"WRITTEN ON THE FLESH" – ASCRIBED STATUS AND THE PHYSIOLOGY OF ETHNICITY
Perhaps one of the most theoretically intriguing aspects of Melungeon ethnogenesis is that the majority of present day group members have "passed" for "white" over the course of their lives. It is only during the past decade that most have discovered that they are carrying Iberian, Semitic, American Indian, Roma, and sub-Saharan African ancestry and had grandparents, great grandparents or more distant ancestors who were publicly viewed as non-white and classified as Free Persons of Color (FPC) or Mulatto.
While some contemporary Melungeons are quite light complexioned, even having blonde or red hair and fair skin, the majority are darker, with what is commonly described as ‘olive’ or ‘copper’ toned skin, brunette or black hair, and dark brown eyes. Ironically, despite having Mediterranean or Middle Eastern physiognomies, many Melungeons grew up entirely confident of their ostensibly Northern or Western European ancestry. This self-deception often originated with parents or grandparents who told the individual that s/he was Scotch-Irish, English, French and/or German. If challenged by the skeptical child that s/he seemed to be darker than most Scottish or French persons, the parent/grandparent might reply that this was due to some Black Dutch or Black Irish ancestry.
As Melungeon ethnogenesis progressed, more distinctive physical markers than dark coloring were sought to determine if one had Melungeon ancestry. For example, Hispanics and bi-racial persons (mulattos) were already ‘known’ entities. How could Melungeons be differentiated from other dark colored persons? Were there physical characteristics other than coloring which set them apart?
The answer was "yes". Beginning in 1994 with the first edition of Kennedy’s book, a set of physical characteristics began to be circulated both within and outside the Melungeon community which was deemed indicative of Melungeon ancestry. These included (1) a cranial ridge or protuberance at the rear of the skull attributed to Anatolian and/or American Indian ancestry, (2) sinodonty ("shovel teeth"), a non-European tooth form found in East Asians, Inuit, and American Indians, (3) polydactilism (most commonly in the form of six digits on hands and/or feet), (4) Thallasemia, a genetically transmitted anemic condition most common in persons of Mediterranean, African and East Asian descent, (5) Familial Mediterranean Fever (FMF), a genetically-restricted disease found among North African Jews, Armenians, Kurds, Turks and Arabs, and (6) palatal and mandibular mouth tori; these are bony growths in the roof of the mouth found among the Inuit, American Indians and East Asians (palatal) and along the lower jaw among sub-Saharan Africans (mandibular), (see Melungeon Health Education and Support Network, www.Melungeonhealth.org.)
Because these features came to be identified as Melungeon ethnic signifiers, they soon acquired the status of sought after personal attributes. Possessing at least one or more, and preferably all, of these physical markers served to signal one’s authenticity as a Melungeon. Absence of the markers on one’s physical being cast doubt on one’s Melungeon ethnicity. These features expanded into a wider set as additional markers were reported and linked to the specific ethnicities which fed into the Melungeon community. A September 26, 2002 post to MTA states,
I am a great believer in the efficacy of accepted anthropological traits. I have the mandibular tori of African-Americans. I have a textbook-perfect set of shovel teeth, proven to be connected to Native American ancestry. And although the following traits are more suggestive than "provable", I have olive skin, high cheekbones, crooked fingers…The Indian and Black came from somewhere! Just haven’t found where…
And possible physiological links to Ottoman-era Turks were also described:
We believe he had Melungeon ancestry also – you could look at him and tell it. He had an exotic nose that would have been at home on a Turkish seaman. There were others, particularly in his mother’s family, who looked the part. (September 28, 2002 MTA)
But most common were claims of American Indian ancestry:
I have the teeth, the mandibular tori-bilateral, the Asian cranial bump, and I understand my (maternal) mtDNA will come back as Haplotype U...It was supposed to be NA (Native American)…Well, I guess not, even though [my grandmother] sure looked it and it was stated in her family papers. I have her portrait: 4 feet tall, black hair, black eyes, olive complexion, no lips, round face, "hook" nose, Asian eyes. I look forward to a detailed explanation of the U haplotype. (September 30, 2002 MTA)
The reference to DNA haplotypes in the above posting leads us to a second significant – and very recent – set of Melungeon markers. In 1998, the first public commercial DNA testing service was launched (www.OxfordAncestors.com), and was shortly followed by several others. These services offered consumers – for the first time in history – the opportunity to privately order DNA testing of bodily tissues in order to link oneself to specific geographic areas and ethnic groups. For Melungeons, this seemed like a god-send: finally, a scientific method to prove one’s Melungeon ethnicity.
Earlier DNA studies using medical blood samples collected from 177 Appalachian Melungeons found that their closest matches to present world populations were in Libya, the Canary Islands, Malta, Veneto and Trentino (Italy), Cyprus, and Galicia (Spain) (Guthrie 1990). These findings tended to support the oral history of some Melungeons as being primarily "Portuguese", and are also consistent with current claims of descent from Sephardic Jews, Muslim Moors, Roma/Gypsies, Turks and other Mediterranean peoples.
Yet specific Melungeons still did not know who, exactly, their ancestors were among these several possibilities. The availability of inexpensive ($99 y-chromosome, $149 mtDNA; $175 autosomal) personalized DNA tests permitted individual Melungeons to send in samples and find out "who am I" genetically. Persons receiving back results that were consistent with Iberian, Semitic, Turkish, American Indian, and so forth, ancestry now had tangible evidence that they "were" Melungeon. Kennedy, the early Melungeon researcher, was one of the first to send in his DNA sample and receive his genetic vindication.
My mitochondrial DNA, which I inherited from my mother, matches the Siddis of India. The dark-skinned Siddis likely originated from what today is Ethiopia, Eritrea, or Somalia – sub-Saharan, east Africa. They were transported to India in a variety of ways, most not so pleasant, and formed a major component of what became known as the Untouchable Caste. Their lives – and the life of my ancestral Mother – must have been horribly difficult. But she survived long enough to have at least one daughter and that daughter did likewise. And generation after generation this original…girl’s DNA was passed along until, in 1950, it came to me… (September 2002 MTA)
He then tied this finding back to the medical markers already recognized within the Melungeon population:
From a health standpoint alone we need to know who we are. Within the documented Melungeon population we have hundreds of confirmed cases of thallasemia (both alpha and beta, a clear Mediterranean connection), as well as Behcet’s Disease, Machado-Joseph Disease, sarcoidosis, and Familial Mediterranean Fever…FMF is considered by the medical establishment as an ethnically restricted disease, believed to have first mutated several thousand years ago in what today is Israel/Palestine, and is found among North African Jews, Turks, Armenians, and Arabs (particularly the Arab Druze). I have cousins on both sides who have been diagnosed with FMF as well…
As a result of the proper diagnosis, I was… placed on a single tablet of colchicine-- a wonder drug for FMF. I can now walk without a cane and my fever bouts are virtually gone. It is important to know who we are… (September 2002 MTA)
Analogously, Nancy Sparks Morrison, administrator of one of the Melungeon web lists, posts:
I have Familial Mediterranean Fever…My own mtDNA shows both Syrian and Turkiq input. My father’s mtDNA shows the possibility of Sephardic Jewish input, and one of his connecting lines has proven Sephardic markers. (Mel-L, 2002)
And another Melungeon list administrator exulted:
Given the scientific validity of the DNA study,…its results are not a matter of opinion but of fact. That is the beauty of science. And one of the beauties of DNA analysis is that it can shed the light of scientific fact on questions long fraught with opinions and conjectures. Dennis Maggard (Mel-L, 2002)
The Melungeon experience opens a potentially very significant new avenue for the study of ethnogenesis. By problematizing both body features and genetic endowments, it brings to the foreground aspects of ethnicity that previously had been backgrounded in recent anthropology and consumer research. With some notable exceptions (e.g., Stojanowski 2005), the physical features of an ethnic group have not been attended to in either literature. Often it is simply ‘taken for granted’ that group membership is readily apparent through visible, but unspoken, cues. By delineating a community-circulated set of physical traits, the Melungeons have de-naturalized their own bodies and identified specific ‘pieces’ as having ethnic meaning. Because these ethnic features are passed forward to future generations through genetic-linkage, they can be viewed as a type of bequest or heirloom (Curasi, Price and Arnould 2004). Notably, Melungeons now report inspecting infants and children for these physical features, andexpress satisfaction if they have been "carried forward".
Dennis Maggard’s statements above regarding DNA testing and the validity of science in determining ethnicity also points to another novel aspect of Melungeon ethnogenesis. Very probably, the Melungeons are the first ethnic group to avail themselves of commercial DNA testing to determine community origins and, ultimately, individual membership. The community’s hybrid racial ancestry and purposely obfuscated genealogical records made the acquisition of personal ethnic knowledge difficult, if not impossible, using traditional genealogical and census techniques (Haley and Wilcoxon 2005). DNA testing has helped many answer the "who am I?" question, at least in a partial sense. DNA results have also been used to respond to critics (Elder 1999, De Marce 1992, 1993) who had rejected Melungeons’ claims to Middle Eastern, Roma, Turkiq and Indigenous ancestry. We believe that the Melungeon experience is likely to be a forerunner to the widespread use of DNA testing to establish ethnic membership.
Let us now develop in more exacting detail the three strands of theory to which our study has contributed. First we will consider what the process of learning to consume like a Melungeon might teach us about the role of consumption in constructing ethnic identity.
Second, we suggest that the journey of Melungeon ethnicity from racial epithet to hidden identity to valued personal possession should stimulate a reconsideration of the ontological, social and personal nature of ethnicity in consumer research. Analogously, the Melungeons’ evolving mixture of "black", "brown" and "red" racial categories from "colored" to "white", and now returning to "colored", should motivate the reconceptualization of race as a social and cultural ascription used to theorize about consumer behavior. Finally the Melungeon experience suggests additionally that we should not just problematize the physical characteristics of the human body (e.g., Thompson and Hirschman 1995), but rather re-cast them as personal possessions capable of signaling ethnic status and community membership (Harris 1993).
Can Consumption Create Ethnicity?
One of the primary arguments advanced in the present study is that individuals and groups can use their behavior as consumers to construct an ethnic identity. This proposition reverses the causality usually observed and assumed between ethnicity and consumption; i.e., that a person’s ethnicity will direct his/her consumption preferences, practices and behaviors. In virtually all consumer research on ethnicity, as well as the sociological and anthropological literatures, ethnicity is seen as preceding consumption. Even in studies of national culture and subcultures, the pre-existence of one’s membership is taken as the starting point for inquiry, with the attitudes and behaviors observed then being attributed to one’s cultural membership.
Conversely, the Melungeon experience is more akin to the process of assimilation experienced by persons coming to a new country. Like recent immigrants, they have arrived in a novel land and must choose how to make sense of it. Sampling the food, the music and observing the folkways are among the most common means of ‘opting in’ to a new culture (e.g., Penalosa 1994).
The Melungeon experience, however, is not fully consistent with an assimilationist model. Rather than being strangers in a strange land who must choose either to cluster together into a community and retain (and perhaps even celebrate) their strangeness, the Melungeons are strangers in their own land. They have been given sudden knowledge that estranges them from their own identity. Recall the statements made by some of our informants: "I feel like my whole background has been a lie", "I went to bed white and woke up brown". These reflect the suddenness with which many in