In my search for reading materials relating to my dna test and my memories, I've found a 1962 book called 'Almost White' by Brewton Berry. It could have been titled 'the Vanishing Indian.' In fact, his first chapter bears that name. I certainly do wish there were someone like Brewton Berry around right now for me to talk to.
One thing I begin to realize as I do all this tri-racial reading, is how much racial and ethnic categories and classifications change over time. As I said in my last post, history is a regional thing, and there are time-regions too. People felt differently in the past, and some of the things that were 'issues' then, aren't now. Although perhaps there are still issues around race and ethnicity in our country with its ongoing immigration, they just aren't quite the same issues. When we look at other countries where there is all-out war among ethnic factions, I think we can't really believe that 'this sort of thing' is no longer a problem on earth.
In any case, the world of Brewton Berry is the world I grew up in - although I grew up in the northern version, which I regret was not covered in the book. So it's up to me, or to someone else with more scholarly ambitions, to reconstruct it. In the meantime, I can extrapolate from this book to my own early situation.
Most of the writing on the subject of 'tri-racials' focuses on the American South where race issues were formerly perceived to be greatest. Many tri-racial people had to live in isolated communities with varying degrees of mixing, usually with whites. For example, today's Melungeons test out on average via DNA to be usually 90-95% European in ancestry, with the remaining 5-10% Native American, African or some combination of each. This is because they intermarried a lot with whites.
In Pennsylvania, mixed marriages were legal during certain periods of time, like during the Revolutionary War, and prior to 1723, so it's a somewhat different picture. During the earliest periods, 1500-1600's, there was plenty of mixing without anyone worrying too much about it, until later. African and European indentured servants were often on a par in terms of their servitude in those days, but soon after differences arose, mostly about how long their terms of service were. Further on, blacks began to serve longer and longer terms, and after a Virginia uprising by a mixed group of freed indentured servants, the idea of lifelong servitude grew in appeal among landowners, leading to what we now think of as 'plantation-slavery.' I found this out by watching a documentary called 'Africans in America.' It's very good. I recommend it, if only for the beautiful music and photography.
One of the least attractive features of the tri-racials described in Berry's book is their strident refusal to be identified with 'Negroes.' It sounds so utterly racist. I'm curious about it, and my first thought was that it was very likely the tri-racials living up in mountainous regions were self-identified with Indians. They had been living up in the mountains, hunting, fishing, gathering, doing a sort of poor-scratch dirt-farming - essentially living an echo of the Indian lifestyle, but with 'english' names, farm animals and log houses. The historians say that in early inter-continental contact what stood out to people was not color but culture. So, I'm trying to say that these people were culturally closer to Indians, remembered Indian relatives, and were self-identified as Indians. These Indian ancestors were much closer to them in living memory in times past than they would be to us now, but are nevertheless not imaginary, and they are enshrined in their family's legends and mythology right up to the present.
Brewton Berry says such people's identification with Indians ought not to be disparaged. These folks are the descendants of those Indians who were wiley enough to stay in their ancestral vicinity when it came time for removal. Also the remnants of Indians who had already intermarried with whites, or who were being sheltered by Quakers of Moravians in Pennsylvania for example. This last is documented history, by the way. Anyway, they were generally not coming out of late-stage plantation slavery kinds of situations, so they probably did not identify with the blacks who were.
I have a black friend who strenuously objects to being identified as the descendant of slaves, because, as he says, his family were always free. Indentured servants were free, sailors were (often) free. His family owned land in Indiana, until, as he claims, it was illegally taken away from them. So these whites with some early admixture of ancestry from free blacks and native americans object to taking on an identity they don't relate to, and which, granted, in days gone by might have reduced their status. Brewton Berry points out, however, that if these 'mestizos' (his name for tri-racials who are mostly white) would only have accepted the designation of 'black' many more social services would have been available to them. So, really, it did not serve them to deny it. There must have been some other reason why they wanted to be designated as either 'white' or 'Indian.'
Just as a side note: some of the state of Virginia's Indian groups did remain as a group on their land, which at some point was designated an Indian 'reservation,' and so they officially retained their identity as Indian tribes. Those remnants of non-removed Indians who did not have a reservation or other ancestral land-claim found it difficult to attain official governmental status as Indian tribes, and became designated 'white' or 'colored.' The history of the Lumbee Tribe is illustrative of the kinds of 'moves' these people, even when consisting of a very large group, had to go through to regain their official status as 'Indians.'
There's more, though, that explains why these part-white/part-Indian people protested being identified as 'black' ('colored'). Apparently they could lose their designation as 'Indian' if they married an African American, or claimed black ancestry in states like Virginia. It was okay to claim white heritage - one could still remain an 'Indian' in the presence of white blood, but NOT in the presence of black. (!!!) (Reservation-identified Indians in VIrginia were allowed some degree of black ancestry, however, but the rules were different for those who were not members of those particular tribes.) This 'Code of Virginia' was current in 1961 when Berry's book was published: "Colored persons and Indian defined. Every person in whom there is ascertainable any Negro blood shall be deemed and taken to be a colored person, and every person not a colored person having one fourth or more of American Indian blood shall be deemed an American Indian." (p. 149, Almost White) In addition, if an Indian, so defined, married an African American they immediately forfeited their right to be called an American Indian.
So the mystery is made clear. These people, in order to maintain their identity as 'Indian' were forced by a racist system to eschew their African heritage.
I realize that this is not the current hot-button topic of the day, but to me this book, Almost White, dispels confusion and adds a whole nuanced layer to the social environment in which I grew up as white.
I think issues of identity are very complex and very personal, and to have a racial identification foisted on you that you don't identify with would be very upsetting, even aside from being legally binding. The quiet, keep-your-head-down whites who looked Indian in our neighborhood would not admit openly to having either African or Indian blood, but I can see now that there was a very good reason for that. Brewton Berry calls these people 'mestizos' and describes them as 'the forgotten people.'
But I remember them.
I was one of them. Now I'm just another displaced person, not native fruit.