And now that attitudes toward race have shifted so dramatically in America, the Melungeons are becoming cool:
Those who feel this way share some characteristics. Most (though not all) are fair-skinned. Several report suspicious silences about their families’ pasts, plus a childhood sense of not quite fitting in. Sometimes there are foreign names among their forebears. And, very often, they had never heard of the Melungeons until middle age.
Nan Tuckett, for instance, was raised amid whispers of Cherokee blood; a strand of her family had dark skin and hair and roots in Virginia. As an adult she both converted to Judaism and discovered an affinity with the Melungeons. “They’re such an open loving people,” she explains at the MHA event. “I want to be able to go into any group of people and feel like I belong”. Kathy Lyday, a board member of the MHA, believes she has Indian blood on both sides of her family; on her mother’s there were dusky folk with Hispanic names such as Alfonso and Carlos. She came to the Melungeons through her academic work (she teaches American literature); initially she wanted to establish a link, but now is simply intrigued. “We’re all mixed race to some degree, if you grow up in this part of the world”, Ms Lyday reasons.
It is easy to be sceptical of such a discretionary association. As Ms Schrift says, it bestows on those who choose it an ethnic loyalty at once exotic and, these days, stigma-free. It dissociates them from white America’s past sins, replacing that guilty legacy with the afterglow of trials overcome, plus a mantle of victimhood that may properly belong to others. In one interpretation, such feel-good ethnic tourism threatens, as Ms Schrift puts it, to render the term Melungeon “so elastic that it really has no meaning at all.” To join the Melungeons, she says, is to acquire “a skeleton key to identity”.
On the other hand, there may be a deeper honesty, and a kind of idealism, in this voluntary embrace of a mixed-ethnic background—a make-up common to millions of Americans, but which many remain reluctant to acknowledge. And there is something optimistic and timely about the vision of race that the Melungeons imply. These days, on university campuses and beyond, the old, humanistic faith that everyone is the same at heart has been ousted by an essentialist idea of black- and whiteness, which sees the experiences of each as distinct, even mutually incomprehensible. The grievances that underpin this attitude are often legitimate, but the result is that race in America can sometimes seem like a prison. The notion of racial categories as fluid and optional, even invented, is a refreshing counterpoint to this ossifying sense of unbridgeable difference.