[Part 2 is now available here.]
Many people talk about how difficult it is to be an ethnic minority in our society, but imagine growing up not even knowing what ethnicity you are. Or knowing you were genetically European but missing the most prominent physical features that enable others in the race to accept you as one of them.
My swarthy complexion has always been a mystery. Whatever it is is very old and from the eastern US. I was told growing up that it is Cherokee, but no one knows how much or how far back, and usually an Indian complexion fades out after a few generations. It’s not the right Denise Huxtable tint to be African. So where does it come from?
I believe that Scooby Doo has finally solved the mystery. The Melungeons are a tri-racial European/African/Indian mix from the Cumberland Gap, especially in Tennessee. Their origins are unknown, but they seem to have migrated from the Virginia farms in the 1600s. Recent anthropology and genetic testing have further clarified the Melungeon question. Despite heavy intermixing with the whites in the last century, they still maintain the olive complexion. Some of the Google images pictures look fairly similar to my family, though there doesn’t seem to be a good sampling from either group to compare, since the Melungeon search results aren’t very good and most of the Martins did not get the charming Turkish look anyway.
My cousins on that side of the family look like regular Aryan supermen. Though I am almost certain my grandmother was cheating, I am pretty sure she did not have any children from her affairs. Anyway, my uncle and my late grandfather had no hair on their legs, and it’s not because they were gay.
Three pieces of evidence that show I could be of some Melungeon descent:
1) The dark skin comes from the Martin family, who come from Indiana. Indiana was largely settled by southerners, and “Martin” is a Scottish name common here in Chattanooga (which itself was settled by people from the surrounding area as a kind of mini rust belt). I feel like I haven’t met many Martins from elsewhere in the South. It’s very possible a Martin from northeast Tennessee or just over the border married a Melungeon girl, and they or their descendent moved to Indiana to find better economic opportunity (since most industrial development in Tennessee has always been in the southern half of the state). This migration was not uncommon at all within the last 150 years, as is documented in the songs “Rocky Top” and “Shenandoah”, the book “The Redneck Manifesto” by Jim Goad, and — to a lesser extent — the movie “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia”.
2) The Melungeons used to be confused for Portuguese, Turks, Gypsies, and Moors, ie Mediterranean people. All my life, people have said I look like a Muslim or a Jew, and in ID photos I always make a point to have a full beard, trenchcoat, and menacing frown for the comedy (my North Carolina driver’s license photo was awesome). In actuality, I don’t have any of the facial features Turks, Syrians, and Jews have, but most people don’t know the difference, and it’s universally accepted that I don’t have a Hispanic face.
3) Many Melungeons have a knot on the back of the head above the neck and a ridge on the front four teeth (whereas Anglo-Saxons have straight teeth). Both of these traits I have. This seems to be the strongest evidence.
If this theory is true (and it’s by far the best I’ve ever heard), then that would mean three of my grandparents have ancestry from the Appalachian South, which — for you Yanks reading this — is as different of a culture from the low-country cotton farmland South as Bavaria is from Prussia.
Either way, I have started listing my race on government forms as Appalachian-American.
[Part 2 is now available here.]