A Long Line of Southern Outcasts

Last weekend I attended a retreat for the Melungeon Heritage Association, which has just invited me to join the board as a consultant. Our charge was to start plans for the 2009 Union which will be held at Chief Logan Conference Center in southern West Virginia. This occasioned a fair amount of discussion of MHA’s purpose and future, and my fellow consultant Elmer Maggard, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist from Kentucky, provided food for thought that has occupied my mind ever since. He described the deep human need for a sense of belonging, rooted in our evolutionary history in which exclusion from the group was a death sentence. Dr. Maggard stressed the experience of shame and exclusion in the history of mixed race Southerners, and the potential role of MHA in bringing pride to replace the culturally induced shame. He suggested that it is worthwhile to focus on the most shameful individual or episode in one’s family history, and seek healing reconciliation of the psychic damage that has been carried down through generations. This led me to realize that the story of Pell Mellers is very much about outcasts and shame, through many generations.

My father became an outcast from his family in the early 1960s when his relationship with an African American woman led them to try to have him declared insane, and when that failed, pressure him to leave Virginia under threat of prosecution for miscegenation. But he had an earlier experience of being an outcast, when the death of his father led to separation from his mother as he was sent to live with his paternal grandparents. His father Fred had experienced the ultimate destiny of the outcast, death in an honor killing at the hands of his own father-in-law as punishment for his failures as a husband and father. Fred’s father John Henry Johnson had been one of eight brothers all of whom left their native Bertie County around 1900 following political changes that made white Republicans and former Unionists persona non grata in the county. While there are no records of the Johnson brothers being outcasts individually or personally, they belonged to a family and community that was treated as outcasts for political and possibly for ethnic reasons.

In retrospect, having taken account of the multigenerational family history of being outcast for various reasons, I’m inclined to accept Maggard’s theory that we are driven to resolve psychic conflicts inherited from past generations’ experiences of shame and exclusion. In my daily “real life” I have sought out small rural communities and community organizations that have provided abundant opportunities to bask in the warm glow of belonging and pursuing a common cause. But my literary life, while providing a preponderance of favorable attention from complete strangers, has brought a series of outcast experiences (to be discussed further in my end-of-year summary of 2008 news about my books.)  Was I unconciously driven to recapitulate past traumas in family history by becoming an outcast from adoptive spiritual families?

This question rises to the fore now for two reasons. First, as I review the experience of my maternal Quaker ancestors the theme of outcasts is extremely relevant. First they were persecuted outcasts in Massachusetts, who came to North Carolina after being subjected to horrifying abuse from religious/civic authorities. But after establishing themselves in North Carolina for many generations they became outcasts because of their opposition to slavery, and Quakerism became extinct in Pasquotank County during the Civil War era. There was also the repeated experience of ancestors being made outcasts by the Quaker community for a series of infractions. The central anecdote in my chapter for the forthcoming collection of family histories from Backintyme focuses precisely on the most shameful incident I found in seven years of genealogical research, involving an ancestor who was cast out by the Quakers during the same period that Quakers were becoming outcasts in the region. Maggard suggests that there is some therapeutic imperative to delve into such painful family memories and resolve them; I will take this up as a challenge to make the writing process one of psychological as well as historical discovery.

The second reason that Maggard’s theme is so compelling is that it appears in fiction that I have recently read.  One of the best results of writing Pell Mellers was getting acquainted with Lisa Alther, whose most recent book Kinfolks was her first work of nonfiction, a study of her search for her Melungeon ancestry. After meeting her at a Melungeon Union, I went back to her first novel Kinflicks, and found the protagonist Ginny Babcock to be one the most engaging characters I had ever encountered in a novel. Ginny’s adventures, or misadventures, lead her to experience being an outcast in a very diverse set of circumstances. It starts when her father forces her to go to a northern college to keep her away from her biker hoodlum boyfriend, who happens to be a Melungeon. At the end of the book Ginny is literally an outcast from the home she shared with her husband. Yet one gets the impression that Ginny will continue to bounce back from every reversal of fortune and that her adventures will continue to be entertaining. I’d love to read a sequel. Alther’s second novel, Original Sins, has a darker tone and its outcast characters do not seem likely to find happiness. Its protagonists include two pairs of siblings, in each case with one staying and conforming to the norms of their Tennessee hometown while the other goes north and feels no more at home there than back in the south. The brother who went north eventually comes back south but ends up becoming an outcast in the rural community he loves.

Another American novelist who spent many years as an expatriate in Europe was Mary Lee Settle.  In the wake of my trip to West Virginia, I went to the library in search of her Beulah Quintet.  I had read the last two volumes when they were published in the 1980s, and knew that the five volumes traced the histories of several intertwined West Virginia families from England under Oliver Cromwell to the present.  At the moment I am reading O Beulah Land, which describes the arrival of these families in what would become West Virginia, and finding the theme of outcasts just as pervasive as in Alther’s early novels.  Here is a passage from the introductory notes by Roger Shattuck that I found especially compelling: “The successive generations of the Beulah Quintet set before us not two but three closely related antagonists: American history with its interlocking opportunities and oppressions– our version of fate; the lone individual seeking his place within these engulfing forces of history; and the intense cluster of persons we call `the family’ doing its best to mediate between society and the individual and usually caught itself in a strong seesaw motion between stability and instability.”(xii)

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