Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Melungeon Ethnogenesis - Part II




            The Melungeons are a people-of-color ethnic group dwelling in the south-central Appalachian Mountains (Ball 1992; Bible 1975; Burnett 1889; Kennedy 1994/7).  Their heaviest concentration lies in the rural, mountainous intersection of eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, eastern Kentucky, western Virginia, and southern West Virginia [see map, Exhibit One].  Other Melungeon communities are found in southern Ohio (the Mt. Carmel Indians), central Tennessee near Chattanooga (Graysville Melungeons), and Sand Mountain, Alabama (Gilbert 1947, Kessler and Ball 2001; Nassau 1994). Estimates of the size of the Melungeon population range from 50,000 to 250,000+ (Beale 1957; Cavender 1981; DeMarce 1992; Elliott 1997; Werner 1973).

            The importance of the Melungeons to consumer behavior theory, and also to the anthropological, sociological, and historical literatures, is their origin as a people and ‘re-discovery’ both by themselves and by social scientists in the 1970’s, 1980’s and especially 1990’s.  Melungeon origins were shrouded in mystery due to several factors: (1) the absence of accurate historical records regarding their ancestry, culture and date(s) of arrival in the Appalachians,  (2) debate both within and outside the group over ‘who’ or ‘what’ is a Melungeon, and (3) purposeful misrepresentation of the group’s ancestry by various political stakeholders.   

Social Science Research          

Anthropological research on Melungeons (Burnett 1889, Pollitzer and Brown 1969, Pollitzer 1972) at first suggested, and then subsequently rejected (Guthrie 1990), a tri-racial origin (Black, White, Indian) for the group.  Cast culturally as a haphazard mixture of renegade Indians, escaped African slaves and outlaw whites early on, the Melungeons came to view themselves – and be viewed by others – as ethnic discards, pariahs and racial outcasts (DeMarce 1992, 1993, 1996; Kessler and Ball 2001).

            However, more recent (Ball 1992, Bible 1975) and current (Kennedy 1994/97) research on the Melungeons suggests a much more succinct set of origins for the group; one that is rooted in socio-cultural factors, rather than the racial categories so often called upon to frame ethnic relations in the Southeastern U.S.  At present, biogenetic, historical, genealogical and anthropological evidence appear to converge on the notion that the Melungeons originated with Spanish and Portuguese colonists and soldiers who arrived in the mid-1500’s (possibly as early as De Soto’s expeditions in 1540) and intermarried with Southeastern American Indian communities such as the Saponi, Powhatan, Cheraw, Choctaw, Yuchi, Cherokee, Pamunkey, Mataponi, and Catawba (Elliott 1997; Everett 1999; Feest 1989; Goins 2000; Merrell 1989; Mira 2001; Mira 1998; Rountree 1990; Wilson 2001; Wilson 1992; Wood and Shields 2000).

            In the latest studies, (Hirschman 2003, Kennedy 1997, Yates 2003), researchers have argued that these early Iberian colonists are more accurately to be regarded as Sephardic Jews and Muslim Moors who had superficially converted to Christianity in order to escape the Spanish Inquisition and then made their way to the New World as colonists (and away from possible religious persecution in Europe).  This line of reasoning proposes that once on North American shores in what were to become South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, it would have been prudent for these colonists to desert their Spanish settlements (where the Inquisition’s tribunals soon followed) and make their way inland to the mountains.  The presence of Sephardic surnames among the Melungeons such as Chavis, Driggers (Rodrigues), Perry (Perrira), Rivas/Reeves, Lopes, and Steel (Castille) lends support to this argument.  Once in the mountains, these Spanish colonists would have intermarried with the resident Indian population, forming a bi-cultural/bi-racial community.

            After these initial Jewish-Muslim-Native American communities were formed, it is proposed, additional settlers of Sephardic and Moorish descent, coming from way stations in Holland, France, Germany, Switzerland, and England, supplemented the population, shifting its ethnic composition further toward Mediterranean, Semitic and North African ancestry (Hirschman 2005).  Surnames in the latter waves included, for example, Blackamoor, Allee, Cassel, Israel, Jacobs, Isbell, Hart, Hartsock (Hertzog), Mayo, Caro, Ferris, Talliaferro, Silber, Abrahams, Rasnick, Hassan, Remy, Cowan, and Isaacs; while Melungeon given names included, for instance, Allaphar, Adoniram, Mecca, Mahala, Talitha, Omar, Dionysus, Mosco, Juanita, Pharabba, Palestine, Esther, Sabra, Nimrod, Cyrus, Rico, Alonzo, Orra and Dovie (Hirschman 2005).

            Popular and scientific interest in the Melungeons was revived in 1994 with the publication of Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People by N. Brent Kennedy, a Melungeon born in Wise, Virginia.  After recovering from a near fatal attack of Familial Mediterranean Fever (FMF), a genetically-linked illness unique to Mediterranean and Semitic peoples, Kennedy began investigating his own ancestry in order to discover how “a Scotch-Irish white boy could get a Mediterranean-Jewish-Arab disease”[i] – especially one requiring the presence of a recessive gene in both paternal and maternal ancestry.  Kennedy’s decidedly “non-white boy” appearance (see www.Melungeon.org for an assortment of Melungeon photographs), as well as those of his parents, cousins and several neighbors dwelling in western Virginia’s Wise, Lee, and Scott counties, together with his discovery of falsified family records claiming “white” ancestry, led him to speculate that he was, in fact, of Melungeon descent.

            Kennedy had grown up in Appalachia and beenearly introduced to the term Melungeon; it referred to a mysterious, almost mythical, group of people who dwelled in the nearby mountains in remote settlements.  They were usually described as dark skinned, dark-haired and European-featured, occasionally with dark blue eyes (Ball 1992; Bible 1975).  According to local folklore, they were the descendants of shipwrecked Portuguese sailors or Roanoke Island colonists[ii] who had intermarried with Indians and lived apart from white people.  In some accounts they were described as peaceful and shy; while others described them as violent and criminal (Ball 1976).  Kennedy recalled actually seeing some ‘real’ (i.e., publicly labeled) Melungeons as a child near his home in southwestern Virginia (Kennedy 1997).

            Unexpectedly, Kennedy’s book sold in the tens of thousands of copies.  In it, he had included a list of Appalachian surnames whose genealogies indicated Melungeon ancestry.  He also included photographs of several Melungeons from the mid-1800’s to early 1900’s who had lived in eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, North Carolina, and West Virginia, as well as Virginia.  He proposed that there were ancestral and cultural linkages between the Appalachian Melungeons and the North Carolina Lumbee Indians, the Pamunkey, Catawba, Powhatan and Eastern Band Cherokee Indian nations and Mestizo groups such as the Red Bones, Brass Ankles, Turks, and Cajuns of the coastal southeastern U.S. (Kennedy 1997). 

Within a four to five year period, many persons in Appalachia who had “gone to bed white, woke up to find themselves brown[iii]”.  And what was (possibly) more troubling – having gone to bed Christian, they awoke to find themselves having potentially Jewish and/or Muslim ancestry (Hirschman 2003).  The seemingly quaint practices of their grandparents – for instance, naming children Mecca, Omar, Menorah and Alzina, discarding eggs with blood spots, avoiding pork, and thoroughly washing and salting all other meats took on an ominous new meaning.


Inquiries into ethnicity have a lengthy history in consumer research.  Beginning with early attempts to describe racially-defined market segments (Bauer and Cunningham 1970), investigations became increasingly sophisticated, addressing issues such as consumer acculturation (Penalosa 1989, 1994), and post-assimilationist strategies (Askegaard, Arnould and Kjeldgaard 2005).  Ethnic identities enmeshed within this research tradition have included African-American (Oswald 1999), Hispanics (Deshpande, Hoyer and Donthu 1986), Indo-Pakistanis (Mehta and Belk 1991) and Inuit (Askegaard et al 2005). 

The present study differs from these predecessors in several theoretically substantive ways.  First, we explore the interaction of race and religion upon consumption as it is manifested within the Melungeon community.  While prior studies have delved into race as a socio-political category (e.g., Oswald 1999) and religion as a cultural shaper of consumption values (Hirschman 1981), to our knowledge these two forces have not been examined conjunctively within consumer research.

Second, the Melungeons spring from a bi-racial and/or tri-racial background; depending upon specific ancestral lineages, individual Melungeons maypossess African, European, Middle Eastern and Native American heritage.  As more American consumers become aware of their own multi-racial origins, the experiences of the Melungeons may serve as salient guides for anticipating changes in consumption in response to new racial knowledge.

Third, because the geographic locale of the Melungeons is both known and circumscribed, their community can be historically situated for purposes of diachronic analysis.  Kennedy (1997), for example, discusses the social evolution of his family from their early status as Free Persons of Color (FPC), during which time they were denied voting rights, to their falsified presentation of themselves as “white” persons of “Scots-Irish descent” – a transformation which also saw their surname altered from Canaday/Khanada to Kennedy.

To weave together these diverse aspects of our analysis, we use a theoretical stance that seems ideally suited to the Melungeons – ethnogenesis.  Hill (1996, p.1) describes ethnogenesis as “the historical emergence of a people who define themselves in relation to a socio-cultural…heritage” and further notes that “ethnogenesis can also serve as an analytical tool for developing critical historical approaches to culture as an ongoing process of conflict and struggle over a people’s existence…within…a general history of domination.”  Most commonly, the term ethnogenesis and its evolving theoretical framework have been used to ground research on the responses of indigenous and African-originating persons to the European colonization of the New World (see e.g. Hill 1996; Jones 2002).  Since the Melungeon people are situated within exactly this historical and cultural nexus, the framework is highly appropriate for them.

The term ethnogenesis was coined by William Sturtevant (1971) in a pathbreaking essay on the socio-cultural evolution of the Creek Indian tribe, originally dwelling in the southeastern United States, into the Seminole Confederation situated in Florida.  As Albers (1996) observes, Sturtevant’s analysis was the first to examine “broad transformational processes in ethnic group identification,…the long-term movements by which the ethnic identities of human communities get changed…(p.40)”.

Within our work, the present-day Melungeon community of Appalachia is described as a particular form of ethnogenetic phenomenon, one that represents “the rapid formation of an entirely new society and culture when individuals of diverse backgrounds are suddenly thrown together by fate and forced to create societies afresh…Such societies have been characterized by anthropologists as neoteric or cenogenic…for they embody unique and unprecedented biological and cultural blends…Many of these new societies owe their existence to the major upheavals and displacements of persons associated with European conquest and expansion during the last five centuries (p. 117).”  We will argue that the Melungeon community was originally formed during the 1500’s from just such social and political forces, and that it is now experiencing a re-discovery and re-birth through a second set of social forces – the post-modern desire for ethnic “rootedness” and the advent of genetic testing.

Primary focus is placed upon learning how Melungeons construct their self and ethnic identities through consumption practice.  As Stojanowski (2005, p. 417) observes, “the study of ethnicity, identity and ethnogenesis is one potentially unifying agenda for a holistic anthropology.”   We concur with this view and believe that analogously, an examination of ethnicity, identity, and ethnogenesis may serve as a unifying perspective for consumer behavior theory.

[i]  Personal communication, October 2000

[ii] The Roanoke Island Colony was founded by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1587.  By 1591, the hundred or so colonists had mysteriously disappeared (see Miller 2000)

[iii] Public comment by attendee at Melungeon Second Union, Wise, Virginia, 2001.

1 comment:

naithom said...

Nancy, I had fun with Mom about the Sephardic line in the family.  Since Mom and Dad had converted to Judaism decades ago, I told her we hadn't converted, we had reverted.  She loved it!