The Melungeons blog

Friday, June 08, 2007

Wayne Winkler Speaks About Brent Kennedy's Health

A question was asked on one of the Melungeon lists about Brent Kennedy's condition. So please feel free to pass on this e-mail to any other lists that I can't access because I'm using web mail at the moment.

I spent some time this weekend with Brent at the meeting with the University of Istanbul alumni group in New York (you can read more at ). More on the Turkish connection in a moment.

Brent is still undergoing outpatient therapy at the Patricia Neal Center in Knoxville. His motor function is much improved; he's using his left hand much more than I've seen previously. I guess they make him work on that pretty hard at the Center. He has a motorized wheelchair and a van equipped with a ramp; it's set up so he can lock his chair where the front passenger seat would be. He's gotten out to a few things in our area in the past few weeks, including a reading by Lisa Alther in Abingdon. New York was his first big out-of-town trip, though.

He still has a trach tube and can't speak (did I spell that right? I'm no doctor and Spell Check had no useful options). As I understand it, the stroke damaged his larynx, causing spasms which impede both breathing and swallowing. Brent eats through a feeding tube, and the upside of that, according to his brother Richie, is that Brent's digestive system (always somewhat tricky) has never been in better shape. An operation on the larynx might end the spasms and allow for him to speak and breathe naturally. However, the trade-off would be eating; the operation would mean he has to stay on the feeding tube permanently. So the doctors are waiting to see if natural healing begins to take place. Commonly in cases involving stroke or brain injury, the brain can often re-wire itself to regain various functions. Obviously, self-healing would be much preferred, so they're giving it some time.

Brent communicates with a spelling board, and his family can usually guess quickly what he's saying with just a few letters. I guess they use a lot of acronyms as well. There's a very good chance he'll speak again someday. Eighteen months ago I wouldn't have bet that we'd be together on Second Avenue in New York on a beautiful June evening, but there we were. So I'm sure Brent will be speaking for himself soon, one way or another. Meanwhile, if all goes well, he plans to join us in Big Stone Gap for the MHA gathering on 30 June. This event will also feature the premiere of Julie Dixon's documentary film "Melungeon Voices."

The delegation that attended last weekend's event included some MHA officers, Brent's family, and the members of the Kennedy Brothers Band with whom Brent played before his stroke. Last November, Brent received the "Turkish-American of the Year" award from the Assembly of Turkish-American Associations. Richie Kennedy accepted the award for Brent, who could not travel at the time, and the Kennedy Brothers performed. This resulted in an invitation from the group in New York.

Brent's writings on his theories of some element of Turkish ancestry in at least some Melungeon families speak for themselves. I can't speak for Brent's DNA results because (a) I'm only aware of them in a general way, (b) I'm not particularly informed about DNA - a condition I hope to correct to some degree Tuesday night when Roberta Estes speaks in Rogersville ( ) , and (c), it's not my place to discuss Brent's DNA publicly; he'll do that soon enough himself. I can say that based on the DNA tests he has had done on himself and his family members, he still believes there is a connection within his family to Turkey and/or the Ottoman Empire. I can also say that my own DNA Fingerprint test showed matches from many areas within the Ottoman Empire. There was nothing that said "Turkey" but many that indicated North African Berbers and Arabs as well as sub-Saharan African, and Native American, Portuguese, and Spanish.

Whether these results are indicative of a larger connection to the Melungeon population or simply a connection peculiar to Brent's family and my family is another question. There are many who will read this that are much more knowledgeable about DNA than I am, and I'm not prepared to argue the validity of any particular test or interpretation; I only know what the investigators wrote. I bring this up only because the question of whether Brent had any sort of documentation came up earlier. Brent has documentation relating to his own family that may be indicative of a broader connection with the larger Melungeon population. Professor Turker Ozdogan will speak at Big Stone Gap and will explain these theories further.

For the record, the Melungeon Heritage Association does not endorse any specific ancestry theory; as individuals, some of us agree with Brent, some of us don't, but we all love him as a brother. Our events feature individuals who have information to share about Melungeons and other mixed-ethnic groups, and they frequently do not agree. Kind of like any academic seminar.

In closing, I know that Brent's family appreciates the prayers and good wishes of everyone during the past year-and-a-half. This has been a very trying time for them and they want you to know how much your concern has meant to them. Brent will soon be able to communicate this for himself. In the meantime, as his friend, I also thank you all for your concern.

Wayne Winkler


Melungeon Heritage Association


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