The Orgins of the Melungeon
May 24, 2012 3:12 PM   Subscribe

A relatively small group of people from Appalachian, the dark-skinned Melungeons (previously) have been a source for speculation and conjecture for many years. Exactly who where their ancestors? Portuguese? Turks? Roma? Cherokee? A recent DNA study (108 page pdf) posted in the Journal of Genetic Genealogy (site link) says otherwise (WaPo article).
posted by edgeways (95 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
G. Reginald Daniel, a sociologist at the University of California-Santa Barbara who’s spent more than 30 years examining multiracial people in the U.S. and wasn’t part of this research, said the study is more evidence that race-mixing in the U.S. isn’t a new phenomenon.

All of us are multiracial,” he said. “It is recapturing a more authentic U.S. history.”

posted by KokuRyu at 3:14 PM on May 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


KokuRyu, I homed right in on those very same paragraphs. Thank you, G. Reginald Daniel. But Washington Post, why oh why couldn't or wouldn't you put "race-mixing" in scare quotes?
posted by scratch at 3:20 PM on May 24, 2012


scratch: "But Washington Post, why oh why couldn't or wouldn't you put "race-mixing" in scare quotes?"

It seems to me that if "mixed race" doesn't need scare quotes, then neither does "race-mixing". The adjective necessitates the existence of a corresponding verb.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 3:23 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


That is a fact. Now tell me, am I lyin’? Cuz you, you’re part eggplant
posted by growabrain at 3:26 PM on May 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


After I read the post but before I ready any of the articles I thought, 'I hope they are descended from black people.'
posted by andoatnp at 3:26 PM on May 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


Relevant: The Invisible Line is a gripping and exhaustively researched story about families which have drifted back and forth across the color line over decades and centuries, sometimes remembering their complicated heritage and sometimes intentionally losing track of it.
posted by escabeche at 3:31 PM on May 24, 2012 [8 favorites]


I seem to remember reading (I think in the People's Almanac #3) a set of stats about ethnic groups in the US and seeing an entry for "Tri-Racial Isolates" who, in a footnote, were identified as Melungeons and Ramapo Mountain people. Seems like this news should not be so shocking.
posted by jonmc at 3:33 PM on May 24, 2012


Among them were the Montauks, the Mantinecocks, Van Guilders, the Clappers, the Shinnecocks and others in New York. Pennsylvania had the Pools; North Carolina the Lumbees, Waccamaws and Haliwas and South Carolina the Redbones, Buckheads, Yellowhammers, Creels and others.

What a glorious list. Reads like a passage from something out of the The Arcanaeum.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 3:35 PM on May 24, 2012 [7 favorites]


Maybe it's just because I'm Cajun, but I don't understand why these people are unique or genetically interesting? Hasn't this happened all over the US, especially in parts of the country that have been settled by non-indigenous people for centuries?
posted by Sara C. at 3:37 PM on May 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'd say it's the confluence of science and folklore, Sara C, that makes this a fascinating story.
posted by incessant at 3:39 PM on May 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


I thought it was common knowledge that in southern Appalachia "Cherokee" could be code for white-black.
posted by stbalbach at 3:46 PM on May 24, 2012 [10 favorites]


Yes, these families claimed some "exotic" heritage (Portuguese or gypsy), but the truth is more mundane, and probably goes against some folks thoughts on race-mixing.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:46 PM on May 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


My maternal grandfather's lineage is from the tri-racial isolate groups of Appalachia. My grandfather also had a Cherokee grandma, and an orange Irish last name. He was quite brown, with black eyes and curly shoe-black hair. My grandmother was Metis and Welsh, she was more of a tan and had brown eyes, but also had black hair. Both of them had almond shaped eyes, in my grandpa's case it was quite extreme. Both of them had very thick lips, in my grandma's case it was quite extreme. They were born in '28 and '34, and spent their lives insisting that they were white, because, really, what choice did they have? Despite their insistence, they were often steered toward Black neighborhoods and institutions, so I'm not sure who they thought they were fooling. All five of their children are eggshell brown through the winter and tan deeply from the slightest sun, they all have black almond eyes and very full mouths. My father is white. His entire family has blue or green eyes and blond or red hair, and they burn, not tan. I take after my father's people, plus I have a melanin condition which makes me even paler than I otherwise would be. My brother looks like my mom's side, and he and I look like totally different races. People often assume we are half siblings. He is frequently guessed as being Filipino, interestingly enough. Whenever I mark down on a form that I am multiracial, I get weird looks. I got the very full mouth, but it's pink, not tan. I got the almond shaped eyes, but they are blue, not black. I'm glad that genetic testing is become available to point out that we don't always look like the full meter of our heritage.
posted by Athene at 3:50 PM on May 24, 2012 [30 favorites]


All them people complaining about casting Katniss Everdeen can still shove it.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:51 PM on May 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


Clarification query: Does "melungeon" rhyme with "dungeon" or "peon"?
posted by Renoroc at 3:55 PM on May 24, 2012


Yeah, the invention of exotic ethnic backgrounds (or the exoticizing of more mundane backgrounds - for example the way my grandmother to this day says we are "French", when our most recent "French" ancestor left Alsace ca. 1715) to compensate for not being able to easily blend into WASP culture is not a new or particularly unusual thing.

On the other hand, I feel sort of bad for the older generations of this community. I've heard stories of my older family members being discriminated against for being Cajun or Scandinavian, so I can't even imagine what it would be like to not have an answer to the ethnicity question, or to have only the most tenuous link to, "oh, uh, I think we're Turkish or maybe gypsies or something...."
posted by Sara C. at 3:55 PM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


The origin of the word Melungeon is unknown, but there is no doubt it was considered a slur by white residents in Appalachia who suspected the families of being mixed race.

I'll believe that there's no provable origin for the word, and I'm sure that I'm not the first person to come up with this theory, but it seems pretty obvious to me that it's etymologically connected to the French mélange. The word probably just migrated north and got corrupted.
posted by Faint of Butt at 3:55 PM on May 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


Sara C, I first heard about the Melungeons in relation to the lost Roanoake Colony. There are some theories that the colonists disappeared into the hills and were incorporated into what is now the Melungeon society. It's an unsolved mystery to this day, which makes it kinda cool.

So - it's of particular interest because there's the mystery aspect to it.
posted by Elly Vortex at 3:57 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Rhymes with "dungeon."
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:00 PM on May 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Athene, my wife is one of four sisters. The oldest has always been a shade or two darker than the rest of the immediate family, while the 3rd sister has vaguely Irish coloring, with lighter hair that can look blondish-red at times and pale skin. The parents and daughters 2 and 4 are all similarly Caucasian, not too pasty but not naturally tan and dark brown hair. Oh genetics, so fun.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:06 PM on May 24, 2012


It seems to me that if "mixed race" doesn't need scare quotes, then neither does "race-mixing". The adjective necessitates the existence of a corresponding verb.

Mixed race is a description of someone's ethnic/racial background. Race-mixing has strong connotations of Horrible Things That Will Happen If You Date Someone Of Another Race! I don't think it's possible for it to be used neutrally in American English. Googling "race mixing" serves up a white supremacist site as the second link. The first is to a wikipedia article about miscegenation, another term with (as far as I know) no positive or neutral associations.
posted by rtha at 4:06 PM on May 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


Was Elvis a Melungeon? Was Ava Gardner? Are they really Turks? And do they all share the same health issues?
The possibilities seem endless.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:08 PM on May 24, 2012


Elly - but there isn't really a mystery aspect to it, any more than there is a mystery aspect to any community/ethnic group who romanticize their racial origins in order to get by in a white-supremacist society.

I mean, sure, there's that Ripley's Believe It Or Not / Discovery Channel woo-woo aspect to it, but you could make a list as long as your arm of supposedly MYSTERIOUS things that aren't mysterious at all. Native Americans aren't the lost tribes of Israel. The Mayans didn't "disappear". The Olmec heads of ancient Mesoamerica were built by humans, as were the pyramids. Syrian Christians in India probably aren't the descendants of a mythical Kingdom Of Prester John (basically the old European version of the Roanoke Colony story).
posted by Sara C. at 4:09 PM on May 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


“It surprised me so much when mine came up African that I had it done again,” he said. “I had to have a second opinion. But it came back the same way. I had three done. They were all the same.”

Reminded me of Racist in the year 3000. Afraid you might have 1/100% blackie in you. I mean, I shouldn't ascribe motives for his retesting, I know.
posted by symbioid at 4:16 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the invention of exotic ethnic backgrounds (or the exoticizing of more mundane backgrounds - for example the way my grandmother to this day says we are "French", when our most recent "French" ancestor left Alsace ca. 1715) to compensate for not being able to easily blend into WASP culture is not a new or particularly unusual thing.

Are you sure that it's an invention on your grandmother's part, though? Maybe during her early life the cultural differences were more apparent. I live in Northern New England and at least some of the people of French ancestry who don't speak French any more (though many older people still do) still do weird things like eat salmon pie, which you can get at supermarkets. Perhaps there were still the same sort of things around where you live when your grandmother was young.
posted by XMLicious at 4:19 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Athene and Filthy Light Thief - there's a lot of that in my family, too. I got a melange of random ethnic features, while my siblings are all very Northern European, my dad looks Jewish or maybe something Mediterranean, and at least one cousin looks Latina.

American ethnicity, beyond the DAR and people whose families immigrated within the last 50-odd years, is a weird thing smeared liberally with bullshit.
posted by Sara C. at 4:22 PM on May 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


It is interesting, what people will claim or wish to believe about their ancestors. I grew up hearing my mother talk about her "Indian" grandmother. "She had long black hair", etc. About 10 years ago I finally tracked down that grandmothers' maiden name. Indian? No. Italian. You can't begin to imagine how disappointed my mother was when I told her. To her dying day she continued to hold out hope I was, wrong, even after showing her records of her great-grandfather's Italian surname, etc.
posted by grimjeer at 4:23 PM on May 24, 2012 [8 favorites]


Sara - the mystery that fascinated me in my youth was that of what happened to the Roanoke Colonists. I loved unsolved mysteries in my youth. The suggestion that they moved into the Appalachians was just one of the options presented to me in a book I read when I was in elementary school. Seeing this FPP and reading the attached sites reminded me of that. I think you've read way too much into my comment.
posted by Elly Vortex at 4:28 PM on May 24, 2012


XMLicious, it's not a matter of cultural differences. Cajun culture is EXTREMELY different from Anglophone culture even to this day. It's a matter of it being more elegant to say "French" instead of "Cajun". Just as it's more elegant to say "Portuguese" or "Cherokee" instead of "part African-American".

My family is no more French than someone in Ohio with the surname Davis is Welsh.
posted by Sara C. at 4:29 PM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of the family history of Joe Mozingo (MeFi).
posted by elgilito at 4:34 PM on May 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


nebulawindphone: "Rhymes with "dungeon.""

I'm not the only one who thought that? \o/
posted by symbioid at 4:45 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I read the DNA part of the tl;dr completely 108 pages pdf. To summarize:

Of the 15 surnames and the 22 haplogroups, 1 is Native American, 8 are African and 12 are
European. There are some outparenting events, but prior to the 1900s,
adoptions were informal events when one family took the child of another family to raise when
necessary. In some cases, when infidelity is involved, the father may not realize that he is raising
another man's child, but in many cases, the reason is much less sinister such as a child taking a
step-father's name, a family taking an orphan to raise, or an illegitimate birth where the child
takes the mother's surname.
This part was done through studying haplotypes on the Y chromosome (patrilineal descent studies). The authors mention mitochondrial DNA, but have not included the raw data ( or I overlooked them). Then in Table 9 they summarize Autosomal Inheritance Percentages, which seem totally inconclusive since after seven generations of 25 years each (standard number used) one has 128 ancestors and only 1% of the DNA of the founders.

1 2 1925 Parents 50
2 4 1900 Grandparents 25
3 8 1875 Great-Grandparents 12.5
4 16 1850 Great-Great-Grandparents 6.25
5 32 1825 Great-Great-Great-Grandparents 3.125
6 64 1800 Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandparents 1.56
7 128 1775 Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-

Final result? Portuguese, Roma, etc maybe yes, maybe not, not proven or disproven. On the Y haplotypes, I can't find any more specification than a general european or african.
posted by francesca too at 5:00 PM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Maybe it's because I'm a swarthy Jew, but it fascinates me how strict entry into the Whiteness Club was back in the day. The Melungeons apparently read as non-white because they have...like...brown hair? And could maybe pass as Greek if they got some sun?
posted by threeants at 5:03 PM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


there isn't really a mystery aspect to it, any more than there is a mystery aspect to any community/ethnic group who romanticize their racial origins in order to get by in a white-supremacist society.

Years ago, a classmate from central Virginia told me the story of a small "Indian" tribe in his hometown. Around the end of the 1800s, a group of african-american families decided that they would be much safer if they were Indians. Some of them married a couple actual Indians, and they all adopted their culture and language. They totally cut off any african-american connections, and kept their origins a carefully guarded secret. Eventually, the whole group more or less "became Indian" and were officially recognized as such. My friend emphasized that they were fiercely protective of this secret history and he wouldn't tell me their name. Looking quickly over some info about the area he came from, there are about a dozen possibilities. My guess is that they would not be keen on DNA testing.
posted by williampratt at 5:12 PM on May 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


My oldest sister married a Melungeon back in the sixties. In our part of Little Appalachia it was very important for them to say they were descended from "Portagee" and not Africans. My brother-in-law had tight curly black hair, a broad nose and thick lips and brown skin-My sister is a green eyed redhead with pale skin and freckles. Their son is a bleached out image of his dad. The rest of we "normal" hillbillies knew that they had to be black genetically, but it was not considered polite to doubt that they were Portuguese.
It is interesting that my daughters, who are 3/4 Irish and UK, are proudest of the 1/8 Hungarian Roma genetic structure they carry.
posted by Isadorady at 5:12 PM on May 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


Well, now that we've solved that one, let's move on to the Blue Fugates.
posted by Mcable at 5:19 PM on May 24, 2012


Sub-Saharan African indentured servants? That was a thing?

The Melungeons apparently read as non-white because they have...like...brown hair?

Other way 'round. They passed as white because they could plausibly have been European. (Well, fully European.)
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 5:28 PM on May 24, 2012


Here's a really lengthy, interesting article on the subject: Melungeon: Free people of Color during slavery
posted by desjardins at 5:39 PM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


The term tri-racial isolate seems a little disingenuous to me, maybe because black people come in a rainbow of hues and many have white and Native American blood. However, I do understand communities forming around this and not claiming their African ancestry given the consequences.

It seems nobody wants to claim their African blood. One of the modeling agencies that provides models for hiphop videos lists the ethnic heritage of their models, many of whom seem to go out of their way to appear more exotic than African American.

It was interesting to see "Redbone" listed as one of these groups. It's a term I've heard my entire life when referring to certain "yellow" or light-skinned black people. My uncles call my baby nephew a redbone. He looks quite a bit like my father who was also yellow, had wavy black hair and high cheekbones. (His grandmother was Native American.) He lost his hair from chemo and I remember riding the bus in Chinatown in San Francisco and an older, bald Chinese man got on who looked so much like my father it startled me. The bone structure and coloring were identical. I know it's part coincidence and slightly part shared genetics, Native Americans originated in Asia, still it was kind of bizarre.

I was asked in San Francisco, at least once a year, whether I was "mixed." Mixed with what I'm not sure. I have slanted eyes but otherwise am your regular black woman. This never happened any place else I've lived.

One thing that struck me as odd in Europe was that after telling people I was from the U.S., they almost always asked where my parents and grandparents were from. They seemed to want to know if I was a "real" American. It was as though they hadn't heard that the U.S. had slaves for a few centuries.
posted by shoesietart at 5:43 PM on May 24, 2012 [7 favorites]


Sub-Saharan African indentured servants? That was a thing?

In the 1600's there still wasn't a clear distinction between african and european origin indentured servants. Chattel slavery of blacks didn't take the shape we're familiar with until the end of that century. AFAIK, and based mostly on what I read here: The Invention of the White Race
posted by BinGregory at 5:43 PM on May 24, 2012 [4 favorites]


One thing that struck me as odd in Europe was that after telling people I was from the U.S., they almost always asked where my parents and grandparents were from. They seemed to want to know if I was a "real" American.

I'm almost glad to hear that, shoesietart, because I have similar conversations all the time here in Malaysia and it was making me feel bad about Malaysians specifically. Not good obviously, but at least not a unique failing.
posted by BinGregory at 6:01 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've been hearing the "part Cherokee" thing all my life and it always sounded more like a disclaimer than something to be proud of. Kinda makes sense now.

Some of my friends are black folks from the deep South and a couple of weeks ago we were all talking and a little racist stuff came up. One of my buddies said, "Take it easy there, sns is white as fuck." The lady who was shooting shit said, "He ain't white, he's from Kentucky!"

We'd previously talked about my being a descendent of hillbillies, share-croppers and indentured servants...Did she know something that I didn't know? Wow.

*Putting getting a DNA test on my to-do list...will be awesome if I'm part Sub-Saharan- African!*
posted by snsranch at 6:04 PM on May 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Lies My Teacher Told Me not only covered interracial groups living together but goes into some detail on how and why they are omitted from (white) American historical narratives.
posted by DU at 6:26 PM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Just wicked fascinating - thanks for the post and thanks for all the personal-history comments. People falling in love with the "wrong" people is a tale as old as time, and part of me rejoices every time we find it happened in so many past generations. It gives the lie to every utterance ever of racist rhetoric.
posted by Miko at 6:46 PM on May 24, 2012 [7 favorites]


My family has roots in Kentucky that go back to when it was founded as a state. Before that, various lines of the family were in Virginia. My grandfather, who had the longest roots our family has discovered in America, had similar Melungeon characteristics to Elvis : jet-black hair, tan skin, blue eyes. I sunburn at the mention of the word "beach" and have only one Melungeon characteristic : the "Anatolian bump," although Googling the bump just now casts some doubt on its legitimacy as a Melungeon trait. Anyway, my skull shape is pretty similar to former NBA player Gary Payton.

If you are interested in Melungeons, check out the Kentucky writer Jesse Stuart. I have read some of his works, but I have actually not read "Daughter of the Legend" which deals with the Melungeon community.
posted by Slothrop at 6:49 PM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, and now that I live in North Carolina, I will definitely refer to myself as a "Waccamaw" rather than a "Melungeon!" "Lumbee" is pretty sweet, too...
posted by Slothrop at 6:50 PM on May 24, 2012


A large collection of historical essays on the US color line and the rise of the one-drop rule at BackinTyme. The big take-away is that the One Drop Rule didn't become law until starting in 1910 (!!) and that the color line shifted wildly over time and place prior to that. A lot of essays on the history of passing and colored (meaning neither black or white) communities there too.

(Don't be put off by the anti-Trayvon entry right at the top - the guy is a Floridian gun nut but otherwise a fair historian near as I can tell.)
posted by BinGregory at 7:08 PM on May 24, 2012


Slothrop, the Lumbee have been trying to gain recognition as an actual sovereign tribe for over a century. They have blood quantum rules, birth records going back to Colonial times and strongly-protected cultural traditions. Maybe pick a different thing to call yourself than Lumbee.

BTW, every single Lumbee I've ever seen has gotta be descended from Natives (except perhaps Heather Locklear). My Guatemalan-Mayan wife would fit right in except for the thick Southern accents and emphasis on church in social life.
posted by infinitewindow at 7:21 PM on May 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


That is a fact. Now tell me, am I lyin’? Cuz you, you’re part eggplant.?

For what it's worth, I'm of southern Italian and Sicilian descent, and my first thought on seeing those photos was, "That counts as dark skinned? Almost everyone I'm related to is that color."
posted by evidenceofabsence at 7:48 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


(Erm, there shouldn't be a question mark after "eggplant," should there....)
posted by evidenceofabsence at 7:49 PM on May 24, 2012


Didn't Abraham Lincoln have Melungeon ancestry?
posted by Ashwagandha at 8:02 PM on May 24, 2012


My mother's maternal great-relatives positioned themselves as French her whole life. We only discovered they were Italian when I tracked them in the 1930 census. They had changed their name from something Italian-sounding to something on the same Latin root but with a French suffix! It explains a lot about my mom's complexion and coloring, and my brother's too, considering all the Irish in the family. Prejudice against Italians is one of the biggest untold stories in American history.

I haven't heard the "eggplant" thing since my high-school days in NJ. There was an Italian (or maybe Sicilian or Napolitano) word for "eggplant" that was used to describe dark people, though it was a slur.
posted by Miko at 8:05 PM on May 24, 2012


desjardins, your link is a direct copy-paste job from Wikipedia.
posted by dhens at 8:08 PM on May 24, 2012


desjardins, your link is a direct copy-paste job from Wikipedia.

...? It's credited right above the post content.
posted by Miko at 8:10 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ideefixe, there's a little bit of eponysteria in your linking to pages referencing Brent Kennedy, because if there's someone who's got an idée fixe WRT the Melungeons, it's Kennedy, who substituted Turks for "Portyghee" after finding out, relatively late in life, that he had Melungeon ancestry after being diagnosed with sarcoidosis. I read his book in the mid-nineties and, although it's an interesting bit of alternative secret history if you don't read anything else about the subject, some of the conclusions that he draws are a little far-fetched, to put it mildly--for example, he cites as support for his theory the fact that the Cherokee wore turban-like headgear.

I think that he was the one who came up with the claim that Elvis and Lincoln may have been Melungeons, and again on scant evidence--the latter because his father was somewhat swarthy (something that Lincoln's opponents used against him in rumor campaigns during elections) and the former because he had "tan" skin, although the only pictures I've seen of Elvis where he looks really tan were after he started doing movies and Vegas gigs, and in some of his publicity stills it looks as if that might have come out of a can.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:25 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


What's really strange is that I am originally from the main area that the wikipedia article cites for Melungeons, and my family has been there forever. But neither I, nor my father, nor my (maternal) grandmother have ever heard anyone there talk about Melungeons. My grandmother might conveniently forget for reasons of her own with something like this, but my father would not. I've known about them from books for a long time, though.

FWIW, my maternal grandfather's family was quite definite about being part Cherokee, but they came up from North Carolina through Tennessee around 1870 or 1880 (and had folded black eyes, black hair, and dark skin).
posted by dilettante at 8:40 PM on May 24, 2012


Can't find a reputable, non-Geocities-style site to back me up, but wasn't Elvis naturally quite fair-haired?
posted by lily_bart at 9:10 PM on May 24, 2012


Though tall, dark, and handsome in the movies, in real life Elvis's hair was never that dark (he was really ash blonde).
From Fondling Follicles of the Rich and Famous, p. 29, undoubtedly an authoritative source.
posted by XMLicious at 9:26 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Maybe it's just because I'm Cajun, but I don't understand why these people are unique or genetically interesting? Hasn't this happened all over the US, especially in parts of the country that have been settled by non-indigenous people for centuries?
It sounds like they they thought it was something interesting, but it turned out that they were just ordinary "black people" according to the old "one drop" rules. I'm guessing that over the past few hundred years they probably thought of themselves as european and were just as racist as others. If any of them were racists, the fact that their ancestors were black men and white women would be even more annoying.

I've read somewhere that in in some Latin American country, I think argentina, most people have a purely european Y chromosome, but a purely indiginous MtDNA. Meaning most of them decended from a line of white men, and from a line of indiginous women.

The other intersting thin, at least to me is how the concept of "black" in the US still goes along with the "one drop" rule. In reality, these people are probably mostly of european decent, and in fact many many "African Americans" are, genetically speaking, mostly of european descent (Henry Louis Gates, for example is more then 50% european, by DNA.)
Other way 'round. They passed as white because they could plausibly have been European. (Well, fully European.)
That's not really true at all. In the days of slavery in the deep south, Italians were not considered "white". Whiteness has changed over the years. I was talking to a guy from australia once who seemed like a normal white person to me, but I found out that in autralia he was considered a "Wog" or something because he was from eastern/southern europe (like slovokia or something). I was shocked, as an American he just seemed "white" to me.

But historically, that was more the norm.
I've been hearing the "part Cherokee" thing all my life and it always sounded more like a disclaimer than something to be proud of. Kinda makes sense now.


I dunno, so many people say stuff like that, it seems like kind of a cliche to me even. I always thought it was something people were proud of though.
All them people complaining about casting Katniss Everdeen can still shove it.
Huh? I thought people were complaning because the person cast was a blond, light skinned girl who had her hair dyed for the role (and maybe makeup? I don't know), and that the studio didn't didn't even audition nonwhite actresses for it.

I don't really see how this fits into that.
posted by delmoi at 9:45 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Whiteness has changed over the years. I was talking to a guy from australia once who seemed like a normal white person to me, but I found out that in autralia he was considered a "Wog" or something because he was from eastern/southern europe (like slovokia or something). I was shocked, as an American he just seemed "white" to me.

Australian racism is different from American racism. Just because he's a 'wog' doesn't mean he's not 'white'.
posted by pompomtom at 9:52 PM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


One thing that struck me as odd in Europe was that after telling people I was from the U.S., they almost always asked where my parents and grandparents were from. They seemed to want to know if I was a "real" American. It was as though they hadn't heard that the U.S. had slaves for a few centuries.
My more-charitable read of this phenomenon was that they know that America is primarily a nation of immigrants and are curious about people's heritage. Much as people in the US will proudly tell people they're Irish or whatever.
posted by !Jim at 10:13 PM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Miko: Yes, it is credited; I just think it would have been better if desjardins would have linked to the original source.
posted by dhens at 10:27 PM on May 24, 2012


the concept of "black" in the US still goes along with the "one drop" rule

It's not that it still does, it's that it only recently began to. The ODR started in the North and took a long time to be accepted into law in the South because all the white people there knew they had black ancestry. As late as 1895, a politician gave this speech in South Carolina:
It is a scientific fact that there is not one full-blooded Caucasian on the floor of this convention. Every member has in him a certain mixture of… colored blood. The pure-blooded white has needed and received a certain infusion of darker blood to give him readiness and purpose. It would be a cruel injustice and the source of endless litigation, of scandal, horror, feud, and bloodshed to undertake to annul or forbid marriage for a remote, perhaps obsolete trace of Negro blood. [link]

Hardly a progressive sentiment, but amazing nonetheless. Elsewhere on the BackinTyme site I linked, he shows that whites on average have a small percentage of SSA DNA, like around 3%?, and that it's higher for southerners with antebellum roots. Sorry I can't find a direct link for that factoid. Anyway the point is it isn't black people who are unaware of their mixed heritage nowadays.
posted by BinGregory at 10:47 PM on May 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


In this post he says,
Given the factual reality that one-third of White Americans and all Black Americans are of mixed Euro-Afro ancestry...
posted by XMLicious at 11:05 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


This identification with something greater — the party, the country, the race, the religion, God — is the search for power. Because you in yourself are empty, dull, weak, you like to identify yourself with something greater. That desire to identify yourself with something greater is the desire for power.
Race is boring. When people ask "who are you?", do you really talk about your maternal grandmother of native descent?
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 11:06 PM on May 24, 2012


Wow, as usual, race becomes more meaningless, the deeper you look.

And - Heather fucking Locklear is Native American? That settles it. I used to joke when people asked me about my heritage, "I am adopted, so that means my parents could have been from anywhere - although Somalia seems less likely."

I'm scratching that. Somalia, Japan, even Wyoming is possible. Dad could have been a world-traveling Tibetan throat-singer and mom a Polynesian rumrunner.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:08 PM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Australian racism is different from American racism. Just because he's a 'wog' doesn't mean he's not 'white'.
Right, but as an American, it never occurred to me that there would be different "kinds" of white people. Like, sure, we have "Irish" and "Italians" or whatever but these days that's seen as a sort of cultural pride thing, and if there are stereotypes, like the "Jersy Shore" type "Italian" stereotype, it's always something you chose to be, not who you're born. (In fact, Snooki is actually Honduran, but raised by Italian-American parents).

Anyway, it was just surprising. And I'm sure there have been times and places in US history where that was the case here as well. In fact, that was the point: That what people thought of as "white"(or rather the race or subgroup that's supposed to be "officially in charge" or whatever) throughout history isn't necessarily what an American would think of as "white" today.
posted by delmoi at 12:34 AM on May 25, 2012


Aussies are all racist, right? Do we really need to do this again?
posted by Wolof at 1:45 AM on May 25, 2012


I'll believe that there's no provable origin for the word, and I'm sure that I'm not the first person to come up with this theory, but it seems pretty obvious to me that it's etymologically connected to the French mélange. The word probably just migrated north and got corrupted.

Yes. When I saw the word in the FPP, its etymological roots were so blatantly obvious to me that it wasn't at all a surprise to learn that they have turned out to be people of mixed-race ancestry: it's in the fucking name, folks!

Because the French and Spanish colonies in America owned large numbers of African slaves, but at the same time were considerably less in denial of race-mixing than their Northern Protestant neighbours, they developed a large number of names to indicate mixed-race ancestry, some of which were eventually imported into English. So, for instance, mulatto and, less obviously, quadroon and octoroon, all come from the Spanish.
posted by Skeptic at 4:52 AM on May 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I am adopted, so that means my parents could have been from anywhere - although Somalia seems less likely."

Well, the not-particularly-swarthy Sir Peter Ustinov purportedly had Ethiopian roots. So it isn't as unlikely as you could think...
posted by Skeptic at 5:00 AM on May 25, 2012


Sub-Saharan African indentured servants? That was a thing?

Definitely.
posted by Skeptic at 5:05 AM on May 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Australian word “wog” is, these days, distinct the British word “wog” (as in “wogs begin at Calais”) and is not an abbreviation of “golliwog”. In Australia, a “wog” is specifically someone from the north shore of the Mediterranean or thereabouts, typically Greek or Italian, though Turks, Lebanese and those from the former Yugoslavian countries can also count. The word doesn't apply to Africans (including those across the Mediterranean), Asians (not counting the special case of Turkey being mostly in Asia), Latin Americans or others. It's arguable whether, say, a Latvian or a Yemeni would be considered a “wog” in the folk etymology.

A decade or two ago, the word “wog” was reclaimed as a badge of pride by mostly Greek/Italian-Australians (there was a comedy show named Wogs Out Of Work), which is probably why it now means Greek-or-Italian-or-close-enough-to.

The converse of “wog”, incidentally, is “skip”, intended as a pejorative for Australians of Anglo-Celtic origin. Presumably it comes from Skippy the Bush Kangaroo.
posted by acb at 5:40 AM on May 25, 2012


Slothrop, the Lumbee have been trying to gain recognition as an actual sovereign tribe for over a century. They have blood quantum rules, birth records going back to Colonial times and strongly-protected cultural traditions. Maybe pick a different thing to call yourself than Lumbee.

infinitewindow, sorry, my comment was another in a long line of internet comments that were meant as lighthearted but didn't translate well as screen text. I don't currently even refer to myself as Melungeon, and wouldn't actually refer to myself as Waccamaw or Lumbee, either. I grew up in Kentucky and like I mentioned in my post have very long roots there. But I also have spent a decent amount of time in SE Michigan as well as Ireland and now have lived these past two years in North Carolina where we plan to stay for the foreseeable future. If I was trying to answer the "Who are you? Where is your family from?" question, I would probably have to say I was a Kentuckian...
posted by Slothrop at 6:14 AM on May 25, 2012


@Miko: You're thinking of 'mulignan'. My uncle (by marriage) is second-generation Italian-American, and it took me a while to figure out what his people meant when they were talking about 'the moolies'.
posted by kjs3 at 6:27 AM on May 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's interesting that the racial embellishment thing goes both ways. I've got a number of black friends who claim their people are "Zulu" or other notable African tribal group, even though there's no way they could know with any certainty. Family stories told enough times they become true. Dr. Henry Louis Gates has a pretty nifty show called "African American Lives" that highlights this.

P.S. - My maternal grandfathers family has always claimed "Cherokee" descent. I shall have to revisit that (not that I look anything other than generic northern European Caucasian).
posted by kjs3 at 6:37 AM on May 25, 2012


Race is boring. When people ask "who are you?", do you really talk about your maternal grandmother of native descent?

No. But in the South, at least, your maternal grandmother of native descent is a natural outgrowth of the "Where are you from?" conversation.

I have a branch of my family tree that identified as "Black Dutch."
posted by thivaia at 7:20 AM on May 25, 2012


A little genealogical research has since revealed that "Black Dutch" (in my family) was probably shorthand for "Jewish until arriving in Virginia."
posted by thivaia at 7:23 AM on May 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Man, genetics are weird. I'm the oldest of three sisters, and while we're 100% Ashkenazi Jew on both sides for as far back as we can trace, we came out looking really different. I'm super pale and freckly, with brown hair that turns red in the sun; middle sister has blue eyes and turns blonde; youngest sister is super-dark-- we joke that she got all the Middle Eastern DNA that's been lurking in our genome for centuries. Line us up and you can see that we're related, but I've been told I look Irish and youngest sister looks Israeli.

And of course, we only got grandfathered into 'whiteness' in the last sixty years or so.
posted by nonasuch at 8:01 AM on May 25, 2012


I've always been kind of proud that I can't make sense of my Appalachian roots. It's such a genetic quagmire (Cherokee, Welsh, German, Portugese, Gypsy, African?, etc.), no one in my family knows for sure or agrees with anyone else. I love the stories. I just say I'm American.
posted by HumanComplex at 8:14 AM on May 25, 2012 [4 favorites]


One thing that struck me as odd in Europe was that after telling people I was from the U.S., they almost always asked where my parents and grandparents were from. They seemed to want to know if I was a "real" American. It was as though they hadn't heard that the U.S. had slaves for a few centuries.
My more-charitable read of this phenomenon was that they know that America is primarily a nation of immigrants and are curious about people's heritage. Much as people in the US will proudly tell people they're Irish or whatever.


If you're black, people don't usually wonder if you're Irish. And if your family comes from slavery, the chances of knowing where you're from, other than Africa, is pretty slim. I'm not insulted by the question and I understand that people are curious, even if my white friends aren't asked these questions. I'm fine with saying my parents are from Texas, my grandparents are from Texas, my great grandparents are from Texas, my great great grandparents are from Texas. (I'm more bothered having to say I live in Texas now and then being asked to explain the George Bushes. I miss San Francisco.)
posted by shoesietart at 9:20 AM on May 25, 2012


It sounds like they they thought it was something interesting, but it turned out that they were just ordinary "black people" according to the old "one drop" rules. I'm guessing that over the past few hundred years they probably thought of themselves as european and were just as racist as others. If any of them were racists, the fact that their ancestors were black men and white women would be even more annoying.

Yeah, but that's what I'm saying. This exact dynamic has been playing out all over the country at least since the Jim Crow era. It's a fundamental aspect of the creation of race as a concept in North America.

I just don't get how the Washington Post would even consider this a news story, or how the original tale of "there are these swarthy people in Appalachia who claim to be Turkish but who knows" was ever considered a big mystery. I certainly didn't consider it any big mystery as a child when I heard these sorts of racial euphemisms trotted out by family members.

The only read I can even get on it is that the Post story has racist undercurrents of, "so it turns out those funny looking people who claim to be Portuguese ARE ACTUALLY BLACK HA HA WHAT A BUNCH OF LOSERS." I just can't find where the story is, if it's not that.
posted by Sara C. at 9:34 AM on May 25, 2012


In the days of slavery in the deep south, Italians were not considered "white".

In the days of slavery in the deep south, there was a vanishingly tiny number of Italians in the US, few if any of whom would have lived in the "Deep South" aside from maybe a few individuals in Charleston or Savannah.

The whole "Italian people aren't really white like the rest of us" was more a turn of the century phenomenon in Northern cities* and the Rust Belt/Midwest. Not that those attitudes weren't also shared by Southerners (or that Italians would have been accepted with open arms in antebellum South), but its very much NOT an element of American racism that you can pin on the slave-owning pre-war South.

*As well as New Orleans and, I'd guess, San Francisco. But you get the gist.
posted by Sara C. at 9:39 AM on May 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


One thing that struck me as odd in Europe was that after telling people I was from the U.S., they almost always asked where my parents and grandparents were from. They seemed to want to know if I was a "real" American.

Shoesietart, the same thing happened to me in some places in Europe and with a few international students that I met in college (when I told what state I was from they responded "but you're not really American"). I have olive skin and dark hair. but, I am white, specifically of French and Portuguese ethnicity. I am only second generation American. My maternal grandmother was from Quebec, but my maternal grandfather came over straight from Paris as a young adult (although that side of the family is originally from Alsace and has a German surname). My paternal grandfather was from the island of Pico in the Azores and my paternal grandmother was from Maderia, so we're pretty certain that it we are truly part Portuguese. My point is that at least when I was younger, it seems that some people outside the US (I encountered this not just from some Europeans, but also people from the Middle East and Southern Asian countries), had a very limited view of what "Americans" looked like. I'm not exactly sure what that look was, but I didn't seem to make the cut either.

My question specific to this FPP is how common was it for mixed-raced or light-skinned African Americans to claim that they were Portuguese specifically as opposed to Spanish, or any other Mediterranean race for that matter? I ask because I have been fascinated by Belle da Costa Greene since reading an excerpt from a biography in The New Yorker several years ago. She was J.P. Morgan's librarian and is responsible for purchasing most, if not all, of the rare books and illuminated manuscripts at the Morgan Library & Museum. Long story short, she was African American, but had passed as white, claiming that she was Portuguese. I believe one source suggested she settled upon Portuguese because there were few Portuguese immigrants at that time so there were less opportunities for comparison and at that time being Portuguese wasn't freighted with the same negative connotations as being Italian.
posted by kaybdc at 11:13 AM on May 25, 2012


This is awesome.

Having grown up in E. Kentucky, I can attest to the fact that many who don't look straight-up Anglo-Saxon claim to have some kind of Native American ancestry.

Never once did I hear someone say "Oh, yeah, I have black ancestors, of course", but several times I heard people happily say "Oh, darker skin and high cheekbones, I'm like, an eighth Cherokee!".

Never mind that the native population around there is oh, approximately zero, and has been for a long, long time.

I guess people say this because, you know, "Indians are cool", and it makes that dream-catcher and those moccasins totally not appropriation or anything.

It's a really weird relationship people there have to their frontier past, as if white folks just wandered in and mingled all peaceful-like with the native people, whose phenotype just mysteriously got bred out, but there sure weren't none of that other racial miscegenation!

Bleh.

Thank God folks back home stay on top of of current developments in science and genetics, or else they would have persisted in their ignorance and feelings of racial superiority, secure in their fabricated identities.
posted by edguardo at 11:15 AM on May 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


In my own Appalachian family tree, I have a great-great-great-grandmother who purportedly is Cherokee. Hrm.
posted by Atreides at 12:55 PM on May 25, 2012


The Simmerson trial referred to is discussed in What Blood Won't Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America. Her lawyer seems to have been quite the fellow in his own right

And, for what it's worth (possibly nothing), melungo in Portuguese means companion. Question then becomes, how old is the word? Not all dictionaries seem to carry it. Anyone?
posted by IndigoJones at 1:26 PM on May 25, 2012


(Cool picture, Ateides! Don't suppose you have any anecdotes?)
posted by IndigoJones at 1:30 PM on May 25, 2012


I once saw a Native comedian at a powwow event, whose name I wish I could remember. He did a bunch of jokes about white people who think being part Indian is super cool. At one point he just started the sentence "My great-grandmother was...." and the whole audience, mostly Native, chorused "...A CHEROKEE PRINCESS!" and laughed uprariously.

That was the first time I learned what a trope that is.
posted by Miko at 2:41 PM on May 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Maybe it's because I'm a swarthy Jew, but it fascinates me how strict entry into the Whiteness Club was back in the day.

No doubt.
posted by ODiV at 4:05 PM on May 25, 2012


I haven't heard the "eggplant" thing since my high-school days in NJ. There was an Italian (or maybe Sicilian or Napolitano) word for "eggplant" that was used to describe dark people, though it was a slur.

"Melanzana" would be the word. (That's the standard Italian, the Sicilian word has the same origin and is just pronounced differently.) My understanding is sometimes it's not necessarily a slur, but most of the time it is meant as such.

Unfortunately it also really does mean "eggplant", which can make for awkwardness if one is trying to discuss the vegetable.
posted by katemonster at 5:24 PM on May 25, 2012


Unfortunately, no family anecdotes, other than black hair and dark eyes. My mother would tell me how you could see the Cherokee features in her mother's face, high cheek bones and what not. Her brother, my uncle, has done the great amount of genealogy on their side of the family, but rather than know who my great-great-great grandmother was by name, it was just simply "known" that there was Cherokee. My father has dark eyes and black hair, but there's no rumor of Indian or other ethnicity in his bloodline. I've researched his line and while my direct ancestor disappears in the fog of time and the mountains of Appalachia, there's no inkling of anything other than a UK/German/European origin. As someone mentioned above, I'm the product of a variety of nationalities that converged in the mountains of Virginia and spit out a purely American product.
posted by Atreides at 5:39 PM on May 25, 2012


OT: I once saw a Native comedian at a powwow event, whose name I wish I could remember.

That actually sent me off to YouTube to watch a few hours of Indian standup comedy... some pretty funny stuff
posted by edgeways at 8:22 PM on May 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


This made the Tennesseean this morning with the sub-headline "DNA Disappointment" in the paper edition.

ಠ_ಠ
posted by jquinby at 6:20 AM on May 26, 2012


Wow. "Disappointment?"

I hope they get a lot of letters.
posted by Miko at 8:35 AM on May 26, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah, and on the front page, no less. Keepin' it classy, folks!
posted by jquinby at 8:49 AM on May 26, 2012


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