Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Yet another example of race's tangled legacy in the United States:

As the article describes, a population of dark-skinned Appalachian residents described as "Melungeon" has been genetically determined to be of mixed African and European ancestry, despite historical claims by many in the population to be of Portuguese or Turkish heritage.  Researchers believe they are likely descended from European indentured servants and African slaves in the colonial backcountry during the 1600s; over time they claimed European ancestry to avoid the severe racial restrictions imposed by the Jim Crow South.

The story of the Melungeons demonstrates what Edmund S. Morgan masterfully explained in his paradigmatic American Slavery, American Freedom (Norton, 1974), and what I hope I manage to convey to my undergraduates in colonial history: prior to the late 1600s, racial categories in colonial America remained fluid.  While many African slaves were confined in chattel slavery (hereditary, descending through the mother), some were able to secure freedom after a given term of service and some even, alarmingly, went on to own slaves themselves.  Meanwhile, European indentured servants sometimes viewed their position as more analogous to African slaves than to those who held them in service.  Alliance across racial lines was far from unknown.  In fact, it was the very threat of this class-based alliance that helped determine the stratification of racial categories by the turn of the 18th century.  Class alliance represented a threat to European slaveholding (and servant-hiring) elites.

The way out?  Solidify slavery as a permanent, hereditary, racial classification -- and give poor whites a population against which they could elevate themselves, however rudimentary the actual elevation.  By clarifying the legal framework of racial slavery, European elites accomplished two goals: provision of a permanent labor force and consolidation of "white" identity in opposition to black slavery.  The poorest white could then share a feeling of "freedom" with the colony's governor.

The Melungeons' heritage predates the invention of ironclad racial classifications in American life.  As such, it helps us understand the contingency of race.  It need never have become what it did.  It is to our eternal discredit that it happened.  Stories like that of the Melungeons will help us better understand this reality--and perhaps, help give us the tools to deal with our past and address our present.

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