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My dad’s side of the family

October 14, 2007

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My dad is from Wise, Virginia.  Close by, in the town of Norton, he has cousins.  The University of Virginia has a satellite campus in Wise and some professors have recently included discussions of racial issues in the Appalachian Mountains in their course materials.  Some people there identify themselves as Melungeons.  It is a mixed ethnic identity I first heard about in the year 2000.

While I was studying abroad in Lima, Peru, I got an email from my mom with a link to a Washington Post article about Melungeons.  My dad and his cousins have two of the common last names listed in the article and their physical descriptions match.  I don’t have as many of the physical characteristics as my dad does, but I do have a big knot/ridge at the back of my skull and blue eyes.  My dad has the tanned skin, sleepy eyelids, blue eyes and dark hair.  His cousins also have these same characteristics.

I think it’s neat to associate with another ethnic group instead of falsifying an association with the Anglo-Saxon or Scotch-English group.  If the association is false, it is not for me.  That’s not to say that I have anything against this ethnic identity, but I wouldn’t want to associate myself with “the establishment” or “the man” by claiming to be elite in any way.  My mom’s side of the family has a well-documented family tree.  They really are mostly Scottish and mostly Presbyterian.

I’m more intrigued by my dad’s family.  The mysterious and undocumented history of Appalachian Melungeons has to be studied carefully.  At several points in history, it became trendy to be Melungeon, even without proof.  Not everything on the internet will contribute to your understanding of this ethnic group.  Many of the web pages I found were started around the year 2000, but the owners’ initial enthusiasm has dwindled and the pages are left dated and stale.  Also, Brent Kennedy who tried to become some sort of expert and spokesperson, ended up discredited by many scholars because of his poor research habits and inexcusable generalizations.  Many academics dismiss the Melungeon movement as revisionist history which allows people to claim their ancestors have been victimized and marginalized, therefore gaining some status through the backlash.  I hope to avoid approaching my research in this way, although claiming to be a victim is what I tend to do.

This video asks questions about Ohio Melungeons.  Although it asks questions instead of answering them, I like this video because it shows the “empire of dirt” that I can claim as my Melungeon inheritance.  My dad’s hometown depresses me.  Maybe because I am an outsider, I see it differently than I would if I had grown up there?  It has a coal-based economy and the mountains are scarred by strip mining and the chutes presumably used to transport the coal.  I see them in zigzags on the sides of the mountains which flank the roads into town.  It makes me sad to see this Appalachian “empire of dirt”.  I’m very satisfied by the Trent Reznor song chosen to accompany this homemade video.  I think it fits perfectly, especially sung by Johnny Cash.  If I could make my own video of Wise, Virginia I think I would choose this same song.

  1. October 16, 2007 1:04 pm

    I had never heard of Melungeons, but I’m interested in learning more. Thanks for sharing this lovely, poignant story…

  2. October 16, 2007 3:41 pm

    Brenda, you’re from Kentucky, right? My dad went to Berea College.

    See page 21 of this article for more information on Melungeons in Kentucky. Thanks for coming to my blog and commenting. 🙂

  3. October 17, 2007 6:41 pm

    Yes, I am from Kentucky. Just read the article and found it fascinating. Thanks!

  4. October 24, 2008 2:43 am

    Wow this is all so interesting! First of all, when we lived in KY we went to Berea for church! We also have family in Berea. We plan to move back to that general area. Secondly, My paternal grandma is from breathitt county KY, and I always find any sort of history about KY fascinating because she had a crazy life there.

  5. October 24, 2008 10:45 am

    Kristin, that is cool! Thanks for sharing that with me. 😛

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