Toxic Sludge and Eerie Premonitions

Sludge from River Bottom-- Photo by Dan River Basin Association

Last January I was haunted by persistent mental images of a river bottom coated with a foot of toxic sludge. In the course of two days, in one Facebook message and three emails, I repeated the same metaphor to four different friends in context of Melungeon studies. I serve as a board officer of two different nonprofit organizations– Secretary of the Dan River Basin Association and Treasurer of the Melungeon Heritage Association. DRBA has a highly capable paid staff that handles all the serious responsibilities, so mine as a board officer are fairly light– sending out notices in advance of meetings and taking and distributing the minutes. MHA is an all-volunteer organization with barely 1% the financial resources of DRBA, so being a board officer also entails a lot of hands-on work. Hence I worry a hundred times more about MHA business than DRBA business. Perhaps this explains why I very persistently misinterpreted those mental images that plagued me last winter. This seems to be an illustration of what C.C. Zain calls “feeling ESP” which is so much more fallible than “intellectual ESP.”

For more than a century, Melungeons have consistently been described by writers and scholars as a triracial population, and many Melungeons have embraced this for decades (with the reservation that the “white” or “Caucasian” element is not purely European but includes South Asian, North African, and Middle Eastern ancestry). Yet there have been pockets of resistance among people who insist that Melungeons are a biracial population– either European/Indian only or European/African only, and even a handful who insist that Melungeons are purely European. Despite the fact that two DNA studies confirmed the triracial oral history and social science descriptions, and despite the fact that MHA was founded as an explicitly anti-racist organization in 1998 with the motto “One People, All Colors,” two factions both long-antagonistic to MHA had recently grabbed headlines with their very public feud over a third DNA study in 2012. “Some Melungeons deny their African ancestry, others deny their Indian ancestry” was the story line spread virally across the Internet, nationally and internationally, despite the fact that we have always embraced both and that it has been confirmed not just by group DNA studies but many individuals’ personal DNA profiles.

Back last winter, I fell afoul of one of these factions on Facebook. In early January I sent a message to a friend about creating a new Facebook group, calling the existing ones “covered with toxic sludge.” In an email to another friend I wrote in early January about “polemics recently unleashed” that “it’s covered with toxic sludge.” In an email to yet another different friend the same week I wrote of “the toxic sludge associated with Indian identity politics.” And to a fourth friend, I wrote about people “who corrupt and pollute online discussion of mixed ancestry issues without participating in any real-life mixed ancestry organizations or activities” and about “the ambivalence felt by whites about black ancestry and vice versa due to the still-toxic legacy of slavery.” All this, from January emails, confirms vividly how possessed I was by the image of pollution by toxic sludge covering a river bed, in relation to one of the two boards of which I am an officer.

On February 2, the third largest coal ash spill in US history occurred in Eden, NC, headquarters of the Dan River Basin Association, and the Dan River was coated with coal ash sludge all the way downstream to Danville, twenty miles away, killing fish, birds, otters, and microinvertebrates and leaving a gigantic cleanup ahead and a huge political struggle over storage of coal ash next to waterways in North Carolina. Presumably because I habitually worred about negative public images of Melungeons, and felt confident of DRBA’s sterling reputation in the region, it simply never occurred to me that all these foreboding images of a river bed coated with toxic sludge might have literal relevance in the near future, rather than metaphorical relevance in the present, to one of the two boards on which I serve.

This is the first of a two-part essay; the second half relates to a case that seems to be the reverse of this. That is, something I was fearing as a future event– specific as to time, place, and circumstances– turns out to have already happened, and the only thing that was in the future was my finding out about it. This second case relates to the subject matter of this blog, which will be updated later this month.

Meanwhile as a postscript, I will add that the reference to finding Sarah Stanley Grimke’s story more about Unitarianism than Christian Science or New Thought is part of an ongoing revision of my introduction to her writings, so I’ll wait until the dust settles before returning to that subject.