A lot of what I have learned in this course was something I knew was subconsciously true: that there is a connection between Black and Irish culture. I’ve gotten plenty of looks for minoring in Irish language because I’m bi-racial, but this class fortified my reasonings for doing that minor. Each of my posts have talked about this connection in various forms. Whether it was through soul music, movies, or traveling, I attempted to discover the explicit and minute ways these groups have interacted with each other. Writing these blog posts forced me to look deeper into the assigned works. Although I sometimes found it repetitive, it really helped me notice the theme for the week. I also really enjoyed looking at other people’s blog posts. Other classmates picked up on things I did not, which would make me understand the works more completely.
I think the most impactful work I read this semester was Daniel O’Connell and the Committee of the Repeal of the Irish Association. I have never considered the Irish as being something other than white, and this was one of the first instances I saw such a separation. He states “It was not in Ireland you learned this cruelty” (1), chastising them for abandoning their values for those of the US. This chastisement was reflected in other works such as Moon and the Mars and The Octoroon. Irish-Americans were turning on their neighbors (regardless of race) to gain more power and become more “white”. My blog posts reflect on how Irish-Americans have bonded with and betrayed Black people. The works we’ve read and watched demonstrated there has been a transatlantic conversation for centuries. Shared struggles are not limited to one race. Shared triumphs are also not limited to one race. Black and Irish people have been subtly rekindling the bond that they once shared. Even though this connection may not be as explicit as others, it is time that we realize there exists a deep bond between the groups that is desperately trying to resurface in society.
As I finish the semester, I cannot help but think that I wasn’t all that far off from my original thoughts at the beginning of the semester. The Black experience continues to be unique in a way that cannot be replicated. However, after encountering Irish literature for the first time, I have realized the disparities and distress of colonization on this group of people. People across time have learned to see and respect each other long before academics could pin these pieces together. Our ancestors have looked across the Atlantic, hoping they would find understanding and connection. Artists and creators are usually the first to find each other. In this Black and Green Atlantic, struggle, music, and bodies have merged together to create cultures in a post-Middle Passage world.
“Down with the system that makes one man a serf and the other a slave, then sets them at each other’s throat” (Eagan 39). Tension exists between these two Atlantic peoples and it starts with the system. It is uncomfortable to analyze these two oppressed groups, seemingly pitted against each other. It makes me question how much these sorts of analyses contributed to it. Regardless, there are objective differences between the two groups, and Eagan encapsulates that here. The Irish were placed into servitude while Black people were forced into slavery. The suffering of either side should not be diminished, but their circumstances are wildly different. Irish people chose to migrate under arduous conditions – flee or die. Africans were caught in nets and chained in their forced migration. One was based in self-preservation, and the other was denied choice. Douglass struggled with this knowledge as he moved across Ireland with his slave shackles. The pieces of this movement do not fit together neatly. I once thought that a new blend of cultures would come out of this, like the perfect Venn diagram. That was a big misconception. Different bodies of people were the result, but there exists a unique boundary between the two marking their distinction. This is the boundary of race. The Irish chose to assimilate into ‘whiteness’, gaining privileges they were blocked off from before. They “were not trying to become white – they were fighting to prevent the elevation of non whites” (Meagher 223). This type of backwards hatred can only come from those who were not originally in a position of power.
I still am not sure what to make of my stance on this, especially when I consider the modern context of Black people and people of color. The entire context of this course has been a personal reflection of where I stand with all my identities in relation to others.
Catherine Eagan’s essay “Still ‘Black’ and ‘Proud’” resonated with the material we have studied throughout the entire course. Specifically, her identification of Irish as “pre-white” made me reflect on works from Moon and the Mars to “The Octoroon” to Transatlantic. She writes that “for those Irish Americans in touch with the Irish history of oppression and uncomfortable with the whiteness of their Irish identity in contemporary, multicultural America, Irishness sometimes serves as a kind of nonwhite or pre-white identity that facilitates their disassociation of themselves from mainstream WASP culture” (Eagan 25).
Before taking this class, the idea of Irish as “nonwhite or pre-white” would have entirely shocked me. My then limited understanding of Irish history combined with my American outlook led me to believe that the Irish were unavoidably white. However, this course exposed me to not only a deeper historical background, but also the idea that the Irish became white. Irishness must then be something pre-white because in order for Irish Americans to become white, they had to be something else before. The idea of pre-whiteness implies a transition over time, and several of the works we’ve read brought me to the site of that transition.
Moon and the Mars stands out as the clearest example. In 1857, at the beginning of the novel, Theo understands her Irish and her Black identity similarly: “Home is black and Irish every day every minute crossin all kinds a paths, don’t the rest a the world only wish they got our harmony?” (Corthron 18). But as the novel progresses and Theo ages, she watches her Irish family become white, especially when Ciaran is involved in the draft riots. She remembers that violence as a “catastrophe wherein my father’s people [Black Americans] were victims and my mother’s people [Irish] the victimizers” (Corthron 546). The act of choosing whiteness is unavoidably violent, and the damage done to the Black community in New York during the riots exemplified that. Corthron uniquely positions her novel to show a specific moment of this transition from pre-whiteness to whiteness, grounding it in the passage of time by marking the years to highlight the act of transition. Her work was invaluable in promoting my understanding of race in the Black and Green Atlantic, though I didn’t fully understand how until reading the Eagan essay.
Even so, it is sometimes difficult for me, as an American who understands Irishness within America as essentially white, to make sense of the transatlantic gesture between Black and Irish authors. As we discussed in class, Irish cannot return to “pre-whiteness” after accepting whiteness, so why does Jimmy Rabbitte insist that Dubliners are the blacks of Europe? After taking this class, though, I am beginning to understand this gesture. Armed with the history of Irish oppression, I see now that a truly atlantic understanding of race is not so simple. The Irish are white, yes, but they were also oppressed in many ways comparable to the Black experience, and Atlantic authors from Baldwin to Boucicault to Doyle have shown that those comparisons are useful in some way.
In class conversations about the Green Atlantic, many conversations centered around the idea of the Irish becoming white, whether it was on the first day of class in discussion of Baldwin’s work, or the latest class while reviewing “Aren’t We a Little White for that Kind of Thing.” This idea in itself is an interesting one—there are many proposed answers to explain this phenomenon of the Irish facing a similar oppression that Black people faced, whether it be their appearance that sets them apart or their use of Black people as an “outgroup” to establish themselves in the “in group” of white people. However, I noticed that in all of these conversations, Irish people exist somewhere on a spectrum between black and white.
A prime example of this is found in “Aren’t We a Little White for that Thing,” when Onkey wrote that “In Ireland, blackness becomes a foil for the Irish to explain their experience of colonial oppression, to define a transatlantic antiracist, anticolonial identity. In the United States, however, blackness becomes a negative foil, used by Irish-Americans to distance themselves from African Americans in order to assimilate into mainstream white American society” (Onkey 2). Here, Onkey nails the head on what I interpret as a serious issue for the Irish identity: whether trying to become closer to blackness in Ireland for an explanation of antiracism, or further from blackness to become closer to whiteness, the Irish do not stand on their own as their own racial identity. They are always a function of either blackness or whiteness.
It is interesting to use this conclusion of the Irish as “trapped” between black and white identities to provide possible conclusions on whether this accounts for the appropriation of Irish culture discussed in class. In The Irish in Us, Diane Negra seems to think so, but writes that “Irish Americans’ rediscovery of their ethnicity, so long obscured by the muck of green beer and shamrocks, certainly has the potential to be a healthy antidote to the ‘identity panic’ Gitlin has described” (Negra 27). Negra’s comment leaves me hopeful that the Irish identity is not permanently trapped between the spectrum of black and white for consumption on either side, and that the race can be on its own.
The main theme that stuck out to me during my time in this course was the process of transatlantic movement and how it affected Black and Irish communities. Particularly, I enjoyed learning about how it changed the values and mindsets of these groups. It all started with Paul Gilroy writing about the idea of American exceptionalism. He explained that the world typically views blackness through the lens of Black Americans rather than understanding the nuances of the overarching Black community, which includes people from the Caribbean, Africa, and Latin America. This was significant to me because it emphasized just how complex the Black community when you take into account all of the different cultures are in it. All of these groups have values that are distinct from one another. Additionally, it made me realize how bad Western countries are at ‘classifying’ people since they usually have such blanket terms to describe communities, regardless of how diverse it is. A similar sentiment is expressed in the Irish community when O’Connell disowned Irish Americans and asserted that they were not truly Irish because their noble hearts would never support such a cruel act as slavery. This, coupled with Irish Americans ‘becoming white’, further pushed me to acknowledge the importance of transatlanticism and its impact. A change will happen to a group of people as they adjust to different places, whether it be through varying mindsets or something as simple as new types of food. The main message here is that it is nearly impossible to be completely unaffected once they interact with other people and alter their entire lifestyle. All in all, this class helped me come to the conclusion that it is a lot harder to define a community than I initially thought and I should be cognizant of that when studying race relations.
I’ve found that the main thing sticking with me from this course is the idea and our discussions of the Irish “becoming” white in America, and how that process necessitated the subjugation of Black people. I think this process is really key to the idea of the Black and Green atlantic, as it represents how the two atlantics converged in the U.S. and how, despite the similarities between the two groups, the Irish were afforded (and chose) the privilege of whiteness over solidarity with Black Americans.
Noel Ignatiev wrote in his book ‘How the Irish Became White’ that Irish immigrants in America had to “subordinate county, religious, or national animosities, not to mention any natural sympathies they may have felt for their fellow creatures, to a new solidarity based on color.” He also emphasizes that this new form of solidarity Irish people developed with other groups of white people in America “was contradicted by their experience in Ireland.” When the Irish crossed the Atlantic, they developed a new cultural identity as Irish Americans that abandoned many cultural characteristics of their home country. While the Irish in Ireland had a culture that focused on collectivism, the Irish in America became more individualistic and less interested in solidarity, particularly with other marginalized groups. This led to many Irish Americans becoming staunch Democrats and opposing the Abolition of slavery, a viewpoint that Daniel O’Connell harshly condemned in his address to the Irish Repeal Association of Cincinnati.
I am very interested in the role that Capitalism played in the Irish becoming white. As we read in Moon and the Mars, the Irish in America were very poor and struggled to find employment. Since so much of the American economy was centered around slavery, it was very common for their jobs to be a part of that industry. Several members of Theo’s Irish family quit their jobs once they found out they were making clothes for enslaved people, but most Irish people either couldn’t afford to, or chose not to take a moral stance on the issue. Ignatiev makes it clear that the Irish had a choice in becoming white, which I definitely agree with— their anti-Blackness was intentional and abhorrent. But, as we’ve discussed in class, it was also a choice that was made under the circumstances of severe poverty and often starvation. Irish Americans learned that white supremacy was a key aspect of American capitalism, and participated in it in order to rise in social class and gain the privilege of whiteness.
As I continued to learn throughout the course of this class, something that I was continually fascinated with and confused by was the contrast between the oppression against the Irish during the transatlantic period versus the popularization and commercialization of Irish culture in today’s society. As anybody at this school would know, Irish culture is one that has not only become heavily commercialized, but also heavily popularized in today’s society without any acknowledgement of Irish tradition. An example of this from my own experience is that I have always known that St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated by drinking and wearing tacky, green outfits, but I had never learned the original reason for the celebration of the holiday.
Catherine M. Eagan raises an interesting point about this in her article, “Still ‘Black’ and ‘Proud’: Irish America and the Racial Politics of Hibernophilia.” When referencing a study performed by Mary Walters about the role of ethnicity in suburbia, Eagan makes the argument that there is no parallel between the experiences of prejudice that was experienced by Irish immigrants during the transatlantic period and the modern-day Irish American experience. Eagan’s argument is further supported by the eventual “rediscovery” of Irish cultural identity which allowed the Irish to share stories of prior oppression while still maintaining their whiteness.
Throughout this course, we have thoroughly discussed the motivations behind the Irish abandoning their cultural/ethnic identity for that of whiteness, which would allow them to gain power and have a better life in capitalistic American society than the famine that they had been facing in Ireland. While the Irish were able to gain power through this newfound whiteness, a lot of that power manifested itself in actively oppressing black people. This historical point further proves Eagan’s argument and shows the hypocrisy and chosen ignorance of modern-day Irish Americans attempting to reclaim their Irish identity and align themselves in relation to black people in a sense of “shared oppression.”
One line that stuck with me the most from Lauren Onkey’s introduction to her book Blackness and Transatlantic: Celtic Soul Brothers is “And although the Irish claim of blackness can be dismissed as romantic or wrongheaded, it does express an important desire for the Irish to move outside of established categories of identity… the Irish cannot simply dip a toe in and claim blackness without being infected by the other elements of American culture” (27). In other words, Onkey reaffirms the connections made between Black American struggles and the oppression of the Irish, but she also reminds readers that the Irish cannot simply pick and choose which aspects of Black American culture with which they identify.
I think that this description aids our understanding of the course in its entirety. It is undeniable that Black and Irish authors notice connections between themselves and speak to each other through their literature and their writings, but there is always a point of contention, an undeniable difference that is both so easy and yet so challenging to pinpoint. As we have seen through the transmission of soul music across the Atlantic Ocean, the connection between Frederick Douglass and Daniel O’Connell, and the self-identification of the Irish with the slaves in America, the Irish are willing to make connections between themselves and Black people in America but only in a way that is beneficial for the Irish, and in a way, they walk the fine line between appropriation and appreciation.
Upon reflection on previous blog posts, I focus on a wide range of topics including race as a social construct that ends up having a tremendous impact on individuals in America, class tensions in Ireland, and the tensions of individual characters in the face of larger social issues that shape their awareness and experiences. As I review these blog posts, I am noticing a theme of the individual’s experience as it is influenced by the greater context of the Black and Green Atlantic. For example, I once wrote about Grammy Cahill’s decision to find different sources of income upon Theo’s discovery that they are indirectly involved in the slave industry. I also wrote about Zoe from The Octoroon, who is white-passing but technically a slave because of her ancestry, and what that means in terms of her self-esteem and her ultimate fate. This highlights the Black and Green Atlantic as a conglomerate of choices and consequences on the individual level, like Jimmy Rabbitte creating a soul band or Zora Neale Hurston collecting Black tales from her childhood, all of which, in one way or another convey both the similarities and the differences between the Irish and Black Americans.
Over the course of the semester, we have studied various works that have helped us investigate the complicated relationship between the Irish and Black Americans. Upon reflection on my blog posts, I tended to focus on the theme of shifting identities within and between each group and what prompted these shifts.
In the Black Atlantic realm, I discussed how Blackness was represented in performance by analyzing the In Dahomey play and the Mardi Gras Krewe parades in Cities of the Dead. Both groups made use of racial stereotypes and caricatures like blackface, one as an act of ridicule to whites and the other to entertain and profit from whites. Both sought to change the narrative of Black people in their own way but I challenged their methods, likening them to a double-edged sword due to the backfiring consequences for the collective Black reputation. Regarding Moon and the Mars, I discussed how the Black people in New York were living in multi-ethnic communities and co-opted traditions from these groups and made them their own, like Pinkster. Regarding Transatlantic, I discussed how Frederick Douglass had to reckon with both Irish and Black struggles during his trip to Ireland and how he had to reckon with his own identity post-servitude. Regarding Characteristics of Negro Expression, I discussed Zora Neale Hurston’s statements about originality and mimicry and the dynamic and fluid nature of culture. Regarding Uptight, I raised several questions about the purpose of the remake, one being if it was it was meant to show intra-racial divisions during a contentious time in Black history.
In the Green Atlantic realm, I discussed how the Irish “became white” when they came to America and shed themselves of their previous identity in order to ascend the socioeconomic ladder, at the expense of Black people in response to the David Lloyd reading. I also discussed how the Irish reckoned with their newfound freedom post-Independence through the experience of Gypo Nolan in Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer.
All of these works revealed how each community dealt with navigating new spaces and circumstances. They each were faced with various struggles and had to make difficult decisions about how they were going to move forward in society, some that many of us may not agree with today. Despite an overall rocky relationship, each group still managed to see each other as kindred spirits and took influence from each other which manifested itself in various ways. From this course, I have a better understanding of the nuanced relationship between the Black and Irish and look forward to seeing how this relationship will progress in the coming years.
The Commitments focuses on tying the Black American culture with the Irish. One of the main ways this happens is through the formation of a band to play soul music in Dublin. Jimmy creates a connection between African Americans and the Irish position by declaring that he’s black and proud (Doyle 10) and that the “Irish are the niggers of Europe” (11). Before any real explanation of this connection by performance is made, he defines the linkage. The first effect of this is to indicate that the Irish-Black condition extends beyond the scope of musical performance. This is an affirmation of the links Irish creators found with their counterparts across the Atlantic. The second effect is the reaction his band members have to this statement. In the movie, they all stare at him, shocked that the statement was even made. In the book, they were shocked as well, but they agreed (11). The difference in reception indicates a difference in the issues each work seeks to address. The movie makes it clear that aligning with the soul genre and Jimmy’s take on it was destined to fail. In contrast, the book demands that a comparison be made, but the Irish must take what they have received in this transaction and create their own. The transatlantic demands that newness is created from the past.
The difference in the endings creates a large gap in the treatment of the Atlantic in this context. The movie leaves off on a rather negative note. Each person breaks out on their own journey using music to whatever extent they need. They define their own genres and shape it into their identities. Deco got to record songs, Nathalie was successful, and The Brassers became an all-female band. The novel denied that and instead took those musicians and pulled them together to make The Brassers sing country-punk (129). They did not need to copy and define themselves according to Black standards. They could create their own niche in the Dublin vortex.
One response to “The Hypocrisy of the Modern Rediscovery of the Irish Identity”
This blog post made some really great points. I agree that the modern day reclamation of Irish culture is very hypocritical, especially when it is founded in a sense of commercialism or a lack of understanding of Irish history. This also makes me think of the phenomenon of modern day Irish American conservatives— an example is the photo professor showed in class of an American coopting Irish language in support of the blue lives matter movement. These conservative values could not be further from Irish cultural and political tradition, yet they have been tied together.