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Becoming Melungeon

Making an Ethnic Identity in the Appalachian South

Melissa Schrift

Publication Year: 2013

Appalachian legend describes a mysterious, multiethnic population of exotic, dark-skinned rogues called Melungeons who rejected the outside world and lived in the remote, rugged mountains in the farthest corner of northeast Tennessee. The allegedly unknown origins of these Melungeons are part of what drove this legend and generated myriad exotic origin theories. Though nobody self-identified as Melungeon before the 1960s, by the 1990s “Melungeonness” had become a full-fledged cultural phenomenon, resulting in a zealous online community and annual meetings where self-identified Melungeons gathered to discuss shared genealogy and history. Although today Melungeons are commonly identified as the descendants of underclass whites, freed African Americans, and Native Americans, this ethnic identity is still largely a social construction based on local tradition, myth, and media.

In Becoming Melungeon, Melissa Schrift examines the ways in which the Melungeon ethnic identity has been socially constructed over time by various regional and national media, plays, and other forms of popular culture. Schrift explores how the social construction of this legend evolved into a fervent movement of a self-identified ethnicity in the 1990s. This illuminating and insightful work examines these shifting social constructions of race, ethnicity, and identity both in the local context of the Melungeons and more broadly in an attempt to understand the formation of ethnic groups and identity in the modern world.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4

Copyright Page

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pp. 5-7


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pp. vii-9

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pp. ix-x

I have benefitted from a wide and varied amount of support in writing this book. First and foremost I would like to thank my colleagues and students at East Tennessee State University (ETSU), with particular appreciation for the intellectual...

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Introduction: Race, Identity, and the Melungeon Legend

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pp. 1-32

I entered the outdoor pavilion to see hundreds of people talking, laughing, and walking around. Clusters of people surrounded Brent Kennedy, who was shaking hands and posing for pictures with his newfound kin. A child who appeared...

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Chapter 1: Inventing the Melungeons

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pp. 33-49

As many mixed-race individuals struggled to pass—and disappear—into white society, their mythical shadow surfaced in popular writing. The mythical Melungeon, or the image that emerged from the media, materialized in a time...

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Chapter 2: Melungeons and Media Representation

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pp. 51-68

While most unsolved mysteries hold a limited interest in the popular imagination, the Melungeon story forges on, releasing a slew of synonyms that evoke their alleged enigmatic nature. Writers depict Melungeons as unusual, rare, mystical, strange, exotic, colorful, puzzling,...

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Chapter 3: Playing the First Melungeons

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pp. 69-85

Melungeon legend transformed in a fundamental way in the mid-twentieth century. The change involved the staging of the outdoor drama about Melungeons, Walk Toward the Sunset, in Hancock County in the mid-1960s. With the...

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Chapter 4: Becoming Melungeon

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pp. 87-111

In the 1990s the Melungeon legend finally became fully peopled—in copious numbers and with a deafening urgency. A media heyday accompanied the new Melungeon scene, this time with a movement of real Melungeons behind it. The 1990s media reporting on...

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Chapter 5: The Mediterranean Mystique

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pp. 113-139

For many Melungeon descendants the 2002 DNA studies promised a definitiveness in identifying Melungeons as an ethnic group. A great deal of anticipation led up to Kevin Jones’s report at the Melungeon Union, and, for most attendees, the results...

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Chapter 6: The Melungeon Core

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pp. 141-177

To suggest that any individual grew up as a Melungeon is a misnomer since, historically, there has never been a selfidentified Melungeon community. Still there are individuals directly descended from, and who spent their lives in, communities historically...

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Closing Thoughts

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pp. 179-185

Larry was one of the first core Melungeons I met in Hancock County. He is the son of evangelical, sharecropping parents. He grew up working the land on Newman’s Ridge, alongside his brothers and sisters. Distressed from years of sun, his skin holds the patina...

Appendix 1: Melungeon Questionnaire

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pp. 187-189

Appendix 2: Media Articles

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pp. 191-207


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pp. 209-221

Works Cited

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pp. 211-217


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pp. 219-222

E-ISBN-13: 9780803271616
E-ISBN-10: 0803271611
Print-ISBN-13: 9780803271548

Page Count: 216
Illustrations: 2 appendixes
Publication Year: 2013