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Wayne Winkler shares Melungeon heritage in Psychology Today, new book

Wayne Winkler (Copyrighted photo by Mike McGregor used by permission)

JOHNSON CITY (Nov. 18, 2014) – An East Tennessee State University staff member is sharing his heritage in the December 2014 issue of Psychology Today magazine.

In this publication, a full-page portrait of Wayne Winkler, director of WETS-FM/HD, the university’s public radio station, accompanies an article titled “The Past is Written on Your Face – But What Does It Say?”

The article is an excerpt from a new book by Christine Kenneally, an Australian American journalist who writes on science, language and culture.  She has written for the New York Times, the New Yorker, Slate, New Scientist and Australia’s Monthly, among other publications, and is the author of The First Word (2007).  

Kenneally’s new book, The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures, draws on cutting-edge research to reveal how both historical artifacts and DNA tell where people come from and where they may be headed.

One chapter of the book deals with the Melungeons, a mixed-ethnic people first documented in the Clinch River region of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia in the early 19th century.  Researchers have traditionally believed the Melungeons to be tri-racial – a mix of European, African, and Native American ancestry – although other theories of origin have been suggested.  

Last year, while conducting research for her book, Kenneally contacted Winkler, a Melungeon descendant and author of Walking Toward the Sunset: The Melungeons of Appalachia (2004).

“We communicated by email and telephone several times,” Winkler said.  “Then I pretty much forgot about it until this past spring, when Christine sent me a draft of the chapter for review and told me the book would be coming out in October.”

In August, Winkler was contacted by Jennifer Bleyer, a staff editor at Psychology Today.  “Jennifer told me the magazine was going to excerpt the chapter of the book that featured the Melungeons, and they wanted me to come to New York for a photo session.”

In early September, Winkler went to a studio in lower Manhattan where he posed for photographer Mike McGregor, who took portraits of several people of mixed ethnicity.  These included individuals whose backgrounds included Japanese/Russian, Chinese/English, Jamaican/Puerto Rican, Cherokee/African American/Filipina, and Senegalese/Spanish/Portuguese/Native American/Irish.

According to McGregor, “The challenge was to strip away everything except for the absolute essence of their faces.  We decided to go in really tight and make it non-ornamental, so all you notice are distinguishing characteristics like cheekbones and the set of the eyes.”

In the book chapter and magazine article, Winkler discusses how he learned of his Melungeon ancestry, and how various family members dealt with that heritage – or avoided dealing with it.

“Until the late 1960s, the word ‘Melungeon’ was an epithet, something other people called you if they meant to insult you,” Winkler says.  “It didn’t just refer to your ethnic background; it was also a reference to a low socio-economic status.”

That began to change with the production of an outdoor drama about the Melungeons, “Walk Toward the Sunset,” which was staged in Sneedville from 1969 to 1976.

“The outdoor drama was a pivotal event for Melungeons,” Winkler said.  “It led to people of Melungeon ancestry proudly acknowledging their heritage.  It was so important to Melungeon self-identity that I named my book Walking Toward the Sunset in recognition of the important role the play had in that process.”

Winkler is a past-president of the Melungeon Heritage Association and a frequent lecturer on the topic of Melungeons.  While much of the history and origin of the Melungeons is still unknown, Winkler does not dwell on the missing pieces of the puzzle.  As he says in Kenneally’s book and Psychology Today article, “It’s who I am because it’s who my father was.  To be able to stand up in front of a group of people and say that I’m the descendant of a Melungeon – a term full of baggage that my grandmother was taught to keep quiet about – I’m content with that.”

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