "waves of people arriving on these ridges," Johnson said. "There's nothing about the data that upsets anybody. The report, and especially the AP (Associated Press) story portrayed Melungeons as in denial about their ancestry. The idea was that these were people who could not face the truth about their ancestry. ... Nobody has a problem with the truth of the data, only the interpretation."
Racial mixing has been common since the colonial period, and Melungeon heritage has more to do with culture than with DNA. As sociologist G. Reginald Daniel, who has spent more than 30 years examining mulit-racial peoples, was quoted as saying, "all of us are multi-racial."
CULTURE, NOT DNA
The term "tri-racial isolate," used to describe populations with Native American, African-American and white European ancestry, is "not a description of an individual's DNA; it's a description of a community," Johnson said. "In isolated locations, people white, black and Indian were able to intermarry. By living that way, they became outlaws or outcasts who were not living according to the rules of the society around them. It doesn't mean Melungeons were necessarily discriminated against, but because they were living up on a ridge" they were isolated and held ideas that were outside the mainstream, Johnson said.
Or, as Arwin Smallwood put it, referring to two Native American tribes of the Southeast, "it's not genetics or blood that makes you Tuscarora or Iroquois, it's the culture. So you had Africans, Native Americans and whites who were brought into the nation that way."
Smallwood, who holds a doctorate in American history, studies the intersections between Caucasian, African-American and Native American peoples in the colonial period.
"When the Tuscarora and other native peoples adopted people — all kinds of people — in that adoption process, the genetics aren't going to change. The white women, for example, are considered Indian, but their genetics won't change," Smallwood said.
Racial mixing in the New World dates to the 1500s, said Julie Williams Dixon, who is originally from Wise and who filmed "Melungeon Voices."
Or, as Smallwood explained, intermarriage was common as the native peoples migrated from east to west ahead of the European settlers. "Pocahontas was not unusual; that was the norm," Smallwood said. "A lot of single men came and took native wives." Ties with the native peoples allowed European men to establish themselves in such enterprises as fur trading.
Media reports of the recently published genetics study "boiled a complex, beautifully nuanced story into a conflict," Dixon said. "The story is hard to report on or summarize, and that's what this group (the Melungeon Heritage Association) is trying to do. What's the context in which the Melungeon story even unfolded?"
The mountainous frontier was a "magnet" for people attracted to freedoms that weren't available in more settled areas, Johnson said, drawing individuals to the "free and easy life" of the Native Americans. "The first generations of Melungeons supposedly lived like Indians, regardless of their genetics. They might have been purely European or African, but when they arrived, their way of life was Indian."
Or, as Johnson summarized with one striking image, people in Melungeon communities twisted their tobacco the way Native Americans did, not the way Europeans did.
MHA thanks the Coalfield Progress for permission to archive this article from the July 6, 2012 edition.