Concluding thoughts: Irish as “pre-white”

Catherine Eagan’s essay “Still ‘Black’ and ‘Proud’” resonated with the material we have studied throughout the entire course. Specifically, her identification of Irish as “pre-white” made me reflect on works from Moon and the Mars to “The Octoroon” to Transatlantic. She writes that “for those Irish Americans in touch with the Irish history of oppression and uncomfortable with the whiteness of their Irish identity in contemporary, multicultural America, Irishness sometimes serves as a kind of nonwhite or pre-white identity that facilitates their disassociation of themselves from mainstream WASP culture” (Eagan 25).

Before taking this class, the idea of Irish as “nonwhite or pre-white” would have entirely shocked me. My then limited understanding of Irish history combined with my American outlook led me to believe that the Irish were unavoidably white. However, this course exposed me to not only a deeper historical background, but also the idea that the Irish became white. Irishness must then be something pre-white because in order for Irish Americans to become white, they had to be something else before. The idea of pre-whiteness implies a transition over time, and several of the works we’ve read brought me to the site of that transition.

Moon and the Mars stands out as the clearest example. In 1857, at the beginning of the novel, Theo understands her Irish and her Black identity similarly: “Home is black and Irish every day every minute crossin all kinds a paths, don’t the rest a the world only wish they got our harmony?” (Corthron 18). But as the novel progresses and Theo ages, she watches her Irish family become white, especially when Ciaran is involved in the draft riots. She remembers that violence as a “catastrophe wherein my father’s people [Black Americans] were victims and my mother’s people [Irish] the victimizers” (Corthron 546). The act of choosing whiteness is unavoidably violent, and the damage done to the Black community in New York during the riots exemplified that. Corthron uniquely positions her novel to show a specific moment of this transition from pre-whiteness to whiteness, grounding it in the passage of time by marking the years to highlight the act of transition. Her work was invaluable in promoting my understanding of race in the Black and Green Atlantic, though I didn’t fully understand how until reading the Eagan essay.

Even so, it is sometimes difficult for me, as an American who understands Irishness within America as essentially white, to make sense of the transatlantic gesture between Black and Irish authors. As we discussed in class, Irish cannot return to “pre-whiteness” after accepting whiteness, so why does Jimmy Rabbitte insist that Dubliners are the blacks of Europe? After taking this class, though, I am beginning to understand this gesture. Armed with the history of Irish oppression, I see now that a truly atlantic understanding of race is not so simple. The Irish are white, yes, but they were also oppressed in many ways comparable to the Black experience, and Atlantic authors from Baldwin to Boucicault to Doyle have shown that those comparisons are useful in some way.

One Reply to “Concluding thoughts: Irish as “pre-white””

  1. You make several strong points within this post. I never thought of “pre-whiteness” like you said. They were their own group in European eyes, but became the same as other white people in the Americas. I think that Jimmy’s comment is a bit of an exaggeration. He makes a point in which Irish people are lower in the social hierarchy there, as are Black people in the US. But I think the comment overshadows the different struggles the two groups have endured.

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