Melungeons, Lulu and Prayers for Our Cousin

I met Lulu when I first came to work at the Cubicle Asylum about eleven years ago. When we'd get on the subject of family, I'd often joke and tell her that someday I was going to figure out how we were related (because everyone in Frog Pond Holler is related if you dig back far enough.) A few years ago I started discovering my family history and eventually did find that Lulu and I were related. Lulu, half jokingly, began her own research to prove me wrong and as a result found a several more lines where our family trees meet.

That's also when I started to find out about Melungeons, a secretive group of dark skinned, multi racial people who lived separate from the general population up in the North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia mountains. There are several theories on their origins, a lot of which is outlined in Brent Kennedy's book,The Melungeons: The Resurrection of a Proud People : An Untold Story of Ethnic Cleansing in America. My grandmother's "people" came from one of those secluded groups, tucked back into the mountains.

Lulu's father's family also came from the same area of the mountains, but we've never found any absolute Melungeon links in her family. Lulu doesn't have any of the physical traits like the eye fold, the Asian shovel teeth or the Anatolian lump, nor does she have a skin tone that is even the slightest bit tan. Lulu does, however, demonstrate several of the same symptoms that I do and I've often urged her to mention to her rheumatologist the possibility that she could have FMF. She poopoos the idea, although the lines through which we're related are close to my suspected Melungeon lines. She refuses to take a pill every day, so she reasons, it wouldn't matter if that's what they said was wrong with her anyway.

Lulu has been seeing a rheumatologist for two years now for her joint and muscle pain. She's been seen by a cardiologist for her chest pain, which periodically brings her to tears, yet they found nothing wrong with her heart. She's been to a neurologist for her lifetime of migraines and to a gastroenterologist for her "puking spells" and bouts of diarrhea. Last year they removed her gall bladder, but it had no effect.

Lulu just turned forty on her last birthday.

So yesterday, Lulu comes to my office and starts telling me about she and her mother going on their weekly trip to Big City last weekend. They were in the car, Lulu was driving and she was telling her mother how her shoulders were popping and grinding and how nothing seemed to help. She was laughing, telling her how we were both having a "bad spell" yesterday morning at work, hobbling up and down the hall, grunting and groaning like two old women. Her mother asked her if I had arthritis and Lulu explained to her about Melungeons, FMF (Familial Mediterranean Fever) and the physical characteristics associated with the group.

She explained to her about the Anatolian bump and how to find it by running your hand from the spot where your spine meets the back of your head, up the center. The "bump" can vary from a pea sized lump to a wide ridge. Apparently Lulu was driving with one hand and groping the back of her mother's head with the other, to demonstrate. Can you imagine the explanation to law enforcement if she had wrecked?

"I'm sorry officer, I was groping Mom's head to see if she's a Melungeon."

Lulu's mom just had eye surgery about a week ago so any poking of her eye lids would have to wait. She then went on to explain about shovel teeth and how she used to lovingly call me an "Asian shovel toothed mongrel," usually after I'd called her "Gomer the friendly ghost." With shovel teeth, the backside of your two top front teeth is curved, like a cup or shovel.

Lulu's mom looked at her oddly

"What? I'm serious, Mahala's are shaped like that. She said she thought everyone's teeth were the that way until she read that feller's book."

"Aren't yours?" her mother asked.

"No! They're flat..."

"Hmph.. I thought everyone's were curved."

I can not believe that after four years and all the conversations she and I have had, she never thought to mention it to her mother before.

Lulu's mother has shovel teeth, which doesn't necessarily mean she has Melungeon ancestors. It shows up in Native American families too, but it's possible.

She is on vacation this week, so I'll have to wait to find out more, but she's promised to get her mother down on the couch where she can get a good look at those choppers.

For more on Melungeons and our ties to the Turkish people, look for From Anatolia to Appalachia: A Turkish-American Dialogue (Melungeon Series) another book by Brent Kennedy.

I read recently that Mr. Kennedy is going through some personal struggles. I had the pleasure of meeting him at a lecture he gave at a local university a few years ago. He autographed my copy of his book and took a couple of minutes to ask me about my family, where we discovered we share a common link in our Davis line.

You are in my prayers dear cousin :)


craftyhala said...

It's interesting to me. I learned of Melungeons years ago and have always wondered.
My grandpa Shaeffer's family was called Black Dutch and from Tennessee I think and they are darker skinned white folk (grandma would say).
I will be doing more searching as well, since my sister and I have been convinced of us being Melungeon on both sides.

kenju said...

Until I started reading here, I had only seen the word melungeon once or twice and had no idea of the meaning. I like learning new things - so thanks for the lesson. I may look for that book.

Tori Lennox said...

I'd heard of Melungeons before but never knew much about them. Now I'm sitting here trying to decide if I have shovel teeth or not. *g*