Thursday, January 8, 2009

My Thanks to Melungeons in America and Sorbians in Germany

My first impressions of America's beginnings came from the history books that I studied in school. Pilgrims landing in Jamestown and slaves landing, dizzy and emotionally numb were, according to my youthful impressions the cornerstone of our identity.

The Louisiana Purchase, of course added a large bloc of citizens who owed their presence in North America to the French. To this day, their state laws stand alone among the fifty states as being based upon the Napoleonic legal code.

The Spanish, of course left behind a multitude of place names and a populace descended from them. Even today, there can be found in New Mexico descendants of conversos who once came to New Mexico secretly practicing a truncated and furtive form of Judaism under a Christian veneer. Some are thank G-d returning to their Jewish roots.

It would be an injustice not to mention the Native Americans, an assortment of many nationalities and languages who are the poorest of America's ethnic groups. It would be a service to America if their traditions could be preserved and their economic foundation built up.

Along with the many imigrants to America, are there other groups whose presence passes unnoted in the official histories of our country?

It seems so. How many people give thought to the Melungeons ? Who are they? One of their web sites, Melungeons.comoffers articles and links to the scholarship revolving around this fascinating group, whose origins are shrouded in mystery.

One thing that can be said with certainty. Not every ship that made it to America's shores made it into America's history books. DNA studies and other research has been done to arrive at a definitive conclusion about the Melungeons true ancestry. Some have said that they could be from Spanish or Arab ancestors. Others think that they are descended from Turks.

Michael Kolhoff is quoted on as follows.

"In the 17th century, the settlers of Jamestown described the "tawny half-breeds" they encountered in the forests, who strangely preferred the freedom of the wilderness to the safety and comfort of Jamestown. Who were these people, these "half-breeds"? Theories as to the identity of this people range from the romantic (the survivors of the Roanoke colony) to the fantastic (the descendants of early Viking, Welsh or Phoenician settlers). In fact, they were members of fugitive (also called maroon) communities that existed on the outskirts of European settlement from the earliest days of colonization.

This quotation indicates that the Melungeon mystery probably dates back to the start of America's colonial period.

Unfortunately, prejudice has hampered the search for answers. In many areas throughout the country, Melungeon was a derogatory word. Some families suffered shunning and discrimination. Such hurtful societal attitudes have bred secrecy. Only recently in the last few years has a sort of "Melungeon pride" taken root as America's desire for introspection touches its historical narrative.

The name Melungeon itself is shrouded in mystery. Is it derived from the French "melange" meaning mixture or mix? Melungeon scholar Brent Kennedy speculates that it may be derived from the Arabic Melun Jinn which translates as "cursed by G-d.

According to a BBC article on the Melungeons, linguistic research into Native American etymology uncovers numerous Turkish and Arabic cognate words in indigenous languages spoken in areas where Melungeons have lived.

The BBC article notes this research as follows.

"With his team of researchers, Dr Kennedy has found hundreds of words in local Indian dialects that have almost the same meaning in Turkish or Arabic. The Cherokee word for mother for example, is Ana Ta. In Turkish, the word for mother is also Ana-Ta."

The early records of non English immigration to North America help explain this phenomenon.
The BBC article elaborates as follows.

"When he began to research his ancestry, Dr Kennedy found evidence that first people to arrive in Appalachia, were not northern Europeans, but may have been Ottoman Turks. Portuguese settlers brought Turkish servants with them in the 16th Century. Sir Francis Drake unloaded hundreds of other Turks after he liberated them from the Spanish in 1587. Blood typing has confirmed close similarities between present day Melungeons and people of the Mediterranean region. What has now become known as the Kennedy theory is that these people pushed inland and settled down with American Indian women, to begin life as farmers."

Brent Kennedy has made a discovery with implications that reach far beyond his chosen field of research. Along with personal and private anecdotes, family trees and history are a part of national history. Listening to one's family history from older relatives is an essential supplement to the sometimes questionable history taught in schools. The cohesiveness of the family and its small enclaves of collective memory is a counterbalance to the power and the propaganda of the state.

The truth that is buried by official history can be an antidote to toxic ideology.

In Nazi Germany, racial theorists said that Germans were "Aryans" who were on top of a hierarch of races. According to Hitler, Slavs were at the bottom of the totem pole and were considered "untermenschen".

In Eastern Germany, meanwhile a Slavic minority known as the Sorbians petitioned the Nazis for recognition of their language, the existence of which gave lie to Nazi racial theory. The Nazi reaction was predictable.

"With the rise of Hitler, the minority’s institutions were closed down and, in 1935, publications in Sorb were banned. Only Catholic publications were allowed due to the Nazi Concordat with the Vatican. The contents of the Macica Serbska were confiscated and private Sorbian books seized and burnt. Many intellectuals and public figures were arrested and some sent to concentration camps. During World War II, there were plans to transplant the entire community but the Germans were defeated at Stalingrad before they could be implemented."

The Melungeons add irreplaceable shades to America's Colourful self portrait. I am most grateful to Brent Kennedy and other Melungeon scholars for sharing their scholarship with Americans and the world. If a nation is to properly face its future, it must properly see and understand its past. Conversely, those who tamper with collective memory most likely have evil plans for the future. The Sorbs of Germany are living proof of that.

I thank and salute the Melungeons and Sorbs for preserving their sense of self and their unique views of the past. I will continue to follow their ongoing process of self discovery with avid interest.

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