- Melungeon Portraits: Exploring Kinship and Identity by Tamara L. Stachowicz
The unspeakable becomes speakable in Melungeon Portraits: Exploring Kinship and Identity, as Tamara L. Stachowicz depicts the complicated history of the term Melungeon and the culture and people it describes. While she gives cultural, sociological, political, and historical definitions of Melungeon, she notes, "The ethnicity or culture of Melungeons and other non-whites in southern Appalachia cannot be understood outside of the historical context of the Appalachian South" (p. 16). In the first chapter, Stachowicz explains the complexity of the term and reviews the relevant scholarship. She then describes in chapter 2 her methodology of using portraiture. In the next three chapters, she shares her participants' narratives about their Melungeon identities. Stachowicz concludes the book with reflections on her research and a call to action about Melungeon research.
Stachowicz uses the portraiture theories of Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and Jessica Hoffman Davis to explore her participants' experiences with and narratives of the Melungeon identity. She labels her participants "co-researchers," as "[e]ach of them was very active in questioning, reflecting, clarifying, and interpreting our conversations. They were very much a part of the research 'team' instead of an object of study" (p. 53). These co-researchers span from a grandmother who does not want her voice recorded or her pictures copied, to a woman who is skeptical of academics laying claim to the term Melungeon, to a young man who was born out of wedlock but still finds solace within his father's family. The three aptly titled chapters, "Gibson Portraits," "Johnson Portraits," and "Other Portraits," explain certain branches of family trees and include portraits of the participants. Each voice brings the reader a bit closer to the complexity of the Melungeon identity and to understanding what it means to those who claim it, who want to claim it, or who research what that identity means in their lives. Some scholars might say Stachowicz's use of her own family as co-researchers is unethical, but Stachowicz is careful to write critically about her family members while allowing them to tell their own stories. Her research demonstrates that the professional is oftentimes personal and that [End Page 236] both the professional and the personal can be political in the continual construction of the Melungeon identity.
Following the Melungeon research done by Darlene Wilson and N. Brent Kennedy and Robyn Vaughan Kennedy in the late 1990s, Stachowicz's book not only presents a sound theoretical exploration of this identity but also demonstrates how the participants actively research their own ancestry in order to reclaim it. As Stachowicz notes, "For someone from outside the group to determine meaning and implications is more than ineffective—it objectifies the population, making them an item of study instead of a group of individuals with their own experiences, feelings, and family traditions" (p. 146). She argues that the research of Melungeon identity should not reside only within academia but should also span to the living rooms, kitchen tables, picture books, family Bibles, and cemeteries of those who embrace, disrupt, and celebrate this distinct Appalachian identity.