Melungeon literature marks a changing nation
by Rob Neufeld
I introduce this personal note to open my review of Lisa Alther’s book, “Kinfolks: Falling off the Family Tree: The Search for My Melungeon Ancestors,” because it helps connect us all to the theme.
Do your own DNA test.
Alther, whose first book, “Kinflicks,” showed to what extent her heroine was not the Kingsport, Tennessee debutante indicated by her parents’ status, has in her sixth book, and first work of non-fiction, claimed her mongrel status.
“So what does this hodgepodge make us?” she asks about her mixed-race DNA. “It makes us Americans,” she answers.
“Melungeon” for many years had been, for reasons of racism, a slur in Southern Appalachia, the place to which “free people of color” (as censuses had often called them) had fled to escape persecution.
Starting about 40 years ago, attitudes began to change; and there was even an outdoor drama—“Walk toward Sunset”—that the University of Tennessee, Carson Newman College, and Hancock County had created to celebrate Melungeon pride.
Alther’s walk to sunset is a research odyssey in the form of a memoir. It takes us from her childhood fear of six-fingered cave dwellers (that is, Melungeon bogeymen) to a globe-trotting tracking of pertinent myths and, finally, a science-aided best-possible-conclusion.
One of Alther’s first encounters on her journey is with her paternal grandmother, Hattie Elizabeth Reed, who established, in Kingsport, the “Virginia Club,” an organization that discusses the superiority of Virginians (of which Hattie was one) and the significance of bloodlines.
“My father has mentioned a Cherokee ancestress,” Alther notes. “When I ask my grandmother about this, she speaks of the recent rainstorm and current warm spell.
“As I continue to bug her, she finally snaps, ‘My family may be a tiny bit Indian. But it’s not a Cherokee. It’s Pocahontas. Pocahontas was a Virginian.”
This is the sort of revisionist history that makes someone like Alther snort with laughter. But, as it turns out, grandma was right. Alther’s grandfather (William Henry Reed) and grandmother were both descendants of Jane Rolfe Bolling, Pocahontas’ granddaughter.
“I also learn,” Alther continues, “that as of 1976 Pocahontas had an estimated two million living descendants.” Plus—sorry, grandma—Alther, through her grandparents, is also descended from other, less illustrious Native Americans.
Just plain folk
Melungeons have been cast as mysterious figures in our region’s literature.
In a 1963 issue of the “Nashville Tennessean,” photojournalist Louise Davis asked, “Who are the Melungeons—the ‘mystery race’ tucked away between giant ridges of East Tennessee mountains long before the first white explorer arrived?”
Do they conceal in their features and shyness, she pondered, stories about “explorers (who) strayed from DeSoto’s party 400 years ago or of Portuguese sailors stranded on the North Carolina coast?”
East Tennessee writer Mildred Haun was unromantic in her story “Melungeon-Colored,” published in her 1968 book, “The Hawk’s Done Gone.”
The narrator tells how she’d given her dying friend, Effena, an oath that she’d never let Effena’s new baby, Cordia “know that her pa had been a Melungeon…I just know Effena said for me (and husband, Ad) to raise Cordia up to think she didn’t ever have any other pa or ma. And she said for me not to ever let Cordia get married.”
Wilma Dykeman features a misunderstood Melungeon family named Bludsoe in her novels, “The Tall Woman” and “The Far Family.”
Wayne Caldwell, in his 2010 novel, “Requiem by Fire,” portrays an itinerant worker named Bud Harrowgate, whose “flat face and high cheekbones led some to speculate he had Melungeon blood, others Cherokee.” More notably, Bud looked askance at civilization, and once uttered, “Church people do mighty low-down things. If that’s ‘saved,’ they can keep it.”’
Mattie Ruth Johnson, in her 1997 book, “My Melungeon Heritage,” speaks from the plain experience of having grown up in the most recognized, and cohesive, Melungeon community, Newman’s Ridge, around Sneedville, Tenn.
Like many mountaineers, the Ridgmanites, as Johnson’s community members were sometimes called, were cash poor, farm-sufficient, and spirit-rich. Families that could afford to give something other than a necessity—such as a doll or toy—for Christmas, “would keep (it) at home so the other children would not have their feelings hurt.”
Though the Johnson family did not handle snakes, Mattie Ruth respected the Godliness of the visiting preachers who did. People were of all physical types, “color doesn’t matter”; and people who had bad behavior were treated with love.
Salt and pepper prose
What becomes clear in Alther’s book is that what has distinguished the Melungeons is their degree of racial intermixing; their ancient origins; their bond as refugees from threatening society; and their location in the southern mountains.
For some, being racially mixed was less tolerable than being part of any one oppressed, feared, or hated racial group.
In the 1910s, Walter Plecker, a Virginia eugenicist, led a movement to pass the mandatory sterilization law. “The worst forms of undesirables born amongst us,” Plecker said, “are those whose parents are of different races.”
Things have changed so much now that one African American Washington reporter exclaimed that she never before “encountered white people so eager to be African.”
Alther doesn’t give a citation for this quote. Her book is both entertaining romp and significant book of insights. For the latter function, endnotes should have been a must. There should also have been an index.
The narrative’s the thing with which Alther catches the attention, as well as the consciences, of us kings of our small domains.
She peppers her account with startling stories—including the appearance of a sea serpent in Lake Champlain—and with church marquee sayings. She salts it with wry autobiographical observations.
“I remember the year we ate the cow named Lisa. So do my therapists,” she writes.
“The time which was to have arriven has arroven!” her great uncle, a preacher once said.
Sometimes, Alther’s humor plays on stereotypes, such as her jokes about Episcopalians and NASCAR fans. I understand the motivation to be compulsively readable, but I found that the flippancy detracted from the authority a little.
Alther, in her latest work, is leading the way on an important development in consciousness. It’s so central to her thinking that she followed up on “”Kinfolks” with a saga-like novel about Melungeon history, titled “Washed in the Blood,” full of intermarriages and surprising turns of kindness and grief.
Kinfolks: Falling off the Family Tree: The Search for My Melungeon Ancestors by Lisa Alther (Arcade 2007; trade paper, 2012)
My Melungeon Heritage: A Story of Life on Newman’s Ridge by Mattie Ruth Johnson (Overmountain Pr. trade paper, 168 pages)