Avoiding the One-Drop Rule

            This past January, I attended a concert at Philadelphia’s First Unitarian Church. The audience in the church’s dimly lit basement was tattooed, bedecked in social justice slogans and, like most punk show crowds, predominantly white. Two hours into the show, a local hardcore band with both white and Black members took the stage. As they launched into their blistering set, I followed my instinct and, bobbing to the rhythm, started to work my way forward through the crowd. By the time the band had finished playing their first song, I had made significant progress toward the stage. That’s when the band’s lead singer leaned into the mic and yelled:

            “It’s fuckin’ 2016! BROWN PEOPLE TO THE FRONT!”

            As the drummer counted in the next song of the set, I began to experience a minor identity crisis. I am a person of mixed Jewish and Vietnamese heritage, and my skin is several shades darker than that of the average Anglo-American. Indeed, even during the dimmest days of winter, my complexion never brightens beyond an even tan. But at that moment, I asked myself: am I brown or not? And if not, then what was I doing pushing myself towards the front of the crowd? I didn’t know the answer to the first question—or maybe I couldn’t decide—and so I found myself frozen, rooted to my spot, unable to even pogo.

            That confusion—that sense of misplacedness and strangeness in the face of a racial binary—is nothing new in America. Since anti-miscegenation laws were ruled unconstitutional in 1967, the population of multiracial Americans has grown to represent nearly seven percent of the country. Today, multiracial America is expanding at a rate three times as fast as the country’s population at large.

            The true history of the mixed-race struggle for identity in America, however, goes back for centuries before Loving v. Virginia. It’s a fundamental part of our country’s historical confrontation with race. Yet it is often forgotten, something all too evident in the story of one of America’s most obscure communities: the “Melungeons” of Southern Appalachia, mixed-race mountain-dwellers whose encounter with rigid racial norms in the 19th and 20th century led to the near-complete erasure of their multiracial identity. Examining the story of the Melungeons reveals some lessons about the complex nature of race in America—lessons that, ultimately, should serve as a warning to the contemporary activist left as it grapples with race and racism in the 21st century.

 

The Melungeons

            First: who are the Melungeons? To answer that question, we must revisit the history of Southern Appalachia. After that region opened to American settlement in the late 18th century, the first pioneers who moved in were poor and peripheral inhabitants of the lowland South, among them mixed-race individuals from eastern Virginia whose “mulatto” status was a source of social stigma in their home region.[1] White Appalachian settlers began to call these mixed-race people “Melungeons,” possibly from the French mélange, or mixture. Even in Appalachia, multiracial people often had difficulty fitting in; while unmixed white and Black settlers were known to inhabit the same towns as one another, church records show that Melungeons were sometimes forced out of non-Melungeon communities for their “wickedness.”[2] These ostracized multiracial people came together in settlements of their own, and thus, self-contained Melungeon communities—with a distinct multiracial identity—came into existence in early 19th century Appalachia. In the racially polarized American South, however, this could not last.

            Starting in the mid-19th century, persisting social forces and legal shifts led to the negation of the Melungeons’ mixed-race identity. “Colored” residents of Tennessee were banned from voting in 1834.[3] After eight Melungeon men were sent to court for voting in the federal elections a decade later, their attorney was able to exonerate them by having their “beautiful hands and feet” (evidence, apparently, of a lack of nonwhite ancestry) examined in court.[4] The lesson to be learned from this trial, and from the law that it concerned, was clear. Despite having both “colored” and white origins, Melungeons could legally only be one or the other—and it was better to be white.

            In 1930, mixed-race classifications were struck from the federal census. Instead of being marked down as multiracial or even “mulatto,” individuals with both white and “colored” heritage were now required to register solely as members of their nonwhite ancestry group.[5] Soon after, Virginia Registrar of Vital Statistics Walter Ashby Plecker brought this “one-drop rule” directly to bear on the Melungeons. Plecker was frustrated by the Melungeons’ attempts to list only their white ancestry on the census; he wrote that all the other mixed-race “mongrels” of Virginia were eagerly watching the Melungeons’ efforts to pass as white, “ready to follow in a rush when the first have made a break in the dike.” In 1942 he went through the census records of each county in Virginia and compiled a list of mixed families’ surnames, distributing it to local officials so that all multiracial individuals could be correctly classified as “colored.”[6] In this way, the Melungeons were forcefully relegated to a single racial category, their mixed background expunged from the historical record.

            The greatest distortion of the Melungeons’ identity, however, arose not from external attempts to classify them but from their own desire to classify themselves. Pressured by society to deny their multiracial past, the Melungeons forgot it entirely; from the mid-19th century onwards, they began to ascribe all manner of “pure” ethnic origins to themselves. Most often, Melungeons claimed Mediterranean descent—Portuguese, Turkish, and even ancient Pheonician ancestry.[7] This was a way to account for their non-Anglo appearance while still enjoying the rights afforded to white people. The myth of the Melungeons’ Mediterranean origins became so established that as late as 2005, one author of self-proclaimed Melungeon descent wrote about how centuries of endogamy had preserved in her people “an almost ‘pure’ Mediterranean type, complete with associated genotypic and phenotypic traits.”[8] Only in 2012, after the completion of a genetic study, were the group’s mixed-race origins conclusively proven.[9] Prior to that study’s publication, many modern Melungeon descendants considered rumors of their ancestors’ multiracial pedigree to be simple misinformation.

 

Racial binaries and the left

            What, you may ask, does all this Appalachian esoterica have to do with contemporary race issues? I’ll explain. Last May, I helped put on a concert organized by Renegade, a Harvard student organization dedicated to art and advocacy in support of people of color (POCs). The event’s purpose was to showcase the work of POC artists and, accordingly, it featured a number of talented musicians of color from both on and off campus. I have the utmost respect and affection for Renegade. Their formation, two years ago, was an utterly audacious act, and their goals—to empower POC voices, fight race-based oppression, and encourage creativity within the campus community of color—are noble and laudable. The individuals involved in the collective are inspired, welcoming, and “woke.” As for the concert itself, it was, in my opinion, nearly perfect: all the performers sounded great, turnout was solid, and it truly felt as if we had created a positive space for our community.

            Yet in retrospect—and in light of the Melungeons’ story—one aspect of the event now gives me pause. In the lead-up to the concert, some of the other students running the event posted a brief message on its Facebook event page. The post, aimed at white attendees, emphasized that the event was intended for people of color; it mentioned that in the event of a line forming out the door of the venue, POCs would, accordingly, be invited in before white people. At the time, this idea made total sense to me, and when the venue’s authorities ordered us to take down the post, I grumbled along with the rest of my co-organizers.

            After reflecting further upon that incident, however, my opinion has changed. I now firmly believe that such rhetoric is ultimately harmful. Letting in people of color before white individuals, in practice, means classifying all of humanity into two discrete identity groups and then enforcing a hard divide between those two groups. According to the rules of contemporary racial discourse on the left, mixed individuals of partially white descent are considered people of color; if I had been in line for the concert, my Asian heritage would have gotten me inside sooner, despite my half-whiteness.

            This dualistic division between white people and POCs is deeply misleading. As the early Melungeons knew, multiracial people face a lived experience totally distinct from those of unmixed people of all races. I may not be “white” according to the contemporary left’s definition, but by descent I am as white as I am Asian, as Jewish as I am Vietnamese. I have grappled with issues of racial identity my entire life, only fairly recently coming to terms with this duality; I identify with both sides and, just as deeply, as a mixed person. To enforce a binary distinction between the two halves of my ancestry, and place me in a group including only one of them, is to force me to abandon one half of my racial identity and, thus, my mixed-race identity. It also confronts me with difficult, potentially unanswerable questions like the one I encountered at the concert in Philadelphia. If I am partially white, and possess some of that identity’s benefits and privileges as a result, should I have gone to the back of the crowd? Or should I have gone to the middle? Presented with a dual choice between white and “colored,” the Melungeons abandoned their mixed identity and contrived an entirely new one. In my case, I am left feeling confused, out-of-place, and alien.

            I should emphasize that I object neither to the existence of a rhetorical distinction between POCs and white people nor to the inclusion of mixed non-white people in the former category. What worries me, rather, is hard-edged enforcement of this boundary that forces individuals to make a binary choice. In the current political climate, the (non alt-)right is far less likely to employ such a tactic than the activist left; identity policing on the right is likely to be seen as racism, while on the left, it reads as empowerment. To an extent, this seems legitimate to me. If people of color want to create a space solely for themselves, who am I to protest? Then again, if whiteness is not wanted in that space, how should I, a person whose mixed identity contains an immutable component of whiteness, feel about sharing in it? Given the existence of intermediate identities, can exclusionary application of the racial binary ever be justified?

            In summary, it is my belief that the activist left should be mindful of its tendency to actively divide individuals in a way that negates mixed identities. To be sure, the roots of this tendency lie not in the ideology of the left but in the pre-existing racial boundaries that have long upheld white supremacy in America; white supremacists were the first to institute such divisions, and they initially did so from a position of power. In the 21st century, however, as America’s racial binaries are fading away, I urge an understanding of race that better acknowledges the complexity of mixed experience. Otherwise, we risk a revival of the one-drop rule—and is that the conception of race we truly want to uphold?



[1] Hashaw, Tim. Children of Perdition: Melungeons and the Struggle of Mixed America. Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 2006, p. 27; Ibid., p. 8

[2] Ibid., pp. 9-10

[3] Estes, Roberta J., Jack Goins H., Penny Ferguson, and Janet Crain Lewis. "Melungeons, A Multi-Ethnic Population." Journal of Genetic Genealogy (2012): 6

[4] Hashaw, “Perdition,” p. 13

[5] "1930." US Census Bureau - History. US Census Bureau.

[6] Plecker, Walker Ashby. Letter to Local Registrars of Virginia. Jan. 1943. Virginia Department of Health, Richmond, Virginia.

[7] Hashaw, “Perdition,” p. 14

[8] Hirschman, Elizabeth Caldwell. Melungeons: The Last Lost Tribe in America. Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 2005, p. 46

[9] Estes, Goins, Ferguson, and Lewis 2