Becoming Melungeon: Making an Ethnic Identity in the Appalachian South

Becoming Melungeon: Making an Ethnic Identity in the Appalachian South

by Melissa Schrift
Becoming Melungeon: Making an Ethnic Identity in the Appalachian South

Becoming Melungeon: Making an Ethnic Identity in the Appalachian South

by Melissa Schrift


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Appalachian legend describes a mysterious, multiethnic population of exotic, dark-skinned rogues called Melungeons who rejected the outside world and lived in the remote, rugged mountains in the farthest corner of northeast Tennessee. The allegedly unknown origins of these Melungeons are part of what drove this legend and generated myriad exotic origin theories. Though nobody self-identified as Melungeon before the 1960s, by the 1990s “Melungeonness” had become a full-fledged cultural phenomenon, resulting in a zealous online community and annual meetings where self-identified Melungeons gathered to discuss shared genealogy and history. Although today Melungeons are commonly identified as the descendants of underclass whites, freed African Americans, and Native Americans, this ethnic identity is still largely a social construction based on local tradition, myth, and media.

In Becoming Melungeon, Melissa Schrift examines the ways in which the Melungeon ethnic identity has been socially constructed over time by various regional and national media, plays, and other forms of popular culture. Schrift explores how the social construction of this legend evolved into a fervent movement of a self-identified ethnicity in the 1990s. This illuminating and insightful work examines the shifting social constructions of race, ethnicity, and identity both in the local context of the Melungeons and more broadly in an attempt to understand the formation of ethnic groups and identity in the modern world.

Melissa Schrift is an associate professor of anthropology at East Tennessee State University. She is the author of Biography of a Chairman Mao Badge: The Creation and Mass Consumption of a Personality Cult.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496210067
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 08/01/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 232
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Melissa Schrift is an associate professor of anthropology at East Tennessee State University. She is the author of Biography of a Chairman Mao Badge: The Creation and Mass Consumption of a Personality Cult.

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Inventing the Melungeons

As many mixed-race individuals struggled to pass — and disappear — into white society, their mythical shadow surfaced in popular writing. The mythical Melungeon, or the image that emerged from the media, materialized in a time period that involved a trio of historical forces. These included a national literary phase of local color writing, the pursuit of missionary agendas in the Appalachia region, and the industrialization of Appalachia.

Appalachia as a distinct region became prominent in the national imagination primarily through local color writers who returned from brief visits to the region with lively depictions of a "strange land and peculiar people." The local color school was a national post — Civil War phenomenon that aimed to illustrate the heterogeneity of the nation's minority pockets. Local color writing served to accentuate — without threatening — the national rhetoric of a unified nation. Aimed primarily toward middle class, urban, literate Northerners, local color writing accessorized the new national theme of homogeneity with quaint and lively footnotes (Drake 2001, 123; Shapiro 1978, 3). The local color school was not specific to the Appalachia region; however, Appalachia proved fertile ground for the colorful narratives of the era. The effect of local color writing in Appalachia, and elsewhere, was to create images of an exotic otherness. In Appalachia this image evolved into what Anthony Harkins (2004, 29) terms the "dualistic icon of the hillbilly-mountaineer." According to Harkins, the early hillbilly characterizations introduced a quirky and carefree simpleton, living in poverty without knowledge of or interest in modernity. However this image changed with the push toward industrialization, and the mountaineer emerged as a menace to civilization (Harkins 2004). These coexisting images presented a complex picture with the cumulative effect of romanticizing a preindustrial past while simultaneously celebrating and, inevitably, rationalizing the industrial future.

As missionary pursuits proliferated in the mountains, missionaries borrowed from and elaborated on the Appalachian narrative (Shapiro 1978). The uplift literature of the missionaries retold stories of the simple mountaineer, yet, increasingly, invoked hints of a necessary change among the unschooled and unchurched mountain people. From the vantage point of missionaries, Appalachia became less an amusement and more of a challenge. Thus the missionary agenda aligned naturally with the modernization of Appalachia. Economic advancement became part of the logic of missionary benevolence, and by the turn of the century the invention of Appalachian need had successfully resulted in the introduction of roads and railways and the expansion of the mining industries (Shapiro 1978). It is within this context that the first popular writings on Melungeons appear.

In this chapter I begin a discussion of media representations of Melungeons from the late 1800s to the present. In particular, I focus on the early, seminal articles that introduced Melungeons to the popular public. The cultural significance of these early writings cannot be underestimated, as they are integral in establishing the foundation of the Melungeon legend. These are the sources through which individuals today untangle Melungeon histories and identities; most, if not all, popular writings that follow either retell or refer to these early writings as original knowledge or lore. Yet, early media representations of Melungeons raise profound issues of ethnographic legitimacy. These early authors offer little to no context and often add fantastical details, resulting in a media-constructed version of identity that lacks any credibility.

In the Beginning

An article in the nineteenth-century magazine Littell's Living Age provides an appropriate starting point to discuss popular writing on Melungeons. As pointed out by C. S. Everett (1999), this article represents the first textual use of "Melungeon" to refer specifically to a mixed-race population in Hancock County, Tennessee. The article identifies the writer only as an "intelligent and sprightly correspondent, sojourning at present in one of the seldom-visited nooks hid away in our mountains" (The Melungeons 1849, 618). The original source of the piece is unknown, though Everett (1999) states that it was reprinted first in the Knoxville Register in 1848.

The Littell's article becomes immediately suspect as the author characterizes Melungeon culture. Although the author acknowledges traveling to Hancock County with a local doctor and visiting "old Vardy," the piece reads more as a folksy adventure tale than an ethnographic account (although readers are assured that "this is no traveler's story"). The author claims that the Melungeons formed a delightful utopia that prioritized drinking and debauchery over marriage and religion. As illustration, the writer relays a suspiciously colorful adventure with the Melungeons:

We arrived at Vardy's in time for our supper, and, that dispatched, we went to the spring, where were assembled several rude log huts, and a small sprinkling of "the natives," together with a fiddle and other preparations for a dance. Shoes, stockings, and coats were unknown luxuries among them — at least we saw them not. The dance was engaged in with right heart good will, and would have put to the blush the tame steppings of our beaux. Among the participants was a very tall, raw-boned damsel, with her two garments fluttering readily in the amorous night breeze, whose black eyes were lit up with an unusual fire from repeated visits to the nearest hut, behind the door of which was placed an open-mouthed stone jar of new-made corn whiskey, and in which was a gourd, with a "deuce a bit" of sugar at all, and no water nearer than the spring. Nearest her on the right was a lank, lantern-jawed, high-cheeked, long-legged fellow, who seemed similarly elevated. Now these two, Jord Bilson (that was he) and Syl Varmin (that was she) were destined to afford the amusement of the evening; for Jord, in cutting the pigeon-wing, chanced to light from one of his aerial flights right upon the ponderous pedal appendage of Syl, a compliment which this amiable lady seemed in no way disposed to accept kindly.

"Jord Bilson," said the tender Syl, "I'll thank you to keep your darned hoofs off my feet."

"Oh, Jord's feet are so tarnal big he can't manage 'em all by hisself," suggested some pacificator near by.

"He'll have to keep 'em off me," suggested Syl, "or I'll shorten 'em for him."

"Now look ye here, Syl Varmin," answered Jord, somewhat nettled at both remarks, "I didn't go to tread on your feet, but I don't want you to be cutting up any rusties about. You're nothing but a cross-grained critter, anyhow."

"And you're a darned Melungen."

"Well, if I am, I ain't nigger-Melungen, anyhow — I'm Indian-Melungen, and that's more 'an you is."

The writer further describes a "grand me lee" involving the entire group, during which Syl Varmin exacts revenge. According to the author, everyone reconciles and refills the alcohol in the morning. The author promises to regale his readers with more "amusing incidents," although a sequel to the Littell's article never materialized.

As ethnographic source, this sketch is problematic in several ways. Since the author is unknown, no background exists for the story. Readers have no idea who visited Hancock County, when, for how long, and under what circumstances. The alleged remoteness and insular nature of the Melungeon community — by the author's own admission — suggests an environment in which it seems unlikely, at best, that an outsider would be welcomed into the middle of a drunken Melungeon jamboree-cum-brawl. It seems equally unlikely that individuals would have identified themselves — or their combative associates — as Melungeons, particularly in such light-hearted ways, given that the term is understood to have been a negative racial epithet. The story is also rife with stereotypes of Appalachians as barefoot, feuding moonshiners, and the droll delivery is typical of antebellum humor pieces of the time (Ivey 1976).

Another commonly referenced early source on Melungeons involves a brief commentary by Swan Burnett, published in the American Anthropologist in 1889. Burnett was not an anthropologist and, by his own admission, was not basing his commentary on field research: "It was not, however, until I had left east Tennessee and become interested in anthropology ... that the peculiarities of this people came to have any real significance for me, and I was then too far away to investigate the matter personally to the extent I desired. I have, however, for several years past pursued my inquiries as best I could through various parties living in the country and visiting it, but with no very pronounced success"(Burnett 1889). Despite Burnett's disclaimer, his commentary is published in a prominent academic journal and written in an ethnographic voice. He describes the Melungeons: "They are dark but of a different hue to the ordinary mulatto, with either straight or wavy hair, and some have cheek bones almost as high as the Indians. The men are usually straight, large and fine looking, while one old woman I saw was sufficiently haglike to have sat for the original Meg Merriles."

Wayne Winkler (2004) suggests that Burnett's article may well have been the catalyst for a female Nashville reporter named Will Allen Dromgoole, whose infamous writings resulted in the most significant momentum to the popular Melungeon narrative. Dromgoole's articles were sensationalistic and ethnocentric, producing a national template for future media coverage on Melungeons. The significance of Dromgoole's work rests with the fact that she visited Hancock County and talked to people who lived there. This attempt at cultural immersion imbued her work with the illusion of an ethnographic authority that subsequent journalists rarely questioned.

What is interesting in Dromgoole's writing is that little actual evidence exists that the people she talked to or interacted with identified as, or were identified by others, as Melungeons. The great irony of her work (and most early writing on Melungeons) is that she did not and, presumably, dared not use the term "Melungeon," as it was regarded as an insult. Although Dromgoole makes reference to Melungeons in a way that suggests she uncovered the mysteries of their culture, she offers little detail beyond impressionistic assumptions. The exaggerated and inflammatory nature of her depictions reveals less about Melungeons and more about her attempt to establish the legitimacy of being in a strange and different place with strange and different people. Her labored account of finding the Melungeons in the wilds of southern Appalachia is telling:

Away up in an extreme corner of Tennessee I found them — them or it, for what I found is a remnant of a lost or forgotten race, huddled together in a sterile and isolated strip of land in one of the most inaccessible quarters of Tennessee. When I started out upon my hunt for the Malungeons various opinions and vague whispers were afloat concerning my sanity. My friends were too kind to do more than shake their heads and declare they never heard of such a people. But the less intimate of my acquaintances coolly informed me that I was "going on a wild-goose chase" and were quite willing to "bet their ears" I would never get nearer a Malungeon than at that moment. One dear old lady with more faith in the existence of the Malungeons than in my ability to cope with them begged me to insure my life before starting and to carry a loaded pistol. Another, not so dear and not so precautious, informed me that she "didn't believe in women gadding about the country alone, nohow." Still, I went, I saw and I shall conquer. (Dromgoole 1890a)

Dromgoole elaborates on her pilgrimage with assurances that her only agenda is a martyred ambition to seek truth: "Just here let me say if any one supposes I made the trip for the fun it might afford, he is mistaken. If any one supposes it was prompted by a spirit of adventure, or a love for the wild and untried, he is grievously in error. I have never experienced more difficulty in traveling, suffered more inconvenience, discomfort, bodily fatigue, and real dread of danger. It required almost superhuman effort to carry me on, and more than once, or a dozen times, was I tempted to give up" (Dromgoole 1890a).

Once she establishes that she was there, Dromgoole resorts to other tactics to make clear that she was in no typical Appalachian community. One of her first descriptions of a church gathering provides a stark portrait of the gross immorality of miscegenation: I went one day to preaching on Big Sycamore, where the people are more mixed than on their native mountains. I found here all colors — white women with white children and white husbands, Malungeon women with brown babies and white babies, and one, a young copper-colored woman with black eyes and straight Indian locks, had three black babies, negroes, at her heels and a third [sic] at her breast. She was not a negro. Her skin was red, a kind of reddish-yellow as easily distinguishable from a mulatto as the white man from the negro. I saw an old colored man, black as the oft-quoted aces of spades, whose wife is a white woman. (Dromgoole 1890a)

Amidst this heyday of racial integration, Dromgoole attempts to distinguish pure Melungeons as individuals who bear a physical presence similar to Native Americans: "They are certainly very Indian-like in appearance. The men are tall, straight, clean-shaven, with small, sharp eyes, hooked noses and high cheek bones. They wear their hair long, a great many of them, and evidently enjoy their resemblance to the red man." Despite Dromgoole's repeated references to a Native American physicality, she tends to digress with odd commentaries on the ugliness of Melungeon women. For example she notes that the women are "small, graceful, dark and ugly." She seems to find favor only with the women's merry laugh and "small and well shaped" feet (Dromgoole 1890a).

In general, it is difficult to fully accept Dromgoole's physical depictions of the people with whom she visited, as her theatrical narrative often borders on the hysterical. During one visit, for example, she describes the entrance of a mother (or "Mai" as Dromgoole transcribes the dialect): "Mai came, and the saints and hobgoblins! The witch of Endor calling dead Saul from sepulchral darkness would have calked her ears and fled forever at the sight of this living, breathing Malungeon witch. Shakespeare would have shrieked in agony and chucked his own weird sisters where neither 'thunder, lighting nor rain' would ever have found them more. Even poor tipsy, turvy Tam O'Shanter would have drawn up his gray mare and forgotten to fly before this, mightier than Meg Merrilles herself" (Dromgoole 1890a).

Of particular interest in Dromgoole's portrayal of Mai is her allusion to Meg Merrilles, the very same reference made by Burnett one year earlier. It is unlikely that this is coincidental; Dromgoole probably borrowed from Burnett without acknowledging him. This does not, of course, invalidate Dromgoole's work, in and of itself, as writers of the time operated under entirely different codes of conduct in terms of publication. The reference does, however, signal Dromgoole's preference for melodramatic innovation over straightforward description.

In addition to describing physical appearances, Dromgoole spends a great deal of time recounting her perception of Melungeon lifestyles. Perhaps even more so than with physical descriptions, Dromgoole's assessment of Melungeon cultural traits ranges from the ethnocentric to the absurd. She describes the Melungeons as lazy, immoral, illiterate, filthy, violent, superstitious, defiant, cowardly, mysterious, and primitive. Although Dromgoole's descriptions are not far removed from other ethnocentric versions of Appalachians, she repeatedly attempts to make the case that the characteristics she describes are, indeed, proof that she is among a distinct group of people: "They are totally unlike the native Tennessee mountaineer, unlike him in every way. The mountaineer is liberal, trustful and open. The Malungeon wants pay (not much, but something) for the slightest favor. He is curious and suspicious and given to lying and stealing, things unknown among the native mountaineers" (Dromgoole 1890b).

Dromgoole continues to contrast the Melungeon with the typical Appalachian: "I paid fifteen cents for my dinner. A mountaineer would have knocked you down had you offered money for dinner under such circumstances. Bah! The Malungeon is no more a mountaineer than am I, born in the heart of the old Volunteer state" (Dromgoole 1890b). Dromgoole's resentment of her host's request for compensation — and the obvious categorization of her as outsider — fuels her malicious distinction between Melungeon and mountaineer:

They are not at all like the Tennessee mountaineer either in appearance or characteristics. The mountaineer, however poor, is clean — cleanliness itself. He is honest. ... he is generous, trustful, until once betrayed, truthful, brave, and possessing many of the noblest and keenest sensibilities. The Malungeons are filthy, their home is filthy. They are rogues, natural, "born rogues," close, suspicious, inhospitable, untruthful, cowardly, and to use their own word, "sneaky." They are exceedingly inquisitive too, and will trail a visitor to the Ridge for miles, through seemingly impenetrable jungles, to discover, if may be, the object of his visit. They expect remuneration for the slightest service. The mountaineer's door stands open, or at most the string of the latch dangles upon the "outside." He takes you for what you seem until you shall prove yourself otherwise. (Dromgoole 1891)


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Race, Identity, and the Melungeon Legend 1

Chapter 1 Inventing the Melungeons 33

Chapter 2 Melungeons and Media Representation 51

Chapter 3 Playing the First Melungeons 69

Chapter 4 Becoming Melungeon 87

Chapter 5 The Mediterranean Mystique 113

Chapter 6 The Melungeon Core 141

Closing Thoughts 179

Appendix 1 Melungeon Questionnaire 187

Appendix 2 Media Articles 191

Notes 209

Works Cited 211

Index 219

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