Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Becoming Melungeon: A Review

I am really impressed with this Melungeon book. At first I thought it would be very different as I misunderstood the title and I thought it would be the manifesto of one more self identified modern day construct; a person with all the ailments, physical traits and mystic connections to Portuguese,  Turks, Moors, Sephardic Jews,  Gypsies, Lost Colonists, and American Indians. 

But Ms. Schrift is a calm dispassionate professor of Anthropology who has consulted some 70 resources. She seems to have read every non-fiction  publication ever published about the Melungeon people. Thankfully, she spares the reader the foolishness found in some of the fiction books using Melungeon characters.

I highly recommend this book and only wish it had been available earlier. 


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.

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