Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Melungeon Ethnogenesis - Part VII


the community have been forced to deal with an existential crisis that is confronted by few other consumers.

One of the central ways in which these people chose to be re-born as Melungeons was through consumption. Recipes and herbal remedies are shared at the annual gatherings and over the internet, providing a material basis for community. Photograph albums, candlesticks, pieces of apparel and stories are brought to meetings and displayed, helping to create a collection of ethnic icons.

A second theoretical contribution from these diverse, and occasionally painful, aspects of Melungeon re-birth is that ethnogenesis is shown to be both a forward and backward looking process, assisted in both directions by consumption choices. New Melungeons trace their ethnic ancestry through retrospective examination of personal history which now is recast as a series of Kiplingesque "just so" stories: so that is why Grandma always washed and salted meat before cooking; so that is why my parents and uncles and aunts were all married at home and not in a church; so that is why ggggmother Rasnick had those silver candlesticks with eight branches; so that is why Dad’s ggguncle was named Omar; so that is why the women were always seated separate from and behind the men in church. Old knowledges are retold in new stories; a different sense of the past—and of self—is born.

This process of ethnic rebirth also looks forward. It is directed strongly and purposefully toward grasping what is now felt as missing: "I will show my children all these things, so they will know where they came from and who they are". This is ethnic identity re-construction through consumption, and it is both powerful and dynamic. Continuing to monitor Melungeonethnogenesis over the next decade will likely lead to additional insights regarding how consumption can contribute not only to ethnic self identity creation, but also to the ways in which this identity is maintained and enhanced.

Color, Race, Religion, Genes and All That.

The process of Melungeon ethnogenesis also has much to teach about color, race, religion and genes as social devices. The persons composing the Melungeon community are by and large regular people, i.e., folks. Most are high school or college-educated and have always lived within the Appalachian region. Their understandings of race, religion and genetics are, therefore, probably similar to those shared by most Americans. In this view, notions such as race (e.g., black, white, Indian, Asian) and religion (e.g., Christian (Protestant), Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist) are conceived as fundamental qualities that are a permanent feature of the individual, in much the same way that one’s hair, fingerprints or voice are. This way of framing race and religion is of course, at strong odds with the way in which many (likely most) social scientists conceive these same entities.

The sense that emerges from Melungeon discussions of race is that it is not an optional feature; rather race is a key, fundamental aspect of one’s identity and existence. Further, their multi-racial ancestry means to them that they belong to each of the races that has contributed to their existence. For example, a Melungeon may learn that s/he has, say, African, Siddi, Roma, Indigenous and Semitic ancestors. The probable belief of this individual will then be that he or she belongs to these peoples and that these peoples belong to him or her. They share an ancestral affinity; they are kin.

This is one of the reasons why it was (and is) so important to many Melungoens to "have their DNA tested" to see who they are related to; to learn what they are "made up of". This is essentialism at its most basic, grounded level. But what must be recognized is that it is for these people a genuine, profound expression of self.

Akin to this is the view of religion as expressed by Melungeons at their gatherings and in the website postings we have quoted. Religion within the Melungeon ethnogenesis experience often is something that is deemed to be hereditable from ancestors; it is "in the blood", at least in an emotional sense. The reasoning goes like this: "my ancestors were, say, Jews/Muslims; they only pretended to be Christians because they were forced to do so; I am free to choose what I want to be, and I choose to be a Jew/Muslim, because that is what I was supposed to be; that is what I would have been, if my grandparents hadn’t been forced to hide it from me".

In this way of reasoning, the religious trajectory of the family is seen as interrupted by a violent historical event (e.g., the Inquisition, the Ku Klux Klan); the children were diverted into another religion; but now the truth has been learned and it is felt appropriate to correct this error. The person chooses to return to the religion s/he "should" have had.

My Body /My Self

Although other consumer research inquiries have addressed the problematization of the body’s physical features (e.g., Richins 1991; Thompson and Hirschman 1995; Schouten 1991), these were situated within the context of comparing the body to a cultural or gender-based normative standard. By way of contrast, Melungeon ethnogenesis has witnessed a dual interrogation of the body within an ethnicized context.

First, contemporary Melungeons have echoed ethnic movements such as the Black Power Movement of the 1960’s (Tucker 1994), by embracing person-of-color status and rejecting pressures to mimic "whiteness", both physically and culturally. In the Melungeon case this is perhaps even more marked a phenomenon because, unlike most Americans of African descent, most Melungeons had been ‘passing’ (unknowingly) as white for the past two generations. Because their grandparents’ efforts at erasing their public coloredness had been largely successful, most of this and the earlier generation grew up as ‘white’ people – only later learning that they were Iberian, African, Semitic, Roma, and Native.

Their transition to being colored, however, has doubtless been substantially eased by the contemporaneous embracing of multiculturalism (Root 1994, 1996). Having mixed and/or dark ancestry is no longer as stigmatized as it was, say thirty years ago, although in the Southeastern region of the U.S. it is fair to say it is still not widely acknowledged or celebrated. If the Melungeon embracing of coloredness is generalizable to other people-of-color groups, then we may witness a movement away from white cultural standards of appearance in apparel, hair style, facial features (e.g., reduced cosmetic procedures or plastic surgeries to lighten skin, widen eyes, alter noses), food preferences, and the like, among adult Americans, as opposed to the mimicry of cultures-of-color by American white youth as a form of resistance and rebellion. Ultimately, ‘whiteness’ may become viewed simply as European ethnicity, rather than as a standard to be emulated.

Melungeon ethnogenesis has also directed our attention to the ways – and depths – to which the body may become a contested site of ethnic identity. On the body’s surface, this group has problematized features such as eyelid shape (positively valuing epicanthic folds), tooth form (positively valuing Sinodonty), cranial shape (positively valuing lower cranial ridges), polydactillism, and mouth structures (positively valuing mandibular and palatal tori). All these traits are deemed desirable, because they serve as ascriptive linkages to umbilical antecedents (Albers 1996).

However, perhaps more theoretically profound than these surface markers are Melungeons’ recent efforts at delving into their genetic structures in the hopes of identifying – at the molecular level—definitive proof of personal identity. What they find is what many of them consider the ultimate clue to identity – a set of genetic, markers that ties them to the Siddi girl, the Syrian man, the Ottoman Turk or Indigenous woman that lurks in the past’s darkness waiting to be discovered. The notion that consumer identity may arise, in some cases, from physical sources within the individual, as much as from material entities external to the self presents a fundamental challenge to consumer research.


The Melungeons are a small, geographically constrained ethnic group dwelling in an overlooked region of the United States. Yet their birth, death and re-emergence as a people is a pattern of ethnogenesis that will likely be repeated with increasing frequency over the next few decades. There are many other such populations and subcultures whose origins had been mislaid – or purposely obscured – for periods ranging from a few generations to centuries. As they now are being rediscovered both by themselves and by outside observers, the search for their true origins will commence and doubtless lead to many of the same issues, problems and responses witnessed among the Melungeons. Similarly, persons who are aware they possess mixed ancestry may feel a stronger pull to explore all of their legacies, now that our culture is more accepting of multi-source origins.

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