Ethical Labor and Consumption

I am interested in discussing the part of Moon and the Mars during 1859 when Theo finds out that Ciaran and other members of her Irish family are working for businesses that fund and support slavery. Ciaran said he had been working for the Spanish company, but it was actually the Portuguese company— and he had known and kept it secret that their business was in slavery. Cathleen and Aileen had been sewing clothes that would be worn by slaves, but quit their jobs once they discovered the purpose of the business. Theo spends some time away from her Irish family, but eventually goes back to them after learning of their regret and remorse. 

This made me think of that buzz-phrase you hear all over the internet lately: “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.” No matter what you choose to consume, you are still living in an exploitative system that relies on paying workers less than the value of their labor in order to make a profit. I have also heard a similar rhetoric applied when it comes to jobs, as students discuss their potential career paths and how to discern what type of work to do. You can “sell out” your morals and make more money, or you can choose a more “ethical” job that will likely pay less but contribute more positively to your community. There are many discussions about whether it is each individual’s responsibility to choose not to work for an immoral company, or if the agency lies on those in charge of the company’s intentions and policies.

To bring it back to the novel, Cathleen and Aileen face the struggle of living in poverty, and the higher paying jobs are ones that actively support the illegal slave trade. For them, the choice is clear as soon as they realize what type of work they are doing, and they quit. But Ciaran knows for much longer, and continues to do the job because of the money. He only quits because he is forced to by the rest of his family, although he does show signs of shame over his decision. I am curious what the decision of Cathleen and Aileen would be if they didn’t have Theo in their family, and if she didn’t stop seeing them because of it. Would their morals have led them to quit, or would they continue the job because they need the money?

The Displaced Transmission of Pinkster

In Moon and the Mars, I found the discussion of “Pinkster” interesting as it seemed to correlate with Roach’s discussion surrogation and genealogies of performance. Pinkster or Pinksteren in Dutch was originally a religious holiday to celebrate Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles 50 days after Easter. It was then adopted by enslaved Africans who made it a holiday to reunite with their loved ones and celebrate. It was often the only time of year where enslaved people would get a slave-owner sanctioned break from work so it definitely meant much to them. In some ways it still remained similar to the Dutch celebration while in others the African Americans made it their own. For the Dutch, it was a time to take off work, go to church, and visit family and friends. while  African Americans kept those aspects but added more festivities into the mix. In the book, we can see Theo’s black side of the family keeping with the Dutch by inviting family, friends, and neighbors over, not working, and attending their A.M.E. Zion church, while also going to a Carnival and celebrating their ceremonial black king, King Charles, who was crowned amongst the slaves. While looking into the holiday on my own, I also found that it combined elements from both Africans and Europeans like drinking, games, music, and dance. It was also a way for them to retain West-African traditions with their style of dance and the complex rhythms of the drummers and clappers.

This example of surrogation differs from some of Roach’s examples in the sense that there was no overt intent to erase its Dutch origins, and both cultures were able to come together and celebrate. Although the event did become more associated with African-American culture, it was because the Dutch shifted their focus to newer American holidays and had no desire maintain some kind of dominion over Pinkster. They let it evolve and become displaced but conversely, the African Americans respected the original tradition and maintained some of its cultural integrity.

The Convergence of Fact and Fiction: The Beauty and Importance of Historical Fiction

In terms of all of the material that we have read so far this semester, Moon and the Mars has, without a doubt, been the best and the most palatable. Through the lens of a young child slowly growing up in mid-1800s Manhattan, I was given the opportunity to experience a perspective so different from that which I lived and experienced in my own childhood. 

The historical fiction genre has always been one of my favorites ever since my childhood. When I finished reading my first historical fiction book (The Book Thief by Markus Zusak), I was not only shocked by how much I enjoyed it, but how much I was able to learn in the midst of my reading. Without even realizing it, I was subconsciously learning so much about what life was like for a German girl at the start of World War II. 

Besides its enjoyability, the historical fiction genre is also extremely important to how we learn and gain perspective about historical events. While we may each have our own perspectives and opinions about history, it is important to make a detailed attempt to learn and gather a variety of perspectives from different people coming from all walks of life, especially those different from our own, during that historical period. Due to the fact that many of these people are dead now, this is exactly what historical fiction helps us to do. 

The amount of research that goes into publishing within the historical fiction genre became extremely apparent to me as I read Kia Corthron’s postscript detailing the factual and fictional elements of the novel. The amount of detail that goes into this research in order to create a realistic world with realistic characters that we are able to learn from is both impressive and awe-inspiring. If anything, it only adds to the impressiveness as well as the validity of this genre as a whole. 
Moon and the Mars has opened my eyes to a life lived that I had never considered before, and I feel myself to be all the more full by reading it.

One response to “The Convergence of Fact and Fiction: The Beauty and Importance of Historical Fiction”

  1. motoole

    This is really well said, and I definitely agree with your take on the importance of realistic fiction. I also read The Book Thief while I was young, and it introduced me to a world of literature that both transported me and educated me about important periods in history. I am very grateful that Corthron wrote this novel, because it brings light to a history that has been erased and forgotten in many ways— the history of the neighborhoods Five Points and Seneca Village, and the interaction between Black and Irish communities in these neighborhoods. And by choosing historical fiction as the genre and presenting it as a coming of age story, the novel is fast paced and incredibly enrapturing to read. I definitely agree that I am all the more full by reading it as well.

The Indians of Ireland

Towards the end of Moon and the Mars, I began to notice Grammy Cahill increasingly making comparisons between Irish peasants and minority groups in the United States. This was particularly prevalent when Theo found Grammy Cahill outside of their house at night, lamenting the horrors she endured in Ireland and recounting the trials that she faced. When referring to corn and other crops that were successful in Ireland during the potato blight, she says “Well [the landowners] sure couldn’t line their pockets by handin it over to the starvin paupers they made to sow and harvest it! Us, the original inhabitants, the Indians of Ireland!” (Corthron 430). In making this comparison between the Irish and the Native Americans, Grammy is expressing the empathy that she feels for them, and claiming that they might be more alike than they appear. Considering the way that the Irish were also forced off of their land due to British greed, they really do seem to have common histories. 

As tensions grow between the Irish and the Black Americans in New York, it may seem that Grammy Cahill also has a motive to express her sympathy to her Black granddaughter, and to show that she stands in solidarity with her. This is once again apparent when Grammy takes Theo on a walk and describes the time that she met Frederick Douglass. She tells Theo how Douglass was astonished to find the lack of prejudice he felt as a Black man in Ireland, and his shock at how Irish peasants fared somewhat similarly to slaves in America based on the poverty and starvation he witnessed. Grammy says, “No one would say the sufferin was equal to slavery. Irish weren’t stolen and sold, whipped and raped. But our misery was vast. Even a former slave astonished” (Corthron 493). At the time that she brings this up, tensions had risen even more between the Irish and Black Americans, and Theo seems to recognize the pointedness with which she says this. 

While it is, of course, a good thing that Grammy Cahill stands with her granddaughter and the Black people of New York, one cannot help but wonder if the only reason for her alliance is the fact that she might lose Theo if she stands with her fellow Irish New Yorkers. It is clear from the beginning of the war that her Uncle Fergus does not care about abolishing slavery, and it often seems that Grammy Cahill has to have deep discussions with Theo to prove her loyalty and lack of prejudice. It is evident that Theo’s Irish family deeply cares about Theo and her father’s side of the family; they do not participate in the riots near the end of the novel and they stop working for companies that perpetuate slavery once they realize the issue. It makes me wonder, however, where they would stand if they didn’t have Theo, and if Brigid had never married into the Brook family at all. If they have changed their values and mindsets for the sake of one little girl that they all love, is it really enough? Is it enough that they abhor slavery because of their own ties to Theo, and not because of the horrors of slavery in and of itself?

Expedited Girlhood in “Moon and the Mars”

Essential to becoming an adult is experiencing hardship and challenges that force an individual to prioritize aspects of their identity and reshape their perception of the world around them. While these challenges are significant, they ought to not be experienced too early in life so as not to taint the joys and obliviousness of childhood. This expedited childhood is a key theme in Kia Corthron’s Moon and the Mars, especially among the female characters; the racial, financial, and political strife faced by the young characters force them to shift the way they view the world and rob them of childlike carelessness. 

The most obvious example of expedited girlhood is found in the protagonist, Theo. As discussed in class, Theo is more of a witness than a spectator to the changing world around her, as she has a more involved role. The social and political developments she witnesses, such as the Fugitive Slave Act or the dissolution of Five Points, are hardly digestible topics for a young girl and force her to adopt feelings of strong independence and caution. Despite being an orphan, Theo was hardly alone as a child: she had a large hodgepodge family that cared for her. Still, when they leave to go West as Five Points dissolves and the Civil War approaches, Theo finds herself increasingly alone. This independence is paired with the development of Theo’s beliefs, as she forms opinions about current events and voices them to her family. Her naiveté and distinct knowledge of her surroundings allow Theo to push the envelope in conversation with both sides of her family. One example of this is Theo’s comment about the Sioux hangings, as she narrates that “Everybody hears this and stops frozen to stare at me, like my Cahill family did yesterday when I mentioned the Choctaws owned slaves” (Corthron 435). The dramatic political moment occurring in her childhood prompts Theo to form political opinions and have difficult conversations sooner than she may have otherwise.  The supporting characters of the novel also experience expedited girlhood, as proven through the characters Hen and Kaelyn. As a teenage girl in pursuit of guaranteed freedom, Hen ventures to Canada alone, already filled with “disappointment” and “discouragement” (400) in regards to the life she experienced in America. Kaelyn, a young girl arrested for stealing bread, has faced such strife in her eight-nine years of life that she prefers life in jail. As Kaelyn explains, “You know what they have in jail? Food” (420). The girls of Moon and the Mars are so robbed of their childhoods that they must already look for new opportunities to provide themselves a better life, and they must do this alone.

White Feminism in Moon and the Mars

One aspect of Moon and the Mars that I’ve found particularly interesting is the portrayal of the women’s rights movement in the nineteenth century, and its relationship with the Abolitionist movement. In the 1859 section, Auntie Eunice begins holding salon meetings with other black women to discuss art, literature, and social issues. In the second of these meetings, a wealthy white woman named Mrs. Heverworth attends after gifting Eunice a piano. Mrs. Heverworth is an active member of the women’s rights movement in New York, and seems to support Abolition as well. There is one specific line on page 197 that stood out to me— it occurs after one of the black women describes how the white executors of Maria Stewart’s husband’s will committed a theft that left her without any money. In response to this, Mrs. Heverworth says, “The white male executors,” emphasizing the idea that she shares womanhood with the others in the room, and it is the white male who is the ultimate oppressor. This reminded me of modern day “white feminism”, and the phenomenon of white women excluding racism from their realm of advocacy. There is a tendency for white women to distance themselves from the atrocities committed by white people, as we also have faced oppression from white men. But in doing so, we disregard our own complacency in racism and ignore the history of violence committed against black people by white women. This correction by Mrs. Heverworth read as a moment of intentional distancing to me, an attempt to portray herself as separate from these racist white people, despite the strong possibility that the only reason white women weren’t a part of this crime was because they couldn’t have those jobs. 

Mrs. Heverworth goes on to describe how all the women who founded the Seneca Falls convention were abolitionists, and that Frederick Douglass was present as well. But no black women were in attendance, and Mrs. Heverworth expresses “shock” when Theo asks if she can attend the next Women’s Rights Conference. I think that while Mrs. Heverworth believes in Abolition, she still enjoys the privilege she holds over black women and struggles to imagine them holding the same positions as her. Right after this scene Theo witnesses Mrs. Heverworth and other white women enter the hall where the Women’s Rights Convention is taking place, forced to pass by crowds of protesting men hurling violent misogynistic insults. Theo has moments of both resenting Mrs. Heverworth’s blatant privilege above her and other black women, while also understanding that Mrs. Heverworth is facing sexism as well, although it may manifest itself in a different way. I found it really incredible how Corthron portrayed the nuance of white and black women’s different relationships to feminism through the lens of a young girl.

I’m interested in exploring this further with the inclusion of the Irish women in the book, who are white but lack the privileges that Mrs. Heverworth has. There have been moments of both solidarity with black women and forms of racism exhibited by Theo’s Irish family, and I’d like to dig into their role in this white feminism as well.

This is a really interesting topic that I have talked a bit about in a gender studies class that I am taking this semester. While the feminist movement has made a lot of progress in advocating for women’s rights, it is always interesting to consider the hypocritical oppression of women of color and their long-term elimination from the movement that has occurred for as long as the feminist movement itself has.


This is a very insightful reflection as it speaks to the nature of intersectionality in the book. The book is centered on the convergence of Black and Irish identities but also brings to focus the added identity of being female, and brings the question of where Theo falls on the privilege spectrum given that she is a mixed race girl.

The Narrative

My first thought when defining the Atlantic was the struggle of the Middle Passage. I could not think past the slave narratives and the history lessons of the cane and tobacco traded for people. The standard history is rooted in pain and robbery. There were moments of creativity, however, they were dulled by the dehumanization of people forced into chattel slavery. The Black and Green Atlantic serves to take a closer look at that narrative; to remove the deficit-based thinking and uncover the ways in which struggles and pain have brought flourishing. In separation comes combination, and new pockets of existence come to be. The Irish, deprived of food, and caught in political turmoil needed to find sanctuary and a future. Black people on the other hand were deprived of citizenship, culture, family, and identity. Their ostracization in society placed them in some proximity to each other. 

I have lived in New York my whole life, yet I did not know the history of Seneca Village or Five Points. Both no longer exist in the city. My New York is an immigrant city full of culture, compacted by songs, and moved by dance. Theo would agree as she walks the streets, independent at her young age, that everything and nothing shows. Theo is outfitted with both her Irish and Black heritage. She is able to identify the different aspects between her Irish family and her Black family. The cultures also intermingle in the streets. Queens is now a center for immigrants as well with many first-generation Americans who come from multi-ethnic backgrounds. These neighborhoods are underdeveloped compared to the gentrified parts of the city yet they are representative of the snapshots of various home countries. The neighborhoods are the final memories of a time that no longer exists in a country mostly forgotten. Soon, those pieces will merge and become distinctive parts of American culture, hailing immigrant backgrounds. 

Theo’s Development through the Lens of Double Consciousness

While the intricacy of language employed by both Gilroy and Roach in their respective books leaves me with as many questions as answers, upon first reading I was immediately drawn to the shared use of the phrase “double consciousness” in the first paragraph of each author’s introduction. Despite the intersection of topics discussed by the two authors, their individual understandings of double consciousness do not entirely align. My interpretation of the ways in which Gilroy and Roach approach double consciousness prompts me to consider how Theo, a child meddling between two distinct cultures, experiences this form of doubleness throughout her development. 

As a naive seven-year-old, Theo has a strong sense of identity that we, as readers, gain access to through her inner monologue. This confidence is juxtaposed by strangers’ confusion regarding Theo’s appearance, seen through her experience with being called names like “mongrel” by onlookers who cannot seem to decipher her identity (Corthron, 18). This division between Theo’s identity and image corresponds to Gilroy’s portrayal of double consciousness, or doubleness, as a distinction between one’s individual existence and their existence in the eyes of others. Theo is not bothered by her perceived doubleness, however, as she is confident in her identity as a mutt and is not disturbed by the remarks of Nativists. 

Theo’s identity remains strong and steadfast throughout her adolescence, but with age and experience she assumes new roles in both her family and society at large. The dissonance between Theo’s identity within her Irish family and her role as an abolitionist becomes apparent upon her learning that her relatives complete work for companies that enable the continuation of slavery. In the eyes of her Cahill family, Theo is a child with as many privileges as other Irish children in the Five Points District. As an African American, however, Theo assumes the role of an aspiring abolitionist, refusing to support any systems that promote the enslavement of her people. This division between Theo’s perceived identity and her self-assumed role connects to Roach’s definition of double consciousness as “the self-reflexive interaction of identity and role” that engenders “demanding psychological obligations” (Roach, 1). Growing up as a mixed child in two families of different racial and cultural backgrounds becomes more of an issue as Theo gains an understanding of her ability to serve as an abolitionist, and this coming-of-age experience is complicated by the Cahill family’s late acknowledgement of the importance of race in Theo’s life.

A Notion of Journeying in The Black and Green Atlantic and Moon and the Mars

Central to the notion of the Black and Green Atlantic is the recurring image of ships; the idea of traveling and returning is ever present, even if that return is to a culture that is completely colonized and changed. These changes occur because of movement of ideas and people, wanted or unwanted, between cultures, and personal identity stems from the journey of those whose cultures are changing. Gilroy describes this notion of cultural journeying via ships quite succinctly when he wrote that “ships immediately focus attention on the middle passage, on the various projects for redemptive return to an African homeland, on the circulation of ideas and activists as well as the movement of key cultural and political artefacts: tracts, books, gramophone records, and choirs” (Gilroy 4). An emphasis on “artefacts” is necessary because as Gilroy indicates, once one leaves on a cultural journey the culture they leave behind is never quite the same. This provokes an interesting perspective on the Black and Green Atlantic: is it possible for multiple cultures, for example Black and Irish cultures, to coexist as complete wholes or does their dual existence cause concession of culture or identity one way or another? 

 In Moon and the Mars, Kia Corthron contributes to this cultural debate through her protagonist, Theo, who is both Black and Irish. The separation between Theo’s two cultural worlds is physically depicted by the New York City streets Theo travels up and down when she switches households according to a side of the family. Corthron’s commentary on Gilroy’s question on culture is complicated—Theo is proud of who she is, openly and confidently referring to herself as a “mutt,” but her two families’ beliefs split her in two. This is evident in her Irish family’s open support of slavery, such as the fact that her aunt found no issue working with slave owners. Just as a boat traveling between two destinations can find itself stuck in the middle of the ocean, young Theo is torn the same: equally proud of their identities yet struggling to see how they can coincide.

Mixtures and Blends in Moon and the Mars

While reading both the criticism and Moon and the Mars this week, I kept thinking about what Joseph Roach calls the “project of whiteness.” His idea is that inventing whiteness was an act of surrogacy, and the completion of that project required forgetting the “mixtures, blends, and provisional antitypes necessary to its production” (6). This is certainly reflected by the scant version of history taught in schools—the public education system continues to invent whiteness (and America) by forgetting the mixtures and blends necessary to its production. Roach goes on to adopt performance as a way to glimpse through this forgetting; he believes we can remember history by looking at orature. However, I think that Moon and the Mars is partially an attempt to remember the “mixtures, blends, and provisional antitypes” necessary to the production of whiteness. Though Moon and the Mars cannot entirely be categorized as orature because it is a text, the highly vernacular nature of the narration is an element of orature. Moreover, the emphasis on learning as a key element of the text, which we discussed in class, suggests that Moon and the Mars is trying to re-remember history.

Theo herself is one of the mixtures/blends that the project of whiteness often forgets. She is half-Black and half-Irish, which is a demographic entirely ignored in the American history that I was taught in school. By reframing history through Theo’s perspective—which Corthron does through the integration of the news into Theo’s everyday life—Corthron is remembering how a specific mixture/blend existed in the production of whiteness. 

Theo hears both her Irish family and her Black family’s opinions on current events, and she finds an interpretation of her own through mixing those opinions. Sometimes, her families offer contradictory opinions—Grammy Cahill condemns the House of Industry and supports Tammany Hall while Mr. Samuel and Grammy Brooks condemn and support the opposite. Her Irish family warns her of the House of Industry’s subjugation of Irish children, while her Black family cautions against the Democratic Tammany Hall (125-129). Theo, in attempting to reconcile these perspectives, is wary of both organizations. She leaves the House of Industry quickly: “I run out before she can adopt me into Irish slavery! Or colored slavery! Either way, I’m on the market!” (131). Theo recognizes the blended nature of her identity, and her interpretation of history is informed by it. As the audience learns alongside Theo, we get a new framing of history that emphasizes the previously forgotten mixtures and blends.