Becoming Melungeon: Making an Ethnic Identity in the Appalachian South by Melissa Schrift (review)

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Tri-Racial Isolates, United States on 2016-04-12 02:30Z by Steven

Becoming Melungeon: Making an Ethnic Identity in the Appalachian South by Melissa Schrift (review)

Journal of American Folklore
Volume 129, Number 511, Winter 2016
pages 102-103

Jim Clark

Melissa Schrift, Becoming Melungeon: Making an Ethnic Identity in the Appalachian South (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013)

In the thorough but concise introduction to her book Becoming Melungeon: Making an Ethnic Identity in the Appalachian South, East Tennessee State University Anthropology Professor Melissa Schrift comes quickly to the following conclusion: “Thus, in my research, interviews with individuals living in Melungeon-related areas resulted in an overwhelming lack of oral history evidence that being Melungeon related to any kind of experiential reality distinct from being Appalachian” (p. 22). The archival material, as well, she says, reinforces the conclusion that “there is simply no evidence that Melungeons existed as a culturally bounded group of people” (p. 22). This being the case, and admitted so early on, one might wonder why she would bother to complete her book about Melungeon identity. Schrift’s purpose, as she states, is to examine the social construction of Melungeon identity especially through the complex and sometimes contradictory lenses of race and class. Specifically, Schrift claims:

In this book I argue that the contemporary revitalization of Melungeon identity borrows from the past to create a new white ethnicity that capitalizes on the cache [sic] of the cultural exotic while underplaying stigmatized aspects of heritage. I trace the ways in which individuals employ genealogy, blood metaphors, narratives of oppression, and physiological traits as they become Melungeon. In this way the process of becoming Melungeon reflects a kind of racial passing from a collectively imagined whiteness to a more desirable non-white, or, perhaps, off-white, otherness.

(p. 28)

In chapters 1 and 2, Schrift explores early media representations of the Melungeons, a mysterious, dark-skinned, presumably mixed-race people living in Hancock County, in northeast Tennessee. Schrift ties these writings, the earliest dating from about 1880, to the literary “local color” movement, an early, nationalistic phase of the progression toward literary realism that focused on the quaint, the atmospheric, the colorful, and the unusual, in language that typically featured large amounts of equally colorful and unusual dialect. “The effect of local color writing in Appalachia, and elsewhere,” Schrift writes, “was to create images of an exotic otherness” (p. 33). One of the earliest and most popular writers to depict the Melungeons was “a female Nashville reporter named Will Allen Dromgoole” who had indeed actually visited Hancock County and talked with the natives. “Dromgoole’s articles were sensationalistic and ethnocentric,” Schrift says, “producing a national template for future media coverage on Melungeons” (p. 38). Continuing in chapter 2 with an analysis of the media representation of Melungeons over the next 100 years, roughly speaking, Schrift reaches a startling conclusion:

A critical analysis of hundreds of Melungeon articles yields an incredible truth—the Melungeon story is a respindled yarn with little or no basis in ethnographic reality. As I examine the context in which the earliest Melungeon articles were written, I argue that the media manufactured a Melungeon legend that has little to do with any lived experiences of an identifiable group of people.

(p. 53)

Much like other perennial mysteries—UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot—the Melungeon legend is largely a socially constructed “media phantasm” (p. 68).

However, this is hardly the end of this fascinating story. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, an outdoor drama about the Melungeons, Walk Toward the Sunset, was produced in Hancock County. The brainchild of some members of the Hancock County Resource Development Committee, working with Carson Newman College Professors Gary Farley and Joe Mack High in 1966, the play was regionally popular. It was, however, somewhat controversial locally, especially owing to short-lived bus tours through Vardy Valley, in Hancock County, organized by local businessman and Development Committee member Claude Collins, during which it was suggested that tourists might be able to catch a glimpse of an actual Melungeon. Nevertheless, the impact of the drama on the Melungeon legend, as well as on Hancock County, was large. As Schrift points out: “With the drama, Melungeonness secured a public presence in the community for the first time, and the media gained a foothold to talk about Melungeons in a tangible way” (p. 69).

In chapters 4 and 5, Schrift shifts her focus “from media representations of Melungeons to social constructions of Melungeon identity vis-à-vis…

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Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, and the Making of a Nation by Malinda Maynor Lowery (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Native Americans/First Nation, United States on 2013-03-07 22:23Z by Steven

Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, and the Making of a Nation by Malinda Maynor Lowery (review)

Journal of American Folklore
Volume 126, Number 499, Winter 2013
pages 95-96
DOI: 10.1353/jaf.2013.0006

David Steven Cohen

This book from the University of North Carolina Press raises important questions about which groups are and are not recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as American Indian tribes. The book”€™s author, Dr. Malinda Maynor Lowery, is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and holds a BA in History and Literature from Harvard University, an MA in Documentary Film Production from Stanford, and a PhD in History from UNC-Chapel Hill. She also happens to be a Lumbee Indian.

Professor Lowery claims that the Lumbees, numbering about 50,000, are the largest Native American tribe east of the Mississippi River. She acknowledges, however, they have no reservation, no treaties with the federal government, and no survivals of Indian language, customs, or beliefs. Her book purports to show how the Lumbee Indians “€œhave crafted an identity as a People, a race, a tribe, and a nation”€ (p. xii) in a dialogue between insiders and outsiders. Lowery”€™s argument is based on her extensive knowledge of the history of Native American relations with federal and state authorities and a sophisticated understanding of the concepts of the terms “€œrace,”€ “€œtribe,”€ and “€œnation.”€ She notes that these terms were imposed upon Native Americans by Europeans, and they must be viewed in the context of changing times. She frankly admits that both Lumbees and outsiders have used these terms to achieve certain goals in various contestations involving identity politics.

During the colonial period, the ancestors of the Lumbees were considered free Negroes or mulattoes. In the federal censuses from 1790 to 1830, Lumbee ancestors were listed as “€œfree persons of color,”€ a vague term that was used to describe people of racially mixed ancestry. Under the North Carolina Constitution of 1776, they were eligible to vote if they met the property qualification. The Lumbee ancestors were willing to accept free black identity, rather than be disqualified from voting as were American Indians, who were considered at that time to be members of foreign nations. During the Civil War, the Lumbees were assigned fortification duty, a job normally reserved for slaves and free blacks. In March 1865, Allen Lowery and his son William were murdered by the White Home Guard on suspicion that they deserted from fortification duty in Wilmington and aided escaped Union prisoners. Henry Berry Lowery, another son of Allen Lowery, led a band that took revenge on the murderers of his father and brother. From that day to the present, the Lowery Gang has been celebrated as legendary heroes.

North Carolina’s 1868 Constitution, passed under Republican rule during Reconstruction, allowed non-whites, including the Lumbees, the right to vote. When the Democrats regained control of the state legislature in 1875, they instituted a system of segregated schools. The so-called “€œRedeemers”€ sought the support of the Lumbees, who had voted up until then as Republicans. In 1885, a state legislator from Robeson County named Hamilton Macmillan introduced a bill to recognize the Lumbees as the “€œCroatan”€ Indian tribe, based on a folk legend that they were descended from the Lost Colony of Roanoke whose only remnant was the name “€œCroatan”€ carved on a palisade. Two years after the recognition of the Croatan Indians, the legislature provided public funds for an Indian normal school, later renamed Pembroke College, which is today the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Lowery acknowledges that the Lumbees assumed the identity as Indians as part of a political deal to vote Republican so that they could establish their own segregated schools. Lowery rationalizes this deal as the Lumbees”€™s “€œadopting (and adapting to) racial segregation and creating political and social institutions that protected their distinct identity”€ (p. xii).

Federal recognition required descent from a known tribe, and there was some doubt whether the name “€œCroatan”€ referred to a place or a people. In 1913, the Lumbees petitioned the state of North Carolina to designate them as “€œthe Cherokee Indians of Robeson County.”€ The federal Office…

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Negro Genius—Reviewed work(s):

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, United States on 2011-12-18 23:33Z by Steven

Negro Genius—Reviewed work(s):

The Journal of American Folklore
Volume 18, Number 71 (October-December, 1905)
pages 319-322

NEGRO GENIUS. As a dispatch from Washington, D. C., the “Evening Transcript” (Boston, Mass.) of February 18, 1905, published the following concerning the investigations of Mr. Daniel Murray: –

“Daniel Murray, for many years an assistant in the Library of Congress, is preparing a historical review of the contributions of the colored race to the literature of the world, with a complete bibliography relating to that subject. Public attention was sharply called to this question of the intellectual capacity of the Negro six years ago by Booker T. Washington and other colored men of prominence, when the United States government was preparing an exhibit for the Exposition at Paris, 1900. Mr. Washington urged that advantage be taken of the opportunity to show what the colored race had contributed to the world’s literature. The authorities consenting, Mr. Putnam, librarian of Congress, detailed Mr. Murray to make a list of all books and pamphlets written and published by authors identified with the colored race. As only four months intervened from the detail to the opening, the list was far from complete and very deficient in full historical information which has now been supplied.

“Mr. Murray’s work was practically begun about twenty-five years ago, when he commenced to gather material for such a work after reading Grégoire’s ‘Inquiry concerning the Intellectual and Moral Faculties and Literature of Negroes and Mulattoes, Quadroons, etc.,’ 1810. Grégoire formed in 1790, in Paris, a society called ‘Friends of the Blacks,’ designed to secure their emancipation in the French colonies. Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were members. ‘One of the aims of this society,’ said Mr. Murray, ‘was to gather evidence of capacity on the part of Negroes and mulattoes, the same being designed to reinforce the argument the society intended to present to the French convention, to induce it to grant full equality to the mulattoes, etc., in the colonies. Benjamin Banneker, a mulatto, born in Maryland, to whom credit is due for saving to the American people L’Enfant’s original plan of the city of Washington when L’Enfant broke with the commissioners and took away his plans, which he later sold to Governor Woodward for laying out the city of Detroit, was an intimate friend of Jefferson’s and was often held up as evidence that no mulatto should be a slave. Banneker exhibited mathematical knowledge, and compiled in 1792 an almanac which Jefferson sent to the Anti-Slavery Society in Paris to support his view that the mulatto was the equal of the white man. Jefferson had high regard for Banneker and formally invited him to be his guest at Monticello, and in other ways treated him as an equal.

“‘In the same spirit animating Grégoire, and for the same purpose, to show to the world that the colored race, under which head I include all not white or who have a strain of African blood, is entitled to greater credit than is now accorded it by the American people, I have prosecuted my researches. I claim for the colored race whatever credit of an intellectual character a Negro, mulatto, quadroon, or octoroon has won in the world of letters, and believe a fair examination of the evidence will remove no little prejudice against African blood. It has generally been accepted by scholars that ” Phillis Wheatley’s Poems,” 1773, was the first book by a Negro to display unusual intelligence and win recognition from the Caucasian. But this is not so. Beginning with Alexander the Great and his black general, Clitus, I have patiently gathered the facts from authentic sources of every highly creditable act by a Negro, mulatto, quadroon, or octoroon in the forum of letters or the polite arts…

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A Sea Captain’s Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2011-01-24 22:17Z by Steven

A Sea Captain’s Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century (review)

Journal of American Folklore
Volume 124, Number 491 (Winter 2011)
pages 120-121
E-ISSN: 1535-1882 Print ISSN: 0021-8715

Sharon Downey Varner
Department of English
University of South Alabama

Hodes, Martha. A Sea Captain’s Wife: A True Story of Love, Race, and War in the Nineteenth Century. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2007.

This meticulously researched historical narrative is reconstructed from letters written by the subject and her family members. In A Sea Captain’s Wife, historian Martha Hodes brings to life the story of an obscure New England woman who marries a black man after the Civil War and takes up residence in the Cayman Islands. Hodes is a professor of history at New York University and the author of White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth Century South.

Eunice Richardson, the subject of this book, was born a white, working-class woman in New England in 1831. She was first married to William Stone, a fellow New Englander, with whom she moved to Mobile, Alabama, for a period of time. Hodes speculates that it was in Mobile that Eunice first became acquainted with Smiley Connolly, an African American who would become her second husband.

Hodes leaves no stone unturned and no document undogged. Her storyteller’s bent, her understanding of the complex racial climate of the late 1800s, and her extensive historical knowledge combine to produce an engaging historical document that reads like a novel…

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