The Melungeons were a dark skinned people of indeterminate origin who were documented as having lived chiefly in East Tennessee and the surrounding area as early as about 1800. Once little known, they exploded to prominence in the last quarter of the twentieth century. An outdoor drama; Walking Toward the Sunset and a book; The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People by Brent Kennedy were chiefly responsible for bringing these people to national attention and then the Internet spread their fame like wildfire. Some of this notoriety was good. But some only served to spread false rumors as baseless as the local ones they replaced.
Some very well researched scholarly books followed. All this attention attracted the interest of academia. They arrived en masse to study, poke, prod and analyze the subjects. This book, Through the Back Door: Melungeon Literacies and Twenty-first Century Technologies by Katerine Vande Brake is the result of just such an effort. This is not a book to read to learn about Melungeon history. It has been removed from Mercer's offerings of Melungeon books with good reason. In my opinion, it is not a good book period, because there are too many false statements in it. I just finished this book and I am still wondering why a professional educator would write a book like this. This book represents one of the most flagrant abuses of the use of photos and full names of persons who did not give permission for their use that I have ever heard of.
Among the first rules of publishing being:
In using images, be careful not to:
- defame the person in the image through captions or narration
- portray them in a false light
- libel them or slander them with falsehoods
- injure their reputation
- subject them to hatred or contempt
- hold them up to ridicule
- distort their image by cropping or altering
I believe the only infraction not committed was the last one.
Additionally, the author attributed remarks to two people which, if true cast them in a bad light, and, if not true, cast the author, herself, in a worse light. Suppose you were having a friendly chat with someone and she asked you a question about someone you both knew. And suppose you made an off the cuff remark that was rather mean and hateful. And suppose you later learned that the remark was now appearing in a published book. Would you be embarrassed? Would the third party be angry, annoyed or hurt? Two people were supposed to have said two other people were jealous of a 5th person. The way I see it, four people were maligned and embarrassed. Just to add a little, what...local color?
The book is an outgrowth of Dr. Vande Brake's dissertation which was finished in 2005. There was minimal updating to the book which was released in 2009. I can see this book being used as a required textbook for certain courses students have to take to fulfill educational requirements. The chapters about the Vardy Community and the Presbyterian Mission School built there in the 1920's were quite good and interesting, although at times condescending toward the local population. If only the author had stopped there, I could recommend this book with reservations.
But, no, unfortunately she felt a need to expound upon her theories and biases by examining the websites of several people, none of whom were paid to build their websites to my knowledge. Using the pretense of examining how literacy has affected the Melungeon people, she chose to critique three websites authored by and in two cases also owned by persons she thought to be of Melungeon descent. Although the fact that none of the three had lived the Melungeon experience, nor came from an illiterate rural background or even grew up in Tennessee would render the entire exercise moot.
However; I will enumerate the fallacies of this website critique as performed on each website. Her apparently considerable bias toward one of the website owners resulted in a "hatchet" job of an excellent Melungeon resource. The owner spent her own time and her own money building a considerable collection of historical documents and offering access free of charge to anyone who wanted such. She never had any advertisements on the site. These documents had been for the most part very hard to obtain and in many cases unknown to would be researchers. For this she was castigated and taken to task by a so called website design expert.
I must interject at this point that I feel an unasked for and unwanted critique of one's website to be as invasive as a critique of one's closet. "Her shoes were chaotic and a ratty old robe was prominently displayed as the most important item. Furthermore there was no map to guide me". Silly, but no more so than the author's remarks about a stranger's website. And to publish this in a book. The owner is not a famous person, she is not selling anything, she is not asking for pay for the documents she so freely offers. She is a tireless and talented researcher nonpareil. This researcher was accused of disagreeing with Brent Kennedy on every subject and this is simply not true. They kept up a vibrant email exchange of ideas and he agreed with much of her research.
The other two websites came off much better. Although she had mild criticism for Melungeons.com, she praised many aspects of the site. She praised the owner for supplying hyperlinks to books on Amazon and DNA companies, apparently confusing paid affiliate hyperlinks for added information. The owner agreed with her theories and she made that clear.
The third website discussed was that of the Melungeon Heritage Association, known also as MHA. This was a fairly well funded tax exempt organization. Capable of making large donations to the ATAA, the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, a Turkish lobbying group, this organization was apparently able to budget for website expenses such as host and domain name. Wayne Winkler, an officer of MHA was their webmaster and did a good job for what their stated intentions were. Whether he was paid or volunteer I do not know, nor think it relevant. Then and now, MHA was and is a strong Brent Kennedy supporter. While diverse viewpoints were presented, the main emphasis was and is on the premise that Melungeons descend from some hundreds of "Turks" dropped off on Roanoke Island in 1586 by Sir Francis Drake, (which never happened).
This Turkish genetic imput is supposed to account for their looks (dark skin), traits such as 6 fingers and Anatolian knots on the back of their skulls and all the myriad illnesses they were supposed to suffer from.
All of this foolishness has been thoroughly debunked and not just recently.
It has been about a decade since doctors decided it was a fallacy to attribute Sarcoidosis to exotic genetic backgrounds. The disease was poorly understood when author Brent Kennedy was first diagnosed, but an article in 2001 Discover magazine described Sarcoidosis as a disease anyone could get, including Irish washer women. But did anyone bother to check?
Familial Mediterranean Fever was another exotic disease said to be running rampant in Hancock county, TN. It was not.
Josephs Machado Disease, a debilitating and ultimately fatal disease was said to be found in alarming numbers in Melungeons. However; Dr. Marie Boutte of the University of Nevada-Reno, who studies genetic diseases, particularly Machado-Joseph Disease, was not able to find a single case in a person of Melungeon descent anywhere. Her search was to continue and to date nothing more has been heard. Unfortunately this is another Melungeon Internet Myth that flourishes today.
Other so called Melungeon diseases include Behçet disease, which is not hereditary.
"No one knows why the immune system starts to behave this way in Behçet disease. It is not because of any known infections, it is not hereditary, it does not have to do with ethnic origin, gender, life-style, or age, where someone has lived or where they have been on holiday. It is not associated with cancer, and links with tissue-types (which are under investigation) are not certain. It does not follow the usual pattern for autoimmune diseases."
It is extremely irresponsible to spread misinformation as this book
surely does.The author states that even if a family becomes "white enough" and moves to a new location, someone in the family will come down with a Melungeon disease or a baby will be born with 6 fingers. This is simply not true. Polydactyly is not hereditary in and of itself. It certainly isn't a Melungeon trait. Of all the Melungeon descendants I am acquainted with, only Brent Kennedy had this. It is not a shameful thing. It occurs with cousin marriages, but it occurs worldwide.
I would also take issue with the author's analysis of the Melungeon Rootsweb list and why it split into factions and lost users. The reasons are complex and reflect the author's misconceptions and naivete concerning the evolution of the Internet. People preferred Yahoo groups because they do not have rules like Rootsweb. Yahoo rules, such as they may be, are set by the owner(s). This allows for freer flow of conversation. Rootsweb forbids discussion of politics, religion, and medical advice. So Yahoo groups, of which there are thousands, reflect whatever a small or large like minded group of people want it to reflect. Melungeon-DNA Rootsweb list was created at Rootsweb's suggestion for those who wanted to discuss DNA, not because anyone was mad at anyone. Incidentally -L or -D is no longer appended to the name of a Rootsweb list. Another change since the author finished her dissertation in 2005.
Due to the limitations of space I will not discuss other issues in depth. The DNA errors alone could constitute an entire rebuttal, but I leave that for another time. But I do think it is wrong to publish a book in 2009 that is badly outdated and misleading. And does an injustice to several researchers who have contributed greatly to Melungeon research.
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