The Multirracialist Melungeons
May 9, 2003 11:18 PM   Subscribe

The Original Benetton Colors: The Mysterious, Multirracialist Melungeons. "The Melungeon Movement is intent on not defining, or even further refining, racial boundaries, but instead on blurring them. We believe in one human race and that by being permitted to embrace our full multi-cultural heritage, we can more quickly make this dream a reality". Originally identifying themselves as Portuguese, Turkish and Native American slaves escaping from their Spanish and English captors, the Melungeons were the first to become literally lost in America. Always violently persecuted, Melungeons were probably the first enthusiastically anti-racist citizens of the United States and the origin of the melting-pot doctrine which flowered much later. Now there is a Melungeon Movement which takes those pioneers' "example of a multi-ethnic population which put aside its racial and cultural differences, came together and survived as one people (literally, the source of the slogan, One People, All Colors)". All fascinating stuff I know absolutely nothing about. Any suggestions, pointers or ideas?
posted by MiguelCardoso (19 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

Seriously, this is very interesting stuff, Miguel. I had never heard of the Melungeons. They may have been Knights Templars?!? Good lord.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 11:42 PM on May 9, 2003

Here's a recent article which suggests that the Melungeons may be a self-identifying cultural community.

What a story: a group of handsome, olive-skinned semi-Portuguese, semi-Native American people - or one of the lost tribes of Israel? - found in 1654, in the wilds of America, speaking perfect Elizabethan English; then almost exterminated for going against the racist doctrines of the time; then exacting cruel revenge during the Civil War and finally trying to regroup as a multirracial movement at a time when the "melting pot" ideology is declining...

Excuse personal note: I'll be away this weekend so please excuse me for not answering any queries immediately. I'll check back Monday evening.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:50 AM on May 10, 2003

Great stuff, Miguel. Here’s some wild conjecture based on anecdotal evidence (and influenced by a 101 degree fever, so there you go.)

My godson comes from an amazingly diverse background. His father was adopted, so we can’t know exactly where he comes from, but it’s safe to say that the kid has substantial parts of African, Japanese, and Hispanic by way of the Dominican Republic, and some Irish. He’s gorgeous and healthy, and at the age of eight, he’s almost freakishly intelligent. Keeps scoring off the charts. So my thought is this: if we know that inbreeding damages offspring by providing too narrow a genetic pool, and thereby magnifying any flaws in the code, couldn’t it make sense that a much wider genetic background would tend to produce people with lots of healthy, desirable traits?

I’m sure this is a gross over-simplification, but I’ve always thought it was an interesting theory.
posted by Fenriss at 1:06 AM on May 10, 2003

Fortean Times article on the Melungeons here. Fascinating stuff, though I'm anything but an ethnographer. I wonder what exactly the etymology of "Melungeon" is? That's probably a heavily Anglicized spelling if they were "found" in 1654...
posted by arto at 1:28 AM on May 10, 2003

if we know that inbreeding damages offspring by providing too narrow a genetic pool, and thereby magnifying any flaws in the code, couldn't it make sense that a much wider genetic background would tend to produce people with lots of healthy, desirable traits?

Two words: Tiger Woods.

Or what seed catalogs call 'hybrid vigor'.

It's estimated that each human being carries an average five or so bad recessive genes. Tay-Sachs, for example, or cystic fibrosis, or sickle cell. That means that of you breed with someone who has the same gene, your offspring have a substantial chance of getting a copy of the gene from each parent, and having the disease. The Amish in Pennsylvania, a highly inbred community, have a real problem with a number of genetic disorders. European royalty had a problem with hemophilia.

It's been hypothesized that this is why there seems to be a human urge towards 'exogamy', marriage to those outside the local group.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 1:54 AM on May 10, 2003

It's been hypothesized that this is why there seems to be a human urge towards 'exogamy', marriage to those outside the local group.

Even so, I've never read anything that suggests marrying inside the local group has any negative consequences whatsoever, unless the "local group" consists of ones relatives.

South Korea for example, is fairly homogenous, though it's pretty well known that land and sea trade has influenced the racial makeup somewhat, it's not really comparable to the Eastern U.S. seaboard in 1600. There are laws preventing outright inbreeding, but for thousands of years Korea lived in relative seclusion whithout obvious ill effects. The same might be said of Iceland where almost everyone can trace their lineage back to a very small group of people.

As for the Melungeons, the Knights Templar connection is an interesting one, as it would explain the olive skinned relationship with the middle east or Persia, and the very likely possibility that settlers before Columbus, like the documented Newfoundland settlement of Vikings, and others.

I think much of Thor Heyerdhal's career was built on speculation of world migration and contact, and a trans-Altantic reed boat trip sailed from Morocco to Barbados in 57 days.

Anything is possible.
posted by hama7 at 2:44 AM on May 10, 2003

Thanks, Miguel.
posted by hama7 at 2:44 AM on May 10, 2003

I think with Tiger Woods it was less Hybrid Vigour and more Overbearing Father Vigour.
posted by PenDevil at 5:14 AM on May 10, 2003

Fascinating post, as per your usual style Miguel, thanks. It always amazes me that you seem to know more about the United States than I do!
Also relevant to this topic - a prior post by y2karl about lost tribes and rebel slave communities which includes information on Melungeons as well as on other groups.
posted by madamjujujive at 5:47 AM on May 10, 2003

This personal account from the first link suggests a Sephardic Jewish background.
posted by evening at 6:17 AM on May 10, 2003

I just read Scott L. Malcomson's One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race and my eyes really opened to the unique place racial separation has - and continues - to play in American life. Although I personally think that the Sephardic connection is rather weak - Sephardics get hauled into all kinds of ethnic conspiracy here aren't usually a lot of them conveniently on hand to debunk such theories (go get 'em, Miguel!!)

Besides the Melungeons, other groups of multi-racial aggregates with some Native American ancestry (often with family surnames such as Goins, Gowens, Dye, Dial...) are now applying for recognition as legit Native American nations. For a good discussion of how this argument about blood quantum impacts native communities, read Fergus M. Bordewich's Killing the White Man's Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century
posted by zaelic at 6:41 AM on May 10, 2003

The Melungeons are interesting people, and in fact have a whole densely populated branch of the Google directory dedicated to them... the links here are of variable quality, but then again myths are interesting in themselves.
posted by plep at 6:41 AM on May 10, 2003

There's also this piece about the Ramapough people - Melungeon-like people from the New Jersey/New York border ...
posted by plep at 6:46 AM on May 10, 2003

Now, did you include the recent DNA test at
posted by y2karl at 6:55 AM on May 10, 2003

As an aside - worth noting the African ancestry of the British royal family, by way of Portugal, and another African connection via Pushkin - as well as the African ancestry of the Medicis and famous American families.
posted by plep at 6:58 AM on May 10, 2003

in the wilds of America, speaking perfect Elizabethan English
-from miguels comment.

"they found the best land already occupied by the Melungeons, who spoke a broken form of Elizabethan (i.e., 16th century) English and carrying English surnames as well. However, it is notable that English-speaking Indians did not understand much of their language."

i like this guy

though no relation to these guys
posted by clavdivs at 8:30 AM on May 10, 2003

There's an article about Melungeons in this month's Discover Magazine (sorry, full text not available, but there are a couple links there).

Interesting stuff. Never heard of them until I read the article last Sunday.
posted by DakotaPaul at 1:04 PM on May 10, 2003

The Lumbee people of Robeson Country, North Carolina still use a variety of English that preserves some old and unique features (here are some links).

The Middle Atlantic and Piedmont Native AMericans suffered a very abrupt and devastating series of wars and epidemics during the early 18th century. Larger, better positioned groups like the Cherokee, Creek, Yuchi and Catawba survived, often taking in refgee from devastated groups (like the Natchez) but remnant groups of Yamassee, Woccon, Tutelo-Occaneechee, Guale, and countless others didn't so much disappear as adapt. Being taken as a slave was a constant danger. Survival options were to band together, speak a common language, and make do. After a few generations they had a new community identity, although in many cases they quietly maintained their older identities.
posted by zaelic at 1:12 PM on May 10, 2003

Gullah Language & Culture.

'The Gullah language, a Creole blend of Elizabethan English and African languages, was born of necessity on Africa's slave coast, and developed in the slave communities of the isolated plantations of the coastal South. Even after the sea islands were freed in 1861, the Gullah speech flourished because access to the islands was by water only until the 1950's.'

The Gullah Creole Language of South Carolina.

Gullah Tales - South Carolina Educational Television Production.

posted by plep at 4:43 AM on May 11, 2003

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