The story of the Melungeons is at once a footnote to the history of race in America and a timely parable of it. They bear witness to the horrors and legacy of segregation, but also to the overlooked complexity of the early colonial era. They suggest a once-and-future alternative to the country’s brutally rigid model of race relations, one that, for all the improvements, persists in the often siloed lives of black and white Americans today. Half-real and half-mythical, for generations the Melungeons were avatars for their neighbours’ neuroses; latterly they have morphed into receptacles for their ideals, becoming, in effect, ambassadors for integration where once they were targets of prejudice.
No governing body has so tenaciously tried to determine who counts as a woman for the purpose of sports as the I.A.A.F. and the International Olympic Committee (I.O.C.). Those two influential organizations have spent a half-century vigorously policing gender boundaries. Their rationale for decades was to catch male athletes masquerading as women, though they never once discovered an impostor. Instead, the athletes snagged in those efforts have been intersex women — scores of them.
The treatment of female athletes, and intersex women in particular, has a long and sordid history. For centuries, sport was the exclusive province of males, the competitive arena where masculinity was cultivated and proven. Sport endowed men with the physical and psychological strength that “manhood” required. As women in the late 19th century encroached on explicitly male domains — sport, education, paid labor — many in society became increasingly anxious; if a woman’s place wasn’t immutable, maybe a man’s role, and the power it entailed, were not secure either.