Melungeons are a small and hitherto obscure group of swarthy white Protestants living on the Cumberland Plateau in remote parts of the southeastern United States, from Virginia to Kentucky. Their origins have long been shrouded in mystery, with the Melungeons themselves claiming to be of "Portyghee" (Portuguese) origins.
Kennedy's study looks into their origins and identity. He notes that Turkish and North African Muslims captured by Europeans in the Mediterranean were sometimes taken by the Portuguese to Brazil and put to work there, where they were known as mulungos. At times, the Portuguese ridded themselves of these disloyal workers by dropping them off on remote and inhospitable shores; the records show at least one such deposit in North America (on Roanoke Island, off of North Carolina, in 1586). These people. Kennedy theorizes, then "moved to the hinterlands, intermarried with various Carolina and Virginia Native Americans, and eventually became the reclusive Melungeons." The author provides a wide array of evidence to back up this thesis: gene frequency, physical resemblance, disease propensity, personal names, and work skills. The name Melungeon he traces back to Arabic, mal'un jinn ("cursed demon"). He claims assorted American luminaries (Abraham Lincoln, Elvis Presley) had Melungeon roots.
Kennedy, a Melungeon himself - and proud of this fact - is an amateur historian, so it is not surprising that large portions of his study consists of achingly detailed accounts of his own family: "Brandy Jack was Polly Anna's first cousin by means of both the direct Short connection (Brandy Jack's mother Ann Short was a sister of Polly Anna's mother), as well as the Short family's own descent from Booker Mullins." Large swathes of his historical investigation read more like a school paper than a scholarly analysis, especially when on the subject of Melungeon suffering ("an untold story of ethnic cleansing"). Nonetheless, Kennedy has developed an original thesis worth further investigation. If he is right, and he could well be, the Melungeons deepen the American connection to Islam.