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Volume 24, Number 10 — November 2017

Professor's Books on the Melungeons Began with King College Honors Project

Katie Vande Brake
Katie Vande Brake

September 04, 2012

BRISTOL, Tenn. Katie Vande Brake vowed to become a writer in high school. After 30 years of teaching middle school, high school, and college, she was inspired to continue her own education by applying to Michigan Technological University's Ph.D. program. It was then her dream of becoming an author became a reality. Vande Brake's application essay for MTU was to become her first book and her dissertation her second.

"A few years ago, I was asked by a student to supervise an honors project," said Vande Brake. "The student planned to write about Appalachian women writers. My colleague, Kim Holloway, associate professor of English and Technical Communication at King, had focused her master's thesis on Appalachian Literature. The three of us sat in Kim's office and made a list of things to look for in the books and the Melungeons were on the list. Not long after, it was suggested during a workshop I attended that I apply for the Ph.D. program at MTU. I didn't have a writing sample at the time, and having been intrigued by the student's honors project, I decided to write about Melungeon characters by Appalachian women authors. That's where it all started."

Needing a writing sample for the doctoral program at MTU, Vande Brake began her research and writing during Thanksgiving in the year 2000. When the weekend ended, she had penned a total of 80 pages. "It definitely was more than a writing sample at that point."

While working on what was to become her first book, How They Shine: Melungeon Characters in the Fiction of Appalachia, Vande Brake contacted Mercer University Press to check a fact. She mentioned the book she was working on to see if they might have an interest. The person she spoke with on the phone said there was a process that had to be followed. That seemed to be the end of it. Shortly thereafter, she received a call saying the editor was quite interested. After sending him a description of her book, MUP gave her the news they wanted to publish the book.

"It was really all an accident," commented Vande Brake. "How many people send their writings to a publisher and receive refusal after refusal before finally being published? I wasn't even through with the book when they asked me to write more. After 20 years at King, I took my first sabbatical spending much of the time completing my research and putting the final touches on the book."

How They Shine, published in Dec. 2001, is an analysis of Melungeon characters in Appalachian fiction that ranges from John Fox, Jr., 1900's author of the best-selling novel Trail of the Lonesome Pine, to the present with Lee Smith and Sharyn McCrumb.

One reader from Michigan described the book as "...engrossing and captivating... Vande Brake opens a door into the mysteries of the Melungeon culture. In doing so, you can feel Vande Brake's love of literature and great admiration of this quiet, obscure community that has its roots in Appalachia. While reading, I gained a great respect for the Melungeons as a group. Vande Brake brings to the reader's consciousness that Melungeon characters are used in literature to conjure up an image stereotypical to this group of people in the mountains of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. Their tenacity, snake handling, moonshining, physical features, and exclusivity to the outside world are all part of this characterization. "How they shine" is a fascinating work, full of haunting images of a special community of people who have lived in our United States for centuries."

Vande Brake's doctoral work was in rhetoric and technical communication. Many of her courses dealt with theoretical approaches to websites, both design and content. "There was just a natural synergy there. When I received an assignment, I would typically use the Melungeons as my topic. At lunch one day, in a sort of epiphany moment, as my colleagues and I were discussing what we were going to do for our dissertations, one mentioned since I already knew so much about the Melungeons they should be a part of my dissertation. My first inclination was to write about Melungeon websites and email. By this time, I was on the Melungeon email list."

As Vande Brake began to delve deeper into the topic, she discovered that it was not only about technology, but was actually a literacy study. With access to a treasure-trove of historical documents such as land sale records, she found the Melungeons were still signing their name with an X. "I knew many of that community were not reading and writing in the early 20thcentury. I was unable to find anyone else, at that time, who had documented the journey from illiteracy to not only literacy but sophisticated rhetorical debates on the Internet."

This study would turn into Vande Brake's second book, Through the Back Door: Melungeon Literacies and Twenty-First Century Technologies, which was published in March 2009.

After her second book was completed, Vande Brake decided that all the Melungeon controversies about origins and legitimacy boiled down to two simple questions: (1) who can be included in this group? And (2) what counts as evidence? People considered to be Melungeon are sometimes referred to as tri-racial Native American descent, African American descent, and mysterious European descent. The issue of the mix of ethnicity is an ongoing debate within the community and among the leading experts.

When asked what sets her books about the Melungeons apart, Vande Brake commented, "One area of research I keyed on was by British biologist Kevin Jones of the University of Virginia's College at Wise who performed a Melungeon DNA study. His research took into account not only a person's DNA but also the idea of shared experience being evidence of consideration as a Melungeon. Shared experience included things such as being discriminated against, not being allowed to vote, being excluded from school, and all the things that were suffered by those considered to be Melungeons.

"Another distinctive dealt with illiteracy and survival," said Vande Brake. "Although most could not read or write, the Melungeons not only knew how to make moonshine, but also knew how to preserve food, make clothing, build houses, and farm. They also had a well-established barter system in place. One person who figures prominently into the transition from illiteracy to literacy was the visionary and Civil War veteran, Beatty Collins, who realized the way of life he had known (as a Melungeon) would not survive the industrial revolution that was about to take place."
What began as a conversation with a colleague and an Honor's student from King about Appalachian women writers turned into two intriguing books for Vande Brake that bring a unique perspective on a people that many still consider quite mysterious. In addition to serving as Dean for King's School of Arts & Sciences, Vande Brake continues to study the Melungeons. While many tend to interrogate their origins, she is more interested in contemporary issues such as their representation in fiction and their presence on the Internet.