Digging In…

It was mentioned yesterday that one topic you would have liked to learn more about is the period in the middle of the twentieth century that joins the Black and Green Atlantics. That time of radicalism and revolution.

It is a period that interests me as well and I look forward to discussing it with a new group of students in the Fall. The course, Bloody Conflict in America and Ireland: 1968-69, will explore how the decade that began with young idealism and revolutionary possibilities, ended with raised fists and violent terror.

One way that that period is rich with connections are the visual images that were created.

Thinking of this moment, I immediately remember the Guinness poster created in the 1970s that commercializes the “Black is Beautiful” slogan. That slogan became popular in the 1960s as a way of promoting black beauty and confidence that black women should reject European beauty standards, including wearing their hair naturally. Sixty years later, politics still surround the way in which black women wear their hair.

Though I have to do more research into the history of the poster, a 1978 NY Times editorial on the Americanization of modern Ireland found the poster crude. In, “The Blueing of Ireland,” the staff writer wrote:

On a commanding hillside overlooking Waterford stands a new hostelry imported from Miami, its lobby dominated by a huge bar and its environs stripped of any distracting public verandas. It took a week and the counsel of American, not Irish, guides to find “real” Irish bread and other delicacies. Most hotels limit themselves to American‐style toast and commercial marmalade. The potato alone has survived the cosmopolitan pretensions of the new Irish kitchen. And, as one American observed, the Irish have become an instant‐coffee nation. They are surrounded, too, by billboards, the worst of them shouting “Black is Beautiful” for the Guinness dark beer people. The one consolation of Ireland is the snail’s pace of everything — including change. There is still time to save the Republic if enough Americans will let it be known that they cross the Atlantic to find a taste of Ireland not home.

Personally, I like the Guinness “Black is Beautiful” poster. It makes me smile. Black is beautiful and the poster adds an additional layer to the multiple connections between black America and Ireland. The fascination (and at times, fetishization) of blackness in Ireland does not seem violent. For better or worse, even those offensive gestures are attempts at understanding Irish displacement; expressing solidarity with another participant in the struggle.

On 24 May, the Working Class Movement Library (WCML) is holding an online discussion regarding their Spring 2020 exhibition. This move to an online forum is another reminder about how in loss we have also gained during the pandemic. If it were business as usual, I would not have the opportunity to participate in the exhibition. If you take a look at the posters from the Civil Rights Era in Ireland, you will find a Black Panthers, Free Huey poster. And when I wrote WCML to find out more information on the exhibition, the exhibit’s curator was reminded of this moment remembered by Eamonn McCann in War and an Irish Town.

One of the loudest cheers I ever heard in the Bogside came in response to the cry: “The whole black nation has to be put together as a black army, and we’re gonna walk on this nation, we’re gonna walk on this racist power structure and we’re gonna say to the whole damn government-STICK ‘EM UP MOTHERFUCKER, this is a hold up, we’ve come for what’s ours…

The declaration was the last item in the ten-point programme of the Black Panther Party, enunciated in rich, booming R&B tones on the soundtrack of a film projected against the gable which was later to become Free Derry Wall, in the small hours of a riotous night in 1969.

The cheer had as much to do with the daring of the language as with the sentiment of the slogan. But it also signalled the extent to which civil rights campaigners at that time felt an association with the Panthers, then under murderous assault by the feds and local police forces across the US.

The international dimension has virtually been written out of history. The North is scarcely mentioned in accounts of sixties revolutionism, even by some who came among us to be pictured at barricades, clenched fists on militant show.

To insist now on the relevance of internationalism is to venture onto ground which has been little disturbed by the stride of standard-issue chroniclers who assume that Northern Ireland…

There’s a deep well of these connections and it was a pleasure sharing some of them with you. I look forward to seeing you all again in the Fall.

More information on the posters can be found here. Please get in touch if you are interested in joining the 24 May talk.

4/27 Discussion

One main question I had was, how in the world is this play staged? Reading it makes it sound very confusing, but I can’t picture how it could have actually been staged at all.

What is the reason for the odd stage directions? BJJ is giving a sort of commentary in them – is this commentary meant for the audience at all?

What was the reason for Brer Rabbit? He doesn’t really interact onstage, other than wandering in occasionally to observe what is going on, or to look at the audience. What does the addition of Brer Rabbit do for this play?

4/27 Discussion

  1. Who is the Playwright supposed to represent in the prologue?
  2. In what ways does Jenkins-Jacob critique theatre in his creation of it? How does this add to our conversation of creating art for the sake of art from In Dahomey?
  3. Is the use of white face in An Octoroon minstrelsy? How is it different and how does this build off of works that we have read before?

4/27 Discussion Questions

First off, I just want to say that there is so much going on in this play — I’m glad we’ll get to discuss it together. I barely know where to start.

What does the tripling of roles in An Octoroon add to our conversation about identity and encounter within minstrelsy?

With our knowledge about theatre and the uses of drama from our course, what is BJJ trying to say when he writes, “I’m a ‘black playwright.’ I don’ t know exactly what that means.” How does this introduction affect how we treat the play that follows?

A big deal is made  out of the camera and how its relevance to the play doesn’t age well.   Does this say something about modernity and its relationship to the play’s themes? Or maybe the development of theatre?

4/27 Discussion Questions

What do the bees represent in the Prologue? How does the Prologue work to frame the play and how would the play be different without it? Does Jacob-Jenkin’s use of comedy add to the messages that he is putting forth in the play?

In the fourth act, BJJ and Playwright remark that the fourth act of the play is the most important and holds the most potential. Why did Branden Jacob-Jenkins choose to interrupt the play and derail it in the fourth act if it is supposedly the most important? What comes across in allowing BJJ and the playwright back onto the stage?

As the last text that we are reading, how does this compare to the others and what does it tell us about the Black and Green Atlantic? Where does it fit? What texts are the most similar to it and what are the least?

Discussion Questions (4/27)

  1. Though Jacobs-Jenkins remains relatively faithful to Boucicault’s work, he distinctly adds more conversation between the slaves in which the slaves speak in a contemporary way. What effect does that addition have?
  2. What is significance between the house slave and field slave dynamic, drawn out in Act 3?
  3. In Act 4, Wahnotee brutally kills McCloskey. Considering that Wahnotee was played by the playwright in red face and McCloskey was played by BJJ in white face, does the play achieve the expectations it sets for the fourth act of a play?

4/27 Discussion questions

  1. What does the comic relief of Minnie and Dido serve in the play? Do they simply point out the ridiculousness of the plot as the ending suggests or do they serve to point out the absurdity of slavery in general?
  2. The several asides from the playwright also function in a comedic way, but at times they are rather grim like when he remembers he has no therapist and turns to alcohol as his therapy. The darkness depicts the continuation of African American struggle in the modern world, but is layered underneath comedic elements. Why does Jacobs-Jenkins bury serious issues within comedy and is it appropriate to do so?
  3. The “trial” of M’Closky is an intersection of whites, blacks, and a Native American man. Ultimately M’Closky’s punishment is death by the Tomahawk even though George insisted on giving him a fair trial rather than giving into revenge. Was the murder of M’Closky a moral punishment misconstrued by white terms of justice or was his murder truly unjust?

4/27 Discussion Questions

  1.  How does the inclusion of BJJ and the playwright interjecting the story affect the reception of the story?  In his explanation of Act IV to the audience, does Jacobs-Jenkins suggest that these sorts of works are played out?
  2. How does the use of whiteface tie into our previous mentions of reclaimations of minstrelsy?  Is this genuine colorblind casting, or is Jenkins suggesting something else?
  3. In his desire to make art without analysis of the race problem, does Jacobs-Jenkins’s inclusion of the racialized stereotype imply that racism is nearly inevitable in America, especially in a space with meetings of peoples of different backgrounds like in Terrebonne?
  4. In the slight title shift from “The” to “An,” is this a suggestion from Jenkins that these sorts of stories of oppression have become too common, seen in his frustration with others analyzing his work as tackling the race problem, and that this sort of mistreatment has become so widespread that this tale is just one of many?

Time and Place in The Commitments

In Doyle’s novel The Commitments it is hard to understand the economic state of Ireland and how this impacts the characters in the novel without seeing it. This caused an initial disconnect in my reading, until the history of Ireland and its influence on Doyle’s writing was further explained in class. It is important for readers to understand the constant inflation, high unemployment, and lack of economic growth the Irish were experiencing, which would lead to Jimmy calling the Irish the blacks of Europe.

Contextualizing The Commitments brought entirely new meaning to the connection Jimmy brings to soul music and black identity. Still problematic and lopsided, I can see that it is more about the connection of poverty rather than race. I think this novel is a more extreme example of something written for the people of its time. While the novel is engaging, its full intention cannot be properly understood without the context of time and place. Does Roddy Doyle assume knowledge so that the novel means something different to Irish audiences than other audiences? Can it be a lasting novel, when its context doesn’t make sense within a decade or two later?


Economics, or Race?

I think that our discussion of “The Commitments” this week has been a rather revealing one for the way that I tend to analyze the texts we have been reading this semester. I’ve found that just due to the nature of the course’s objectives, that I come to every piece of literature with the lens of race, and the history of oppression. When I examined “The Commitments” this week, I was not able to see the economic impact in the novel at all. I was immediately drawn to the race aspect of Rabbitte’s comparison of the Irish and African Americans – and everything followed suit from there. Consequently, my examination of how the movie focused so much on the economic standpoint of Ireland was also based on race (though to a lesser extent). I’ve learned this week that I should try to broaden my lens, rather than focusing solely on race and oppression when drawing comparisons between these two cultures.