“. . . we must lift the sail And catch the winds of destiny. . .” (Edgar Lee Masters)

A minority report.

To be “the man”

The Melungeons are (were) a mixed-raced ethnic group who live(d) in small communities in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. Their origins are mysterious. Conflicting theories attempt to explain how they came to reside in Appalachia.

The most widely-accepted theory is that they are the descendants of female slaves and white males, who were able to flee to the mountains where they inter-married with the Native Americans and the Anglo Americans who had begun to settle in the mountains.

In the 1990s, Brent Kennedy, who identified himself as a Melungeon, proposed the theory that the Melungeons are descendants of Muslim Arabs who, after they were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition, arrived in the New World in 1566 as part of the doomed Spanish settlement of Santa Elena in South Carolina, the settlement destroyed by the English in 1587.

I want to identify myself as Professor of the Year. I want the award as the most inspiring, most knowledgeable, most organized professor in the university.

I want to have published three or four books since my tenure appointment. I want to be a “talking head” on NPR when they need an authority in my field.

I want to be, if not a true intellectual, at least a thorough-going scholar.

On “Rate your Professor” I want high accolades from students that entice so many students to take my classes that the registrar has to turn students away.

Dear me, I forgot. It’s too late. (“Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.”)

Whatever their origins, most of the Melungeons (for reasons long forgotten) refer(red) to themselves as Portuguese (or, as they said, according to Kennedy, “Portyghee”). The thesis of Kennedy’s book is that the Melungeons were, over the centuries, so reviled that they did everything they could to blend into society and no longer exist as a subculture.

The five young men, athletes at SMU, whom I work with as tutor in my retirement had the assignment to read the Kennedy article linked above for the summer school writing class they are taking. The purpose is ultimately for them to write essays about marginalization in American society.

These guys are going to take their places as “my boys”—I know I shouldn’t call them that. They are not “boys” (or are they?), and they certainly are not “mine.” All of them are star athletes.

I’d like to file a perhaps unusual report on college athletes here.

These five guys (and all who have preceded them as “my boys”) are respectful, interesting, socially competent young men who know something most (yes, most) college students do not know: self-discipline. In the fall semester 2013 eleven members of SMU’s football and basketball teams were in my classes. Not one of them was a slacker. Several of them knew they were under-prepared for college writing, but they worked hard to overcome their disadvantage.

Now I am a paid tutor for several student athletes in the Academic Development of Student Athletes program at SMU. I know—I’d be willing to bet—more about the regulations of the NCAA than any of my jock friends. I know exactly what the limits are on what I may do for these guys. And I follow the rules. And so do they. And they work hard. (I may not, for example, put a mark their papers or put a keystroke to them if they are digital).

A couple of these guys have had great difficulty getting where they are now in many ways—ways more daunting than academic. But whatever their success as athletes might ultimately be, they will have a real education when they graduate from SMU. I’m there to help see to that.

Many years ago I blew my chance to be Professor of the Year (first by accepting a non-tenure-track position, and in many other ways as well). But I’m not like the Melungeons. I have not been ridiculed and marginalized (professionally, that is). I know something about marginalization because I am a gay man, of course.

Was Nancy Hanks a Melungeon from Kentucky?

Was Nancy Hanks a Melungeon from Kentucky?

Here’s what I do instead of being Professor of the Year. One of the young men was having difficulty getting his mind around the Kennedy article. Almost anyone would. It’s a five page condensation of myriad historical facts that require an enormous amount of background knowledge to comprehend.

The student and I were discussing it. I was trying to help him see the big picture—that the article is not about those details, but about marginalization. From somewhere (where do these ideas come from?) I thought suddenly of telling him I never shook a black person’s hand until I was in fifth grade. He was—as he might well have been—shocked. I asked him pointedly if he hadn’t felt the pain of racism. And we talked about marginalization.

He said after a few minutes I was the first white man with whom he had ever had such a conversation. “Professor Knight,” he says every time we finish an hour together, “you’re the man!” And I say to him, “No, you’re the man!” And we do a fist bump. But that’s not enough for him. He reaches out to shake my hand.

So I am the Professor of the Year. At least for “the man!” I am the Professor of the Summer.

He will never know—because I will never figure out how to tell him, and, by NCAA rules I probably am not allowed to—that I’m getting more out of our two hours a week together than he is.

George Gray, whoever he was, seems to be one of the less admirable folks in Edgar Lee Masters’ town Spoon River. I used to think he was somewhat pathetic, and feared I was like him. But one could find a much less worthy “meaning in my life” than being told by a young man who seems to be on the verge of fame and fortune (or abject failure?)—but who is still a twenty-year-old kid—that one is “the man.”

“George Gray,” by Edgar Lee Masters (1868 – 1950)
I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me—
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire—
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

A Kentucky Portyghee family

A Kentucky Portyghee family

4 Responses to “. . . we must lift the sail And catch the winds of destiny. . .” (Edgar Lee Masters)

  1. Thanks very much for this, Harold. I’m keen to follow up and learn more. This is the sort of subject that fascinates me. I wonder if you’ve ever heard of the “Jackson Whites”? They live, or lived, in the most northwestern part of New Jersey (I’m a Jersey boy originally). I never did find out their true history, though I heard over the years theories of how they themselves originated. What was the stable element in all the stories is that they are of “mixed race.”

    I suspicion there are numerous groups like this throughout the US, each with its own fascinating history. There must be books on the subject. I’ll have to look for them.

    Thanks again, and, yes, you are the man.

  2. Thomas, The most interesting book is Kennedy’s own although a great deal of research has been done since then that may disprove some of it. I’ll send you some scholarly article titles.

  3. melungeonesa says:

    Thank you for writing this. I am of Melungeon-Redbone descent through my maternal grandmother. Her father was born in Sand Mountain, northern Alabama. I have just returned from Montreal where I had the opportunity to meet with Idle No More activists. Alliances are now being formed on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border (including by some who do not refer to themselves as Canadian). I have found a link between my family and Timothy Rice (married Catherine Osennehawe). There are Mohawks with the surname Rice. There is a very interesting relationship between Idle No More, related issues and queer theory. Here’s a book: Morgensen, Spaces Between Us, Queer Settler Colonialism. I live in San Diego and we in this region are located geographically in the middle (near San Ysidro) of the child immigrant humanitarian crisis as it unfolds in California. I am completing a book about mixed ancestry. I teach in an ethnic studies department in a state university.

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