As we move into more of the parallel histories of black people in America and the Irish, I have found the most interesting theme of each group’s struggles to escape the oppression and prejudices of the majority of their respective times, with the whites in America and the English colonizers in Ireland. Each dominating majority used the notion of “not yet ready” to describe its downcast group in order to maintain their own positions of power and status. Not only does this phrase create and rapidly proliferate explicitly racist sentiment among the mostly white majority, but its sense of superiority also allows for economic and political exploitation of each group of “others.” In America, whites used these attitudes to pass sweeping legislation, especially in the South, to prevent any sort of racial uplift for blacks. Jim Crow laws prohibited voting for blacks in the South and excluded them from virtually every area of society, essentially limiting them to sharecropping and still fulfilling similar roles to their slavehood for decades. The concept of “not yet ready” pushed writers such as Washington and DuBois to push in a variety of ways for social uplift, especially through education, but this practice only yielded middling success. As DuBois illustrates in “The Souls of Black Folk,” this cultural divide within the same ethnic community created great tensions between the educated and uneducated blacks, which neutralized the effectiveness of Washington and DuBois’s hopes. By facing more obstacles and true social progress, blacks in America were trapped in a harsh social space, unable to reach their reasonable goals while still being grossly mistreated by the white majorities.
Likewise, the Irish experienced similar slander to their culture and representation at the hands of the English majority, who took advantage of their crops to the point of near extinction when the potato famine hit. The introduction of the plantation system echoed its use in the Americas, in which the apparently ethnically inferior group is forced into work and after the abolition of each system, is still held in a form of indentured servitude. This continued colonial practice allowed for Britain to keep its hold over the Irish and profit off of their labor, while the Irish struggled without money for their work and extremely limited food supplies. Also, in the public eye, the Irish, as well as black people in America, were ridiculed constantly, mostly through caricatures which displayed each group as sub-human and apelike. However, one of the key differences between the blacks in America and the whites in Ireland was the Irish’s eventual acceptance into “whiteness” after generations of immigration into America, although this prohibition from full acceptance into modernity remains intact even to this day in several respects for African Americans. Whereas the Irish have been eventually welcomed into the sense of modernity brought about in the 19th century, black people must deal with the oppression of being deemed “never ready,” constantly trying to prove their similarity to the cultural majority to receive a fair chance.
While reading David Lloyd’s “Black Irish, Irish Whiteness, and Atlantic State Formation”, I noticed that he described a policy that was put into place in Ireland that sounded quite familiar. Lloyd recounts that the problem that British abolitionists had with their Caribbean colonies was how to retain the work force that they were accustomed to having under control while at the same time freeing the black slaves that they kept. In short, they were all for freedom – so long as the work that they were dependent on still got done by the “inferior” race. The Irish problem was similar, though not as drastic: How were the British to turn the Irish from subsistence farmers to laborers without causing a revolt or mass migration? How could they profit off the Irish? One idea, proposed by John Stuart Mill, was that in order to have a self-motivated working labor class, the government should provide “tenure” to the farmers. In other words, promise the settlers that they would have ownership of the land, as long as they worked it. This idea is remarkably similar to what was proposed for free slaves in the U.S. : 40 acres and a mule. This was the proposal to give every freedman and his family 40 acres of land, and a mule to work the land with. The idea was to keep a working class, even though slavery was no longer legal. Unfortunately, though 40 acres and a mule was a government initiative that passed into law, it was never honored. People promised 40 acres and a mule never received anything, which often forced them into being cheap labor for the very people who enslaved them. Again, we see a parallel, as “tenured” land in Ireland was never given to farmers, either. In both times, it was only a beautiful-looking promise that turned out to be a lie in order to keep the social hierarchy in place.
In Paul Gilroy’s “The Black Atlantic”, he examines what the term “Black” has traditionally meant in the past; and then, he redefines it. Gilroy argues that anytime one uses the term “Black”, they are usually referring to the diaspora in the United States – whether referring to Black studies, Black literature, or the Black experience. He is especially concerned with the fact that discussions about Black literature almost exclusively privileges African American writings, rather than taking from a variety of diasporas. Gilroy rejects this definition of Black. Rather, he expands the definition to include more diasporas than the one in the United States. He explains this with a reference to what it means to be “British”. Being British is almost exclusively privileging those who are white and British at the same time. However, being British is not an exclusionary identity and should not be treated as such. Gilroy says that the same case is true of being Black. There is no one single way of being Black, just as there is no single way of being British. By the end of this piece, Gilroy rejects the use of such divisive terms as “British” or “Black” even as he has rewritten them, and uses a more inclusive term instead: the Atlantic world.
Of the many topics covered in our discussions of Gilroy’s “The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity,” I found the relations of nations, citizens, and ethnicities to race and our ideas of cultural identity to be the most fascinating, especially how concepts which seem very similar can have greatly different definitions. As we discussed in class, I was really interested in how people, especially those transplanted in the Atlantic slave trade define themselves and their personal history. For example, I would argue it is impossible to truly change one’s nation, because the idea of nation is essentially the same as one’s homeland, so even if a person were to move abroad for any reason, they could not change the fact of their nation of origin, which is tied to their cultural identity forever. However, the issue also arises in terms of ancestral homeland, contrasted with each person’s country of origin. Going forward in the course, I am interested in seeing how black writers and artists reckon with their split heritage, as both ancestors of Africa but also residents of modern America.
Furthermore, the ideas of citizenship and to a lesser extent ethnicity are more flexible and susceptible to change than nationality because they have to do more with self-representation and choice than the pre-determined nature of nationality. For example, if I were go to Ireland, I would maintain my American nationality, but I could choose to become a citizen and more broadly adopt its distinct “ethnicity” and cultural identity. Gilroy asserts in his piece that this sort of fluctuating citizenship and and cultural representation is very much a possibility, which also ties into the cultural notions of memory and performance from the Roach article. I believe this mixture of chosen and unchangeable facets of our cultural identity gets to the core of Gilroy’s article, as he believes race is a fiction which we actualize in cultural practices and interactions. Again, I am very interested as the semester goes on to learn more about the representation of one’s own culture and identity, as well as accepting and using those facets of personality, such as natioinality and homeland, which cannot truly be changed in order to somehow change or alter our ethnic identities as a whole.
Paul Gilroy asserts that, for African-Americans, the memory of slavery, a lived crisis, supersedes labor, a systemic crisis. However, one way in which black people and the Irish are connected to each other is through labor. Thus, Gilroy’s assertion that labor is secondary to the living memory of slavery threatens our investigation of the relationship between these two peoples. Yet, I believe that, rather than dismantling this relationship, the prominence of the living memory of slavery provides an important nuance to our study. While the Irish and people of African descent may have spoken to one another, their oppression was not the same. While it is silly to compare the oppression of different groups of people, we must recognize that, despite their horrible treatment at the hands of the British, the Irish were never slaves. Though Thomas Carlyle calls the Irish “white negroes” and the Irish occasionally call themselves “slaves,” the word “Irish” never takes on such a close definition to slavery as the word “Negro.” Blacks aren’t derogatorily called “Irish” in the manner that the Irish are called “black.” This fact leads to an important distinction elaborated on by David Lloyd: the Irish and the people of African descent are not the same. While the British considered both West Indian Blacks and the Irish “not yet ready” to rule themselves, the Irish, through the nature of their whiteness, still had hope for future self-determination after some “civilizing” effort. Yet the blacks were never going to be ready to run their own lives on the basis of their racial difference. The Irish did not become white; they were always white, but America provided them an opportunity to mobilize their whiteness for the perpetuation of racial dominance. Black people were never afforded an opportunity to utilize the benefits of their racial background in the New World.
I do not craft this nuance to say that the Irish and people of African descent should not be compared. In fact, from the theory we have read, the comparison often comes from the oppressors, which makes it an intriguing subject of inquiry. Yet we must also always make the distinction that the Irish and people of African descent, despite both undergoing oppression and suffering, were never considered the same.
Paul Gilroy’s “The Black Atlantic” calls into question the legitimacy of some of the terms we use to divide and identify our world. He rejects the notion of an antagonistic relationship between his personal identifiers of black and English, noting that, while popular culture may perceive the English identity to be a white person, in fact, there is nothing essential about being English (p. 1). Gilroy attacks ethnic absolutism as impossible in light of the Atlantic slave trade, where European, American, and African cultures influenced each other in ways that made each of these places more “hybrid.” Gilroy’s examination, then, requires drawing out the connections between these cultures. Fortunately, people of African descent have drawn out these connections for generations. Gilroy notes that some African-Americans waived off their feelings of exceptionalism “in favor of a global, coalitional politics in which anti-imperialism and anti-racism might be seen to interact if not to fuse (p. 4).” Similarly oppressed black people have transcended national barriers to work for a common cause. While Gilroy’s point about the breakdown of rigid nationalities through pan-Africanism is correct, this point must also call into question the black diaspora. As Gilroy asserts and science affirms, there are no phenotypical differences between different races and race is only real through society’s affirmation of it. Thus, the idea of the black diaspora buys into the social construct of race just as nations buy into ethnic absolutism. Though the black diaspora rejects the idea of national division, it does connote that there is something essential about being part of the black diaspora. Yet that essential mark cannot be blackness since race does not exist. For members of the Black Atlantic Diaspora, the defining characteristic could be a history of oppression, though that may not be a specific enough division. Though I do not currently know the solution to the issue of legitimizing the black diaspora, I think this is an important lens to work with throughout the semester. When we read black authors, we must continuously ponder whether there is anything essential about being black.
The question of “how the Irish became white” really caught me this week. It brings up and questions the dynamics of difference and the changeability of our cultural categories, highlighting the fallacy of biological race and its ascribed hierarchies. What particularly struck me was the almost simultaneous ability for the Irish to be oppressed by and yet still participate, seemingly willingly, in these racial hierarchies. Maybe it’s a function of the difference between Irish identity and Irish American identity, but the whiteness of the Irish, particularly in America, seemed to hinge on their assimilation into the hierarchy as a source of labor above that of Black laborers and their willingness to occupy that space. It underlines an interesting and significant gap in experience between these two groups, groups that are paralleled even as the basis of our course. I wonder how that distinction will come across in the consciousness of the literature we read or if we will sense a change in the literature over time as the Irish became more white. I also think it is pertinent to realize that racial categories are changeable and think about the ways we may or may not participate in those ongoing systems ourselves.
As an aside, but in conjunction with these ideas about whiteness and who defines these categories, the categories we divide ourselves by phenotypically don’t even make sense. We ascribe these delineations largely based on skin color groups that don’t even play out in real life. Those whose skin is darker we call Black, when in reality their skin is many varied and luminous shades of brown. Those who we classify as white aren’t white at all, but shades that range from sand to peach. And so it goes for the other major “racial” categories. Human skin color, or rather skin tone, is not a binary, but a gradient. Brazilian photographer, Angélica Dass, has a beautiful project called Humanae that points out exactly that. Taking swatches of skin from photos of thousands of participants, she matches their tone to that of an industrial color index to create the background of their portrait — demonstrating clearly the wonderful variations of human skin and it’s lack of distinct or even similar groups (after all, melanin only comes in black or brown). Phenotypic populations are no more jarringly distinct than the cultures of the Circum-Atlantic. So even as the Irish “became white” it bears thinking about the categories themselves and how a cultural need for differentiation veers away from what’s actually before our eyes.
Starting this semester, I have a lot to look forward to and think about in regards to this course. A lot of the themes, and even readings, are things I have touched on before in other courses, but I’ve never had the opportunity to piece them together and think about how they form one, or at least several, cohesive and connected narratives. Our first reading in particular highlighted the areas where diverse areas of study come together in the context of this class — where questions of the realities of race encounter those of culture and identity. Consolidation of identity helped to establish the nations and national structures recognized today, particularly those in Europe, where culture was streamlined and homogenized to create a dominant national narrative, often based on idealized folk culture, for strength and stability. In the creation of these cultural mythos’ however, as Gilroy points out, nuance about the realities of culture are lost and groups who don’t quite fit the national model are cast off. The reality of these cultures is much more broad and connected as a result of intertwined history. To ignore the history of cultural exchange is to misrepresent the truth about the transatlantic cultural experience. Investing in a new and more inclusive, less binary and more culturally diverse narrative has powerful potential to allow us to think about the way we construct our stories and histories — and the ways we represent those stories in the poetics of literature and art.
In Roach’s “History, Memory, and Performance,” he talks about New Orlean’s Mardi Gras festival culture and the history of discrimination that the floats and parades are rooted in. This is something that caught me off-guard, as I was always taught growing up that these were respectful and “good” celebrations of culture. This is perhaps because I was taught that they were a French celebration, which completely whitewashes the significant role that cultural-mixing played in forming New Orleans and its traditions. Roach’s article caused me to view the Mardi Gras festivities in a different light and to reconsider other instances of cultural celebrations. While at face value, it may seem as though these festivities are important as they bring awareness to a group of people and their traditions, not all representations and performances are positive. I did not realize that the Mardi Gras groups were appropriating Black culture through racist means, such as blackface and minstrelsy. The inappropriate and racist nature of blackface is something that is being called attention to more in today’s society and the news, and for good reason. This negative idea of Mardi Gras seemed similar to how some Irish people take offense in the depiction of the Irish as drunks St. Patrick’s Day, which is often appropriated as a day where people can get drunk in the spirit of the Irish. It is important for society today to realize that representation is not enough; the quality of the way that people are remembered is just as and perhaps even more important.
In Gilroy’s “The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity,” he explores Martin Robinson Delany and his views and impacts on the Black community. He starts off by introducing Delany and claims that he is viewed as being more relevant or legitimate as he has a closer “proximity” to Africa than people such as Frederick Douglass. I am not sure, however, whether this added sense of legitimacy is justified, especially when the content of what Delany speaks about is considered. Delany proposes an idea that he and the Black community should ultimately seek to go back to Africa, or what he calls the “fatherland.” Delany’s notions of belonging and returning “home” are troubling, however, as he sees Africa from a viewpoint very similar to that of colonizers. He does not truly see Africa as home and would require multiple things to change before he would find it to be a suitable place to live. He thinks that simply going back to the place of his ancestors is not enough; one must bring that place up to speed with today’s world and craft it in order to make it a better fit. What’s most disturbing about this perspective is that it is similar to those same colonizers that ripped his ancestors from their home. Looking back on Delany’s viewpoints from today’s society, one can easily see how Delany’s ideas are problematic. His condescending views towards the African people and the inherent sexism that he feels the need to detail in his efforts should cause one to question whether he truly deserves to be privileged because of the proximity of his heritage.