Growing up, I found myself pushed to the fringes of my community not by my actions or those of my family but simply by my appearance. I lived, and continue to live, in a community which is comprised of almost an entirely Caucasian population. However, I, not unlike other members of my family, did not fit with the accepted image of a Caucasian person. We had dark hair, dark eyes, and most unusual of all, dusky brown skin. Now before you dismiss me completely by thinking, “Well, you must not have been white!”, please understand that technically I am classified as a Caucasian, as were my mother and father. We all knew that there was Native American ancestry a few generations back, but nothing recent and not enough to change the census classification of race.
I went through my childhood and teenage years unsure of my position in the world. Whenever a teacher would automatically classify me as African American on school forms and then realize their blunder when they checked against my official records, I would cringe in embarrassment. Not because of the wrong classification, or the fact that I did not want to be seen as anything other than white. The reason I felt uneasy about these incidents was that I felt unsure of my own place in the ethnic realm. I myself felt odd checking Caucasian/White on those school forms, so how could I blame others for their own knee-jerk reactions? The best way I can describe it is to say that I felt like I was adrift in a sea of otherness and instead of having an anchor to hold on to, such as a sense of belonging to African American, Native American or Hispanic heritage, I was drowning in my own insecurities. Who was I really if I didn’t even know why I looked the way I did?
This sense of disconnect continued to plague me even after I left my hometown and ventured to college. The college I attended had a much more diverse population, including African American, Asian and Hispanic students. Instead of the sense of belonging you might assume I would acquire by being less of an anomaly in this situation, I became even more confused and frustrated by my lack of knowledge regarding my ethnic history and place. It might be helpful at this point to acknowledge that the fact that my parents had not been close to their own parents had lead to a serious lack of family history knowledge on my part. But regardless, I knew very little about where I came from in an ethnic sense. Culturally,however, I was aware of my history and proud of the generations of Appalachian blood that ran through my veins.
College was hard for me in many ways that directly related to my ignorance of my own ethnicity. I found myself unable to stick to a label for myself, because I simply did not have one that fit. For a while I tried to pretend that it didn’t matter, that in this environment of such diversity it was unnecessary to even have a label. But my classmates had different ideas. If I made too many black friends, some of my white classmates would talk about me trying to “go ghetto”. If I hung out with a large group of white friends, inevitably rumors would abound of the girl who was trying to “pass for white”. Questions abounded, from the innocent to the rude. And still I was unable to answer with any clarity. College was still a very clique fueled society and no clique quite felt I belonged to them.
It was only after I began to study Appalachian history and literature that a ray of light finally broke through the darkness that had become my insecurity regarding my appearance and lack of ethnic definition. Through my research I learned of a subgroup of ethnic races found primarily in the region of the Appalachian mountains that I was born in. This ethnic group is called Melungeon and is basically derived from a group of families in that area who were completely intermixed racially, including Caucasian, African American, Native American, European, Mediterranean and Asian.
Everything changed for me after that. Yes, I still got, and continue to get, questions about my ethnicity. But now I finally have an answer that I am comfortable giving. I feel as if a piece of me that was missing for so long has finally been found and incorporated into my psyche. I am more at peace with myself, more comfortable in my own skin and feel better able to handle the hassles of being different in a place of general sameness. This journey of discovery brought home to me the importance of having an ethnic culture to embrace and the importance that everyone places on having a way to identify themselves, if not to others than at least to themselves.
I continue to research my family history, digging into genealogy and census records. I also still research Melungeon history and their ethnic place within Appalachian culture and folklore. For more information you might want to visit http://www.melungeonmestee.webs.com/ or do a general web search.