My Bones are Red
A Spiritual Journey with a Tri-Racial People in the Americas
by Patricia A. Waak (Brazil 1966–68)
Mercer University Press
January 2005
192 pages

    Reviewed by Patricia Taylor Edmisten (Peru 1962–64)

    I GULPED WHEN I PERUSED Patricia Waak’s book and realized that, to write this review, I would be taking more than a spiritual journey. To give the book a fair treatment, I would have to travel with Professor Waak down a genealogical trail as arduous and challenging as was the Natchez Trace for her triracial ancestors, known as Red Bones. Historians and sociologists will find this book of special interest and will realize that, in discovering her own past, Dr. Waak has contributed to the body of knowledge and understanding of a long-ignored, multi-racial, multi-cultural people, who, despite overwhelming obstacles, contributed to the cultural backbone of this nation. Although heavily documented, the book is written in an accessible style and offers a treasure trove of sleuthing tips for genealogists.
         Professor Waak, holds a Doctor of Ministry degree and boasts European, Native American, German, and British DNA. Despite the fact that I wished I had a pull-out genealogical chart, and that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be acquainted with so many of her ancestors, a patient reading yielded rewards. She made visible a people hidden within the pages of “dusty books.”

    A thousand questions lie among the scattered pages of dusty books and leaves on trails across America. A thousand lies hide the people who struggled to make a place for themselves in a world that was “colorless.” And here I am, generations later, trying to reclaim with pride what they may have hidden for reasons of acceptance and survival . . . .

         Dr. Waak has reclaimed for her ancestors credit for American cowboy culture. The original cowboys weren’t white but “triracial isolates,” known as cowboy Redbones, who in the early 1800s, followed Joseph Willis, their Baptist religious leader and one of Professor Waak’s ancestors, to Louisiana. Although Louisiana was more amenable than other states to mixed-race people, the question of whether or not Rev. Willis had black blood persisted. In the 1930s, one of his descendants wrote his Master of Theology thesis to prove that Joseph Willis had no Negro blood. After all the legal wrangling, with testimony on both sides concerning facial and hair features, Rev. Willis turned out to be “the first white Baptist minister and the first black Baptist minister west of the Mississippi.”
         In Tennessee, one of Professor Waak’s ancestors, nominated for a judgeship, had to defend himself from charges that he had too much Negro blood to be a judge. Those who spoke on behalf of Jacob Perkins, the aspiring judge, claimed that he had no Negro blood, but that he was “a Portuguese.” The testimony against Perkins had a deeply unsettling effect on the writer. “Racism always has created great anxiety for me, but now it is very personal.”

    This profound insight into racism created for me a lot of anger and anxiety. These people were castigated because of their color no matter what the source. The idea of the smell, that deepest level of consciousness, is so incredible. We prove our ideas because we identify a smell? Maybe racism has an odor.

         The origins of the Red Bone people is frequently merged with those of the Melungeons, found in the Appalachian Mountains, particularly in Hancock County, Tennessee. As a group,

    they have specific characteristics, including clearly identified names and other similar physical traits . . . . The source of the term “Melungeon” is also in question. Some theories are that the word comes from the French melange meaning “mixture.” Others claim that melungo, meaning “shipmate” or “companion,” comes from an Afro-Portuguese word.

         The Melungeons are popularly thought to be descended from the dark-skinned people who may have survived the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island, established by England off the coast of North Carolina in the late 1500s. The most persistent reference to ethnic background among the Melungeons, however, is Portuguese, although the main argument against that link is the lack of Portuguese names in the family and the tendency for most of the Melungeons to be Protestant.
         Although My Bones Are Red, is chock-full of enticing history, I did get impatient with Ms. Waak’s tendency to argue backward from her present love of nature and environmental values to her native American and African-American genes. “No wonder I love the open spaces so much. It is in my blood,” and “We hunger for the simplest relationships with trees, wind, water, and soil.” Polling present family members, she found that all of them had “a mystical connection with the land and with nature.” This is the conclusion of the Journey. It’s as though she were saying, “ah, ha, now it makes sense. The reason I care about the health of the planet and about community is because I have inherited the collective values and dreams of my non-European ancestors. While I applaud these values and share them with Professor Waak, using her reasoning, the environmental and spiritual values I share with her would have to be attributed to my family’s Polish and German blood and roots.
         Ms. Waak also links her response to Africa as a new Peace Corps Volunteer to that mystical connection to the earth and her ancestors.

    As far back as I can remember, there has been a deep personal hunger for knowing and understanding Africa. For most of my life I could not understand the meaning of this longing, but my mother had the same feeling. Before my entrance into the Peace Corps, she told me that her dream had been to become a nurse and go to Africa. Whether this is an ancient memory that underlies what it means to be human or a specific ancestral call, it was present in her and in me. The day I first stepped off the plane onto African soil, an unbidden thought entered my mind — I am home.

    Those of us who wish to live fully, to use our talents to make the world a better place, to become ever more decent human beings, strive to understand the underpinnings of our personalities and values (I went to Auschwitz to see where some of my Jewish ancestors perished, despite having been raised as a Catholic).
         My picky point, however, does not detract from the overall value of this book. Dr. Waak’s journey proved to be a rich immersion into the cultural and genetic pool from which one line of her ancestors sprung. The journey was meticulously researched and executed. Many will benefit.

    Patricia Taylor Edmisten is the author of Nicaragua Divided: La Prensa and the Chamorro Legacy; The Mourning of Angels (A novel), and The Treasures of Pensacola Beach, Poetry and Photos. She also wrote the introduction to, and translation of The Autobiography of Maria Elena Moyano: The Life and Death of a Peruvian Activist. Patricia is currently writing a screenplay of her novel.