The Social Construction of Race in The Octoroon

I was really interested in the concept of race in The Octoroon because it is directly related to a topic that I am studying in another class taught by Professor Julia Kowalski, titled “Foundations of Cultural Analysis and Engagement.” We have recently spent time discussing how race itself is not a biological construct, but rather a cultural and societal one. We read an article by Jefferson Fish about how Americans construct race based on what he calls “blood.” He writes, “Quadroons and octoroons are said to be people who have one-quarter and one-eighth black ‘blood,’ respectively. Oddly, because of hypo-descent, Americans consider people with one-eighth black ‘blood’ to be black rather than white, despite their having seven eighths white ‘blood’” (Fish). 

Meanwhile, in places like Brazil, the construction of race is not based on ancestry, but by what a person looks like (Fish). For example, a Black woman and a white man might have two children, one might have lighter skin and the other might have darker skin. According to the American perspective on race, those children are both Black, and therefore are the same race. In Brazil, however, those children would be considered different races, because race is constructed by their appearance. It is important to note that in both the U.S. and Brazil, the concept of race is “real,” it is just not based on biology as much as it is based on our cultural perception of race. 

I thought this was very interesting because of the treatment of Zoe in The Octoroon. She is described as an Octoroon, and she was born out of wedlock (Boucicault). Based on what Fish wrote, in some cultures with different constructions of race, she would likely be considered white. Zoe, however, goes so far as to say, “Of the blood that feeds my heart, one drop in eight is black… that one drop poisons all the flood… the one black drop gives me despair, for I’m an unclean thing” (Boucicault 154). This perspective on her ancestry clearly comes from internalized racism based on descent, not appearance. This reading sheds light on exactly how this construction of race came about, as it is this “one black drop” that makes Zoe a slave at all. Thus, this construction of race likely exists as an attempt to keep African Americans in slavery, even if they appear white. 

All of this made me think about our in-class discussion on what it means to be “white,” especially in the historical context in which the Irish were not necessarily considered to be a part of this racial category when they first came to America. If Americans classify by descent, and not appearance, then it follows that the Irish could be excluded even though they technically have white skin, whereas if our view of race was constructed based on appearance alone, then this would not be possible because Irish skin color is nearly the same as descendants from other European countries.

Works Cited

Fish, Jefferson M. “Mixed Blood: An Analytical Look at Methods of Classifying Race.” Psychology Today, 1 November 1995, Accessed 26 February 2023.

Origins of Identity

“The Octoroon” provides a cruel yet realistic depiction of slavery, describing the sale of Zoe, deemed an octoroon due to the fact that she is one-eighth black. Zoe’s social status robs her of many freedoms: her freedom of self, freedom to love whomever she desires, freedom to move wherever she wants to and many other things. However, these are not the only atrocities Zoe faces. Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the play is the way Zoe views herself, which is made clear through the way she describes herself in dialogue. In her conversations with George, Zoe objectifies herself; she identifies herself as “an unclean thing” (154) and refers to herself as a “what” (154) rather than a “who.” Even if not an object, she does not refer to herself as human, as she tells Dora that “You know you can’t be jealous of a creature like me” (161
).  She also seems to be ashamed of her race, as she explains that “our race has one virtue—it knows how to suffer” (154). Despite the fact that the man she loves, George, tries to dissuade her of this self-hatred, it is embedded and appears unchangeable. 

I found “The Octoroon” especially powerful because it so profoundly highlights the shame Zoe feels based on her primordial identity. In discussions of slavery and race in the classroom, it is easy to focus on the historicism or the physical atrocities that define these spaces. Personally, I had not greatly enough considered how much racism and slavery affect perception of self. Despite the fact that Zoe is only one-eighth black, she is still cast astray to be verbally abused and socially outcast so that she may internalize this treatment. Even if freed from slavery, this struggle with identity would leave Zoe restrained from living the life of a proud black woman. Boucicault’s work left me wondering how we can alter our perceptions of self or if it will always be tethered to the trauma and prejudice we have experienced in our lives. 

Daniel O’Connell, Frederick Douglass, and Intersectionality 

I found Daniel O’Connell’s address to the Committee of the Irish Repeal Association of Cincinnati to be very interesting. It’s both impressive to me that O’Connell took such a strong stance against the Irish Americans who were against Abolition, and disheartening that Irish immigrants would adopt such a position in the first place. O’Connell focuses a lot on this very idea, saying “It was not in Ireland you learned this cruelty” (1). 

I also find it interesting that O’Connell saw it as a necessity and a priority to denounce the racism of Irish-Americans, and that he fought for Abolition alongside Irish liberation. I think that his politics are very representative of the intertwined ideas of the Black Atlantic and the Green Atlantic, and the similarities in the fight for rights and liberation. I find it indicative of O’Connell’s passion in the fight against oppression that he advocated not just for his own people, but for Black people in America as well. This also reminds me of the term intersectionality, which is a more modern day approach to activism that values interconnectedness and goes beyond advocacy for just one group. I also do believe that it was easier for O’Connell, as a notable white man, to have a more expansive field of advocacy than it would have been for Frederick Douglass. I imagine that Douglass would not have been taken as seriously if he began advocating for Irish rights. It also would have jeopardized his relationship with the English, and he needed to build as much support as he could for the cause of Abolition.

It is also important to acknowledge that Frederick Douglass did indeed practice intersectionality, as he campaigned for women’s suffrage and was one of the only men in attendance at the Seneca Falls Convention.

The Weight of the Struggle

Learning to comprehend the transatlantic struggle requires tugging on a variety of perspectives. The impact of slavery, famine, and trade showed up differently for each group of people. Who and how to help became prominent questions as cultures crossed to create new experiences. When Douglass escaped and fled to Ireland with the support of abolitionists, tension sparked between his struggle to speak out against slavery and the beginning of the Irish famine. 

In class, disputes arose over sympathy or lack thereof Douglass had toward the suffering of the Irish. People found him to be disconnected and distant even though he was going through issues as well. However, I disagree. Douglass was vaguely aware of the Irish suffering, even encountering it firsthand. Despite that, his position in society prevented him from being able to show up as a dazzling figure of transformation. When Douglass began to intermingle with the Irish and speak out against their pain, Webb made sure to remind him that he can’t bite the hand that feeds him. It’s a quiet display of power that reminds him that the power dynamic in the relationship. Douglass is still a slave and his tour in Europe is to raise money to buy his freedom. He cannot step on others toes in the process of trying to free himself. That interaction gave him an additional mental strain. He was not blind to the suffering. He saw the welts around a child’s neck, indicative of abuse. However, he himself was draggign around his own chains in the shape of barbells, lifting them, exhausting himself to remind him of the work he had to do before he became this self. 

While we cannot expect leaders of various social movements to support every cause actively, they are still able to interact with the concepts and ideologies of the various freedom movements. McDowell and Douglass interacted closely here, but many movements have been tied together – Black and Yellow Power, for instance, are very closely linked. When one group protested, they were joined by the other. Minorities needed to stick together in front of a divisive majority. It was intentional that news sources made a point to set the Irish and Black populations against each other as tensions rose in the States. It is hard to dismantle systems of activism when they understand why each is fighting for the other. This was apparent as Black activists stood up to support people against the Vietnam War and Asian discrimination.

Douglass as Ireland’s Hero?

In class this past week, we discussed Frederick Douglass’ views on the Irish plight in comparison to that of American slaves. From what I ascertained, the main question was whether Douglass should’ve have sympathized with and aligned more with the Irish struggles. Although some may say he should have, I would say that he has no obligation to Ireland, just as they have no obligation to American slaves. He came to  Ireland for a purpose, which was to escape possible capture and to promote his book and the anti-slavery cause. Further, from the Transatlantic book, it was apparent that he was still processing his own trauma from slavery. For example, when he was getting  measurements done at the tailor, it says that he “flinched a moment when the tape was put around his neck” and he had “never been measured by a white man before” (56). Also when discussing temperance and his reasons for not drinking, he states that he “did not want to lose control” and that there was “too much of the master in it” (58). It is clear from these examples that he is going through enough of his own mental turmoil to adopt more external trauma. Even beyond his internal struggles, it is clear to me and was clear to Douglass and that the struggles between the Black and Irish in America were not equivalent. The Irish were never oppressed for characteristics they couldn’t change. For the most part, you can not really tell if someone is Irish on just by their physical appearance, which isolates them from a whole realm of discrimination that Black people face. They are able to change their identity when it suits them, which is exactly what happened when they came to America. The widespread  anti-slavery sentiment did not fully carry over when they realized that Black people were their competition, not their brothers and sister in the fight against oppressive forces. Jenkins discusses this phenomenon thoroughly in “Beyond the Pale”, where he stated that the vast majority of Irish Americans were actively pro-slavery or at least firmly tolerant of it. They heavily desired to assimilate into American society and would do whatever it took to not end up destitute like how they were in Ireland. If the Irish emigrants are so willing to hold Black people in disregard then why should Douglass be willing to be a savior to them?

2 responses to “Douglass as Ireland’s Hero?”

  1. cpracht

    I completely agree with your point Lola about how neither the Irish nor the American slaves really had an obligation to help each other because they were both dealing with major social issues at the time. To explain my point in class a little bit more, I was mostly arguing that, because of this lack of obligation to each other, it might have been a little inappropriate for Douglass to seek financial help from the Ireland at the time. We definitely see the sympathy that he has for the poor of Ireland, and I do not think that Douglass was intentionally acting in a way that ignored Ireland’s struggles. He clearly states near the beginning of the text that Dublin was as he expected it to be, and that he did not anticipate the immense poverty. But overall I think that you are right, and that he absolutely would not be expected to try to help the Irish, because like you mention, he is grappling with his own trauma and fighting for Abolition.

  2. motoole

    This is a really great point to make. I agree that Douglass had no obligation to the Irish, considering his own trauma from escaping slavery and the weight of the fight for Abolition that he carried. It is also very true that the Irish in America grabbed on to the opportunity that white skin provided them with, and choose that privilege over standing in solidarity with Black Americans. I also do see Professor Kinyon’s point as well— that Douglass could not fully see the struggle of the Irish because he could not speak out against the people who brought him over from America.

The Power of Creating Your Own Story

I found Alien/Nation In Dahomey very interesting because it set the foundation for Black people to have control over telling their own stories, something that has just become a major topic in recent years. During the early 20th century, Black people usually were only represented in theatre through minstrelsy, which was a hugely dehumanizing depiction of Black people and racial stereotypes. However, this was one of the first major musicals to feature an all-black cast that actually showed them having power, intelligence, and the ability to rise up against their European oppressors. For example, the musical’s African imagery competes with conventional representations of an ‘uncivilized’ frontier and threatens to revise how the continent is traditionally thought to be: hopeless and idiotic. An interesting point about this is that the musical did not exclusively focus on African Americans and their legacy in America. Instead, it implemented more of a Pan-African message and urged Black people to unite, as shown by the musical playing several songs that emphasize the notions of romance, wealth, inheritance, and genealogical reclamation. Another example of this is the musical’s assertion that all ‘dahkeys’ are linked to a royal line and aim to live extravagantly in their ancestral castle (265). This is significant because it highlights the immense cultural diversity of Africa and the importance of Black history before slavery. Also, it showed that the British Empire was not invincible, and its authority could be challenged. Ultimately, knowing their history and coming together as one led to them gaining the confidence to overcome their colonial empires, fading into a new era of black self-rule. All in all, the show not only reinforced the beautiful and creative artistic capabilities Black people possess, but also highlighted the importance of recognizing the humanity and dignity of Black people by showing they are more powerful than what society tells them they are.

A Friendly Reminder

Daniel O’Connell and the Committee of the Repeal of the Irish Association contrasts the broken relationship between Black people and Irish-Americans seen at the end of Moon and the Mars. The Civil War and the years leading to it caused both communities to place their own needs above the other’s. Many Irish-American men resented fighting for the Union because they believed that they were fighting in a war that had nothing to do with them. This resent bled into their relationships with Black people, as they blamed them for stolen job opportunities and lost lives because of the war. Furthermore, there were Irish-Americans who owned slaves in the South which is a larger contrast to the relationship seen in the North. Yet O’Connell speaks to both audiences in his essay to push his message more personally than he could with other groups. He states “It was not in Ireland you learned this cruelty” (1), arguing that they have pushed further and further away from their cultural roots. It is also a reminder to them of where their ancestors came from, which is a humbling message for them.

This week in class, we talked about what it meant to be an Irish-American back then and what it means today. In the 1850s and 1860s, more people were connected with their European roots and O’Connell’s reading stresses the “Irish” part more than the “American” part. While they are assimilating to American society, he reminds them that the “Declaration of Independence applies to all races” (O’Connell, pg. 2). This statement challenges their current perspectives on Black people’s place in American society by placing them as equals. O’Connell emphasizes that they learned these ideas in the US, and have incorrect interpretations of them at that. This piece was written when Irish-Americans were straying away from Black people. But O’Connell paints them as hypocrites in this essay to show the evils of slavery and their parts in it. Overall, I think it is an effective abolitionist piece since he discusses their cultural values directly and reminds Irish-Americans of their true identities.

Public vs. Private Life in McCann’s Transatlantic

Our conversation in class on Wednesday about Douglass and the existence of a “hierarchy of struggle” in his work made me think about a theme we often discuss in another English class of mine—public vs. private life. In that class, we often think of public life as how one presents themselves in a political setting, and private life as how they present themselves internally or in a domestic setting. I think this framework really applies for understanding McCann’s portrayal of Douglass. He feels the weight of that contrast between public and private, especially as it relates to his support of the Irish people.

Three passages stood out to me with regard to Douglass’s conception of his public and private life. The first, which we discussed in class, depicts Douglass’s thought process as he is asked about “wage slavery” and Irish oppression after a lecture. He hesitates for a “long silence,” fully considering the weight of his words before he speaks. “He had to be judicious, he knew. There were newspaper reporters scribbling down every word. It would lead back to Britain and America” (65). Even early in his trip to Ireland, he feels the weight of American and English eyes on him. His words are not entirely his own—they belong, at least in part, to the abolitionist cause. By the end of the excerpt we read, Douglass makes up his mind about how to address Irish oppression in his public speaking: “There was only so much he could take upon himself. He had to look to what mattered. … The Irish were poor, but not enslaved” (85). Though this is literally true, ignoring the Irish cause seems insensitive after all he witnessed in his trip to Ireland. We are witnessing Douglass’ attempt to align his public speaking, which focused almost exclusively on slavery, with his private thoughts on the matter. Though he seems genuinely troubled by what he saw in Ireland, he has to “look to what mattered” to make sense of the great suffering in front of him. In this passage, Douglass’ public caution becomes private.

Finally, McCann’s narrative touches on the public vs. private life by highlighting Douglass’s private writing routine, which he imagined to involve using barbells made of the chains of slavery to exercise before he writes. On pg. 81-82, Douglass uses the barbells, then writes a letter to his wife Anna. But, even before he writes, he thinks of the letter’s disposal. “Anna might cherish hearing the letters read to her for an evening or two, but soon enough they would be burned. It gladdened him, really, that the letters would become smoke: it was so much of what happened to one’s own history” (82). Even locked alone in his room, Douglass is thankful for the public vs. private distinction. His letters to his wife would be burned and thus eternally relegated to the private sphere. The public—which includes everyone from his abolitionist colleagues to his previous masters—cannot see everything.

The Application of “A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms” to “The Black and Green Atlantic”

As we talked about in class, many students before have questioned how Johnathan Swift’s satirical novel “Gulliver’s Travels” relates to this course. Despite its fantasy setting and unrealistic characters, the final part of “Gulliver’s Travels,” “A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms,” proves to be the most applicable and relevant of them all.  

Upon arriving in the country of the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver quickly discovers that of the two species in the country—the Yahoos (who resemble humans) and the Houyhnhnms (who are horses)—the Houyhnhnms deem themselves to be superior and powerful species while the Yahoos are deemed inferior and forced to be subservient due to their natural lack of intellectual capabilities as well as their naturally-possessed physical ones. 

Due to Gulliver’s appearance alone, the mighty Houyhnhnms initially call and associate him with the Yahoos. Noticing the Yahoos’ subservient and inferior role in this society, Gullier begins to do everything in his power to not be associated as one of them so that during his entire stay in the country of the Houyhnhnms, he is not relegated to a lowly position of servitude as all of the other Yahoos are. 

The most fascinating and relevant part of this voyage is the disdain that Gulliver begins to experience for both the Yahoos and all humans after spending such an ample amount of time with the Houyhnhnms. This disdain remains so severe that even when Gulliver returns to England after many months, he despises his own wife and family and prefers the company of his horse, showing how the influence of the Houyhnhnms was so profound on Gulliver that he ended up internalizing their idea of Yahoo/human inferiority.

This idea of hating and dehumanizing a person to the point of inferiority solely based on their appearance is a concept very relevant to our course because it displays one of the most prominent dangers of colonialism. History has shown the dangers of this concept time and time again through the destruction of entire cultures solely because of other human beings believed to be superior to them solely because of their appearance. 

The dehumanization of people based on their appearance is a relevant theme to all of the readings that we have read in this class in regards to American history. Much like the Houyhnhnms did to the Yahoos, white people utilized appearance in order to dehumanize black people into a role of servitude. Upon his return to England, the ridiculousness of Gulliver’s hatred for his own kind is a reflection of the ridiculousness of hating another human being solely because of their appearance. Given all of our previous readings, it is very clear how relevant this commentary is to this class. 

Narratives and the Irish Threat

As we explored how the Irish became white, I found it rather difficult to truly understand their struggle. The plight of Irish immigrants has never fully been discussed in my classrooms. Like many others, I paired them with other white people and saw them no different. Their only exception was that they had a famine, but so what? Everyone suffered. 

What I failed to understand was the construction of race at the time. Whiteness was not accessible to everyone, regardless of skin color. It was deeply interwoven with status in class, religion, and features. As Britain foraged ahead as a colonial power, their symbols of beauty and intelligence colonized the world. In their view, the Irish, poor and Catholic, yet happy, posed a threat to the very foundations of society this colonial power defined (Llyod 5). They were like a contagious infestation, a rather hateful perspective. This fear was rooted in possible political instability. In my Creating Citizens class, we discussed the role narratives have in defining national identities and shaping the perfect citizen. If the working class, who suffered so greatly under British imperialism, realized that the public land they had could not be industrialized, but rather be used for their own purposes, it would challenge all the authority of the crown. The working class could not be activated. In Irish society, the land and government were at the service of the people; resources included (6). Fear-mongering continued, manifesting in the paranoia that Irish people were savages with infectious diseases (7-8). This is not unlike the handling of the AIDS epidemic. The population was excluded allowing an issue to fester because solutions were not provided, especially since they were integrating into society. The story of the Irish may be one of transformation and removal, but it was begotten in exclusion.