Complex Identities in the Black and Green Atlantic

Coming into this class I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the comparison between Black and Green would be like — two colonized entities, I thought I could see where we were going — and I was excited to read some new and different authors, expanding my horizons that way.  Needless to say, as I find is often the case with classes here, I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I might and my expectations didn’t quite cut it.  The conversations we’ve had and conclusions we’ve drawn in this class have been complex, confusing, sometimes contradictory and distinctly stimulating. Sometimes I knew exactly what I thought, other times I had no idea and my mind was frequently changed by everyone in class and the things you all noticed that I’d never thought of or didn’t see. The end result was that staring down the barrel of our final paper and the end of our class, I was thinking many things, sort of my own tempest of black and green narratives, and I couldn’t quite consolidate everything floating around in my head into one thing I felt compelled to write about. 

And then I wondered if that lack of cohesion could be my take away instead, or a way of formulating my final thoughts.  We’ve talked a lot about what placing pieces from both sides of the Atlantic together actually does, and at what point that comparison is no longer helpful or appropriate. Histories are so focused on creating a singular story, a definitive narrative, and that definitely does not apply to this class and the many perspectives and people we have read. My conclusion then ultimately is that both the Black and the Green Atlantic, as groups of people that suffered great oppressions and were told who they could or were allowed to be, use the gestures across the ocean, whether overt or not, to think about their own place and identities, trying to codify a sense of self. However, because of fundamental differences in experience — different types of hunger, the ownership of bodies, access to eventual whiteness — there is a point at which the comparison fails to say anything more about either identity, and at that point the search for self must ultimately come from within — that no experiences can define them but their own, as groups and as individuals. 

Ultimately I think our journey through the class is what led us to where we are now, and what allows me to see and analyze the comparative model that is the foundation for our course. Every piece we read and discussion we had was necessary to build our understanding of both the Black and the Green Atlantic — from the theory to Douglass to Synge to Walcott and everyone else — and finally allows us to critique the model itself.  My final thoughts are that the model was helpful to provide a framework for understanding and we can see that reflected in the literature and the fact that the comparison exists at all. But the true sense of who each of these peoples are, acknowledging the fact that I am generalizing, comes from self exploration and characterization of identity and from the individual experiences of each. 

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?

Appreciation or Appropriation?

This week has really made me think critically about the cultural exchanges we’ve seen throughout the semester.  Especially through the medium of music. Music is a really important and poignant method of self reflection and culture. But it’s also really nebulous and, as artists often borrow from one another so liberally, it’s hard sometimes to trace the true origins of music (and I would argue that sometimes it doesn’t matter). I knew there were issues in the music industry, especially in America, over this “Love and Theft” idea — Elvis is the first example that comes to mind.  There is a history of the commodification of black culture, similar to the commodification of black bodies, and a seeming “validation” of those cultural forms and subsequent success when placed in the hands of, typically, white men. And there is blatantly something wrong with that — an erasure of history and context like what we discussed with the use of “Chain Gang” by The Commitments. What I hadn’t considered, was if this is a form of minstrelsy, a commodification of the performance of blackness? Is it a performance of blackness? I guess I’m still struggling with where to draw the lines. To what extent does music not belong to one specific people or history? What distinguishes artists that are influenced by soul music and jazz and the blues in a positive way, and those who try to remove it from or don’t recognize the people who created it? Is context that critical element that separates them? I don’t know.       

I think this consideration of context can go a long way towards coming up with a true and nuanced definition of the transatlantic and the black and green — especially as we read the appropriateness of these gestures.  Someone mentioned in class that The Commitments present a sort of spectrum of these gestures, from those we can see to those that are manifestly inappropriate. I really see the transatlantic as a space of encounter, and a place to try to understand the long standing histories of colonialism and what it meant to be colonized.  Within that however, there must also be an understanding of where the histories diverge and the differences between class and race. When The Commitments hit upon contexts that relate, their gestures help them to understand their situation. When they erase or don’t know the nuance of the oppressions of African Americans, the relation becomes problematic. No one comes to an encounter without their history.  In the same way artists, whether musical or otherwise, can’t enact this particular black and green encounter without a consideration not only of the similar histories, but of the different oppressions as well.

4/22 Discussion Questions

Does the disjunction between Irish Americans and the Irish in Ireland highlight the similarities and appropriate gestures between African Americans and the Irish, especially through the lens of the Civil Rights movement?

How do Irish artists activate this space or gesture without misstepping or mislabeling their own circumstances? Can they at all? Or will there always be some element that doesn’t fit?

Why does Doyle make the choice to validate Joey in the film, when as we discussed in class, his lack of credibility is key to Doyle’s conceptualization and contrast of the working class Dubliners?

4/20 Discussion Questions

Does the band’s name, The Commitments, have any particular significance to the novel, beyond that it keeps in form with other “the” bands like The Temptations of the 60’s? Is it just another gesture or does it carry weight in their Dublin experience?

What does Jimmy’s role as the manager and as a sort of narrator for the novel tell us about him?  How does he change from The Commitments to The Deportees? He is key to keeping the group together, but as he doesn’t play, is still a little on the outside.

How is the credibility of Joey “The Lips” Fagan presented differently in the novel and in the film? Is he, for lack of better words, validated or vindicated when Pickett’s limo shows up at the end of the film? Does this change his relationship to soul music?

The Complexity of Identity

I was most struck by our reflections on hybridity this week and the various ways it manifested in the different works we looked at and the ways it complicates identity. Walcott, unnecessarily pointed out by Heaney, clearly interacts with the intersections of history and identity within his work and Heaney’s characterization of this hybridity is conventional and mundane, despite the beauty of the language he communicates it in.  His view of Walcott’s work plays into tropes about the Caribbean and the Atlantic experience, that I think some of us were skirting around activating in our descriptions of Walcott’s poetry and its flow – tropes of lyricism encoded in the language and people, that, while maybe not entirely inaccurate, fail to grasp the true dynamics of hybridic identity. Heaney says of Walcott “From the beginning he has never simplified or sold short. Africa and England are in him.” (Heaney, 6).  This statement is its own unintentionally ironic and blunt simplification of what we know to be the complex histories at work here and as I believe Alexis pointed out, who is Heaney, as an Irishman, to be the judge of how Walcott expresses his hybridic identity. The Irish too have their realm of hybridity within their sphere, which I think we can see Heaney attempting to reconcile in his own work about the Troubles, but that does not privilege him to assign value judgements for the expressions of another’s identity. How does he truly know that Walcott’s activations of both the Caribbean and Egypt are “risky” or “large appropriations” and even if they are, with what experience does he legitimize them?       

I’m curious to know how we would have read Heaney’s assessments of Walcott had we not had the collective aha moment last week about the nature of comparisons between the Black and the Green and the fundamental distinctions between them and if we would have come to the came conclusions. 

Heaney’s comment about Africa and England is interesting too based on what we have discussed about the ideas of a homeland and how the memory of a homeland becomes unique to those that hold it.  There is a change of time and distance and I think that plays into hybridic identity too – history and identity aren’t static or easily separable. We can see this, the idea of hybridity as exchange and ultimately change within A Tempest too.  As we, and the text, attempted to point out, the process of colonization changes the colonizer as much as it changes the colonized – you can’t dehumanize someone else without losing some of your humanity in the process – and Prospero’s cruelty is a marker of that.  In the same way that The Tempest couldn’t be translated to French without Cesaire imbibing himself, and the subsequent English translation for our version of A Tempest would have lost some of Cesaire. Once again, that was rambling, but I’m essentially trying to assert that identities can’t be distilled into stock categories.  There is change in the creation of hybridic identities that can’t fully be quantified, but should be appreciated.

4/8 Discussion Questions

Ariel and Caliban, though now directly identified as slaves, have significantly more vocal agency in A Tempest compared to the original play and speak much more freely about their situations and displeasure with them.  How does that change their characterization and role within the play?

Caliban (and by extension Cesaire) brings up the erasure of identity that comes from being called a name that is not your own or one that is forced upon you.  Walcott talks about this power of naming in “The Schooner Flight” as well.  Though Caliban brings up this point to Prospero and wishes to be called X instead, his character is only referred to as Caliban, even by Caliban himself.  What point does Cesaire make in maintaining Caliban’s false naming?

When Heaney describes Walcott, he says that Walcott “never simplified or sold short. Africa and England are in him.” In view of everything we’ve discussed in our course this description in and of itself seems like a simplification on Heaney’s part of the hybridity we were discussing on Monday. Did anyone else read that the same way?

(Did anyone else chuckle when Heaney pondered Walcott’s “large appropriations,” especially in light of our discussions last week about “Strange Fruit”? I may have misread his point, but I found it ironic.)

4/6 Discussion Questions

My first question is about the sea and the role it plays in The Sea at Dauphin.  We’ve encountered other stories of great losses at sea, in Riders and John Redding that seemed to speak to loss of place and community.  In this play, Afa remarks that the sea forgets.  How does that fit with the sea as we’ve seen it in those other works? Does the sea forget, or does it just not care?

In “The Schooner Flight” Walcott talks about naming and mimicry saying “we live like our names and you would have to be colonial to know the difference.”How does identity play into naming and memory and what pain can be stored in names as well?

How does the representation Creole in The Sea at Dauphin compare to other representations of dialect we’ve encountered? What (and whose) histories are encoded in language and its literary representations?

When the Center Doesn’t Hold

One thing that stuck with me from this week was when Heaney quoted Yeats in his piece for The Listener. That’s not the first time I’ve seen that particular Yeats poem, The Second Coming, used to describe periods of extreme change. Joan Didion’s book Slouching Towards Bethlehem uses it to frame the disenchanted, lost youth of ‘the 67 Summer of Love and I believe it also informed the title of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I think the resonances of a second coming – the feelings of imminent, uncontrollable, violent change – frame our discussions of political protest both during the Troubles and the American Civil Rights movement very well.  There is a sense of confusion and loss and sadness that came with the change and seems to haunt that era and Uptight as well.  As we noted in class, 1968 felt like a fracturing of every effort towards change that activists had made up till then. The center was not holding and people were left with unredeemable circumstances and violence. I think that’s why Tank dies without redemption, unlike Gypo.  That isn’t to say that the circumstances Gypo encounters within The Informer aren’t violent too, but that attitudes had changed about activism and violent protest when Uptight was made.  Redemption was important for the audiences of the earlier film and is restorative, but backgrounded by the chaos of ‘68 and the world it seems to create, redemption is not possible and is potentially irreconcilable to the creators of Uptight – it’s the more accurate reflection of the state of their world.

We discussed in class how these two films have very different tenors and I think part of that is a result of who was making the films.  The Informer was made by an Irish American about the Irish whereas Uptight was made by Black activists about Black activism. It makes Tank’s character really interesting. Gypo can easily be read as a caricature, like the stage Irishman from the days of Synge.  I wonder how we are to read Tank then.  His desperation and subsequent turn to alcohol compounds throughout the movie as each new tragedy or misfortune befalls him, beginning with Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. Does his descent, like his death, say something about the desperation and frustration of the time itself? Or does it seek to present a critique of the caricature Gypo posed in the original film?

As an aside, over the weekend I started watching Self Made, the Netflix show based on the life of  Madam C.J. Walker. The first episode details the beginnings of her company and a dramatization of some of the driving forces behind her ventures.  It really seemed to highlight some of the themes we were talking about with Color Struck about community, image, and belonging and made me think hard about how I phrased my question on colorism for class last Wednesday.  I think the show focuses a lot on the pain associated with colorism and its violent history, but with a main character that is less self-defeating than Hurston’s Emma.  If anyone gets the chance to watch (I haven’t watched much more, but it seems interesting), I’d be curious to know your thoughts on the way these themes are represented in the show, particularly after our discussion about drama and preservation.  

4/1 Discussion Questions

In both films the informer is a sort of fool, on the outs with their organizations/institutions. How is this fool represented differently in each movie/ with the two different communities? Once instance that comes to mind particularly is in Uptight, as Tank is wandering around drunk,  two women walk by and say “that’s part of our trouble,” suggesting Tank’s behavior reflects poorly on more than just him.  Does Gypo’s behavior carry the same weight?

As a related question, how does alcohol factor into each movie and what is its role?

Hunger is used as a motivator in both films as well, as an indicator of poverty. In Uptight, however, hunger is specifically referent to welfare and that particular structure – and its strictures.  Does this hunger as poverty idea demonstrate a comparison between the Black and the Green or do its different manifestations highlight the fundamental differences we’ve been discussing?