Thursday, April 28, 2016

Almost White: A Provocative Study of America's Mixed Blood Minorities by Brewton Berry

Almost White: A Provocative Study of America's Mixed Blood Minorities by Brewton Berry is a study of mixed race communities in the United States.

Many of these groups, like the Melungeons of Appalachia, had mysterious origins. When Berry wrote this book in the 1960s, he had to rely on oral accounts of the origins of the community, and to a degree his visual impressions. Some Melungeons appeared to him as European-American, others Native American, and still others African-American. Then there were all varieties between -- often in the same family. Yet the Melungeons always considered themselves descended from Portuguese settlers, and therefore purely white.

Recent DNA studies of those who reported Melungeon ancestry shows that the founding population of the group were males of African descent, and females of Central and Northern European descent. This is not the picture we have when we think of interracial groups in our early history. Some scholars think that group was founded before the institution of slavery was firmly established by race, when African slaves and European indentured servants freely mingled.

Regardless, these are the groups Berry visited and studied. He was very hands on, visiting these people, attending church with them, eating at their tables, and going to their rites of passages. One element these groups have in common is founding tales that try to establish them as white, or in other cases Native American. In a still heavily segregated America, these communities saw no benefit in being classified as African-American, and their origin stories stress this. There was a clear social benefit in claiming pure European origins.

When they could, such groups lived in isolated places to avoid racial labels. More lighter skinned people would often leave the area of their birth, so they were no longer associated with groups like the Red Bones or Brass Ankles, who were considered, as the title of this book suggests, almost white, but not white enough. Elsewhere, they could simply live as Americans of European descent.

Berry is quick to point out that there are no pure “races” and that admixture is the rule, not the exception. His groups are just obvious examples of this phenomenon, and far more a part of the American ethnic scene than many suppose. Social perception guided the categorization of these people.

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