Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen

I recently came across a Louis Armstrong performance of the song, “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen.”  The song is an African-American spiritual that was popularized by a number of African-American singers, including Armstrong. This song is a fitting anthem for a lot of the gesturing between the Black and Green that we’ve seen in the class. Frederick Douglass doesn’t know the trouble the persecuted Irish Catholics have witnessed. Seamus Heaney didn’t know the trouble African-Americans endured when he wrote about the Black Panthers in 1970. The Commitments and Roddy Doyle did not understand the trouble of African-American Soul singers when they appropriated their songs. These misunderstandings remind me of bell hooks’s quote, “White folks who do not see black pain never really understand the complexity of black pleasure. And it is no wonder that when they attempt to imitate the joy in living which they see as the ‘essence’ of soul and blackness, their cultural productions may have an air of sham and falseness that may titillate and even move white audiences but leave many black folks cold” (Onkey 26).

However, focusing too much on the mistaken gestures threatens under-appreciating the relationship between the Black and the Green. Instead of looking at how Frederick Douglass occasionally looks at Irish Catholics, we can look at Daniel O’Connell, who lobbies for Irish independence alongside an end to slavery. Foreshadowing Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote from the Birmingham Jail, O’Connell said, “My spirit walks abroad upon sea and land, and wherever there is oppression I hate the oppressor, and wherever the tyrant rears his head I will deal my bolts upon it, and wherever there is sorrow and suffering, there is my spirit to succor and relieve” (Onkey 15). We could also look at how Synge’s “Riders to the Sea” influences Hurston’s “John Redding Goes to the Sea” or how James Weldon Johnson calls on African-Americans to find a form that resembles Synge’s to talk about their experience (Renaissance and Radicalism 484). Rather than focusing on Seamus Heaney, we could discuss Bernadette Devlin giving the keys to New York City to the Black Panthers.

At the end of the day, neither African-Americans nor the Irish can properly understand the trouble the other has seen. Yet, if any two groups can sympathize with similar feelings of oppression, it is the Irish and African-Americans. Though the Irish were never enslaved, they understand leaving home against one’s will. Though African-Americans did not experience the intensity of the hatred between Catholics and Protestants, they understood the use of religion to justify oppression. Though the oppressions of the Black and the Green were neither the same nor equal, these two peoples understood the inability to feel at home at home. This feeling of placeless-ness and not the comparison between two oppressions is the Black and Green Atlantic.

3 Replies to “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”

  1. I love that you used this song as a lens for you final thoughts on the Black and Green Atlantic, because it really serves to underline some of the misunderstandings we have encountered throughout the semester. But I also appreciate that you don’t focus on solely the places where Black and Green gestures are misplaced, which is where I tend to focus, probably too much. Because there is merit in the comparison too and we can see that by looking towards Black and Green intellectuals who attempt to understand both the similarities and the differences, as you say. There is a place for the placeless when they can empathize with each other’s struggles, without erasing the important and complicated histories of both.

  2. I agree with your understanding of the Black and Green Atlantic and also expressed thoughts of each group’s unwillingness to understand the struggle of the other due to the severity of their own struggle. I think looking back to Gilroy is really helpful to understand why this unwillingness for sympathy and empathy can be so harmful. In a way, the rejection of the comparison perpetuates ideas of race. Blacks reject the Irish comparison because they see them as white people, but the Irish in Ireland don’t see themselves as white. The reason they describe themselves as black is because these racial terms have confused them, leaving them placeless like Gulliver. Focusing on differences in struggles only increases this feeling of placelessness because it is a rejection of the validity of someone else’s struggle.

  3. I agree that the broad feelings of social isolation and lack of true identity are the glue of the Black and Green Atlantic world. Even though we have spoken all semester about the variations in each group, in regards to the timeline of their respective oppressions and the motivations for their movements across the Atlantic, they can each gesture broadly, while not pointing to any specific point to perfectly parallel with each. I think your mention of Synge and Hurston captures this greatly, with the two writers using similar styles and influences to each represent their own experiences. Because one does not explicitly cite the other and base their work off the other’s, the Black and Green Atlantic can be maintained by noticing shared but often unequivalent experiences while not proposing that they are the exact same.

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