I was once accused by a supervisor of “having a thing for black people.” Apparently, in his mind, that was a sin, and I was guilty since I was attending seminary at Duke and thought his racist remarks were out of order, and was bold enough to tell him so. Shameful how honest we mountain people can be sometimes, ain’t it.
Racism is a subject that is running at high volume through our culture again. In spite of the efforts of many good hearted people to unify the races, to mitigate our differences, to cajole those who cling to symbols of division that threaten, and in spite of a recent cultural trend toward celebrating heterogeneous unions and blending of DNA across ethnic lines, there still seems to be a strong undercurrent of racial resentment and even hatred that has leaked out from the polite containers of human hearts and minds.
In the midst of one of our loudest election campaigns in recent history, one that follows the two terms of our nation’s first noticeably racially diverse President, we have heard a lot of noise about race. Both major political parties have included diverse voices on their convention stages. Neither has found a way to sustain the controversies or appease the supporters of the “black lives matter” movement nor that of its detractors.
And so I found it enticing that this summer a meeting was planned for folks interested in studying issues related to the “Melungeons” in southern Appalachia. It was held on the campus of the Mountain Empire Community College at Big Stone Gap, Virginia. I was able to attend the preliminary meeting, and enjoyed it immensely.
For those of you who don’t know, “Melungeon” refers to an historic group of people found living in the region where Virginia and Tennessee meet. This group are thought to descend from an admixture of races, possibly three, (thusly known as “tri-racial isolates”). They were sometimes described in official records as FPC (“free persons of color”) or “mulatto” denoting of mixed racial ancestry. Much has been published on this subject in recent years, although it still brings up a host of emotionally driven responses from persons thought to descend from these folks.
Darlene Wilson, who was once known as the “Web-spinning Granny” was a featured speaker. She told that though many had tried, no one to date has established a biological definition of who or what makes someone a “melungeon.” She gave a brief history of the Melungeon website she once kept, which she put into someone else’s care, and watched it disappear with all the valuable information she had obtained. Her reasoning was that people were still afraid, apparently, to be lumped into this category since the tri-racial nature of this group could possibly include black Americans. She recounted a particular time when the Melungeon Union meetings were focused on DNA evidence as a way to definitively determine the origins of these mysterious people. The results were disappointingly non-determinative. This means that there isn’t just one story, one origin. Instead, the existence of mixed ethnicities and mixed origins means that the people of the area even today can trace their origin to people from a variety of places with a diversity of backgrounds, who maintained piecemeal practices from a variety of cultural influences that shaped their descendants and the region as a whole. It means too that our myth of where we came from is just that, a myth. We probably have a lot more diversity up the genetic “woodpile” than many of us know or have been told.
Part of the problem is that in for a good part of the twentieth century the commonwealth of Virginia was served by an official who was in charge of the state’s vital statistics office who was a rampant racist. This official (whose name I refuse to use because I feel he should not be so honored) was a consultant for Hitler’s Nazis. And yet he was funded by American tax dollars. This man didn’t want anyone with even a hint of anything but purely white blood (and I thought blood was red!) to be considered a full citizen of the state. This policy caused much of the racial and ethnic identity of previous generations to become hidden simply because to talk about it could threaten your voting rights, your citizenship, perhaps even your life. Many went to their graves with concealed identities rather than entrust the truth to their progeny whose lives could be altered if facts fell into the wrong hands.
Today there is a resurgence of interest in ancestral origins. DNA tests are widely available and give some answers to questions people have about their background, even if a good deal of it is inconclusive. What is being found is that human beings have a lot more in common with one another than not. This means when one group is crying out for recognition of injustice and perceived hurt, we all need to listen. We are closer kin than we might have once thought. It means, too that we need to discount the “otherness” of people we consider different. Appalachia has long been known by scholars who have studied it as “a strange land, a peculiar people” (as in Shapiro). Perhaps the strangeness is inherent in us all, the peculiarities more common than we know or are willing to allow.
Perhaps one day we can celebrate the diversity that exists throughout the human race even as we embrace our commonality. Perhaps.