Concluding Thoughts

One line that stuck with me the most from Lauren Onkey’s introduction to her book Blackness and Transatlantic: Celtic Soul Brothers is “And although the Irish claim of blackness can be dismissed as romantic or wrongheaded, it does express an important desire for the Irish to move outside of established categories of identity… the Irish cannot simply dip a toe in and claim blackness without being infected by the other elements of American culture” (27). In other words, Onkey reaffirms the connections made between Black American struggles and the oppression of the Irish, but she also reminds readers that the Irish cannot simply pick and choose which aspects of Black American culture with which they identify. 

I think that this description aids our understanding of the course in its entirety. It is undeniable that Black and Irish authors notice connections between themselves and speak to each other through their literature and their writings, but there is always a point of contention, an undeniable difference that is both so easy and yet so challenging to pinpoint. As we have seen through the transmission of soul music across the Atlantic Ocean, the connection between Frederick Douglass and Daniel O’Connell, and the self-identification of the Irish with the slaves in America, the Irish are willing to make connections between themselves and Black people in America but only in a way that is beneficial for the Irish, and in a way, they walk the fine line between appropriation and appreciation.

Upon reflection on previous blog posts, I focus on a wide range of topics including race as a social construct that ends up having a tremendous impact on individuals in America, class tensions in Ireland, and the tensions of individual characters in the face of larger social issues that shape their awareness and experiences. As I review these blog posts, I am noticing a theme of the individual’s experience as it is influenced by the greater context of the Black and Green Atlantic. For example, I once wrote about Grammy Cahill’s decision to find different sources of income upon Theo’s discovery that they are indirectly involved in the slave industry. I also wrote about Zoe from The Octoroon, who is white-passing but technically a slave because of her ancestry, and what that means in terms of her self-esteem and her ultimate fate. This highlights the Black and Green Atlantic as a conglomerate of choices and consequences on the individual level, like Jimmy Rabbitte creating a soul band or Zora Neale Hurston collecting Black tales from her childhood, all of which, in one way or another convey both the similarities and the differences between the Irish and Black Americans.

Appreciation or Appropriation?

In the movie version of The Commitments, the band manager Jimmy strongly opposes sexual interactions within the group. Although this theme is a little less obvious in the book itself, with Jimmy even admitting to his slight feelings for Imelda (like all of the other boys in the band), it is still present at times. This contributes to my argument in my conference paper, regarding how both the presence of children, and the lack thereof, is the defining characteristic and perpetuating force of the Black and Green Atlantic itself. In this case, The Commitments leans heavily towards the “lack thereof” argument; opposition to sex directly prevents future generations being born, so film Jimmy’s strong opinions prevent the cultural integration that occurs with each new generation of children. 

This is somewhat ironic, considering the Irish band that Jimmy instigated and manages plays soul music, a genre that originated within the Black American community. With the goal to bring soul to Ireland, on the surface it appears that Jimmy is truly trying to mix Black and Irish cultures. However, moments within the book and film suggest that he is really just trying to copy American soul music. For example, in both the book and the movie, Jimmy instructs the singers to not use their Irish accents. He says, “An’ yis shouldn’t be usin’ your ordin’y accents either. It’s Walking in the Rain, not Walkin’ In De Rayen” (Doyle 34). They do change the lyrics at times to more Irish-themed words, specifically to the song “Night Train,” but this seems to be done so that they appeal to their Irish audiences who love it at concerts, not necessarily to promote cultural integration. 

At the very end of the novel, the remaining band members end up leaving the soul genre behind and moving on to making “Dublin country” music (Doyle 165). Considering Jimmy’s opposition to perpetuating future generations of the Black and Green Atlantic, as well as the performative nature of bringing soul to Dublin, there is a strong indication that it was not Jimmy’s appreciation of soul that led to The Commitments, but that it was appropriation all along.

The Informer, The Social Climber

In the movie The Informer, around minute 53:00 after Gypo and Mulligan crash an upper-class party, the woman in charge says, “You’ll get no drink here you, social climber. Why don’t you go back to the gutter where you belong?” The fact that we are able to hear this line spoken aloud in the film allows the audience to pick up on the long pause between “you” and “social climber,” right where the comma is located. The woman thinks for a second about the best way to insult him, clearly believing that he belongs “in the gutter.” In this way, “social climber” is used as an intentionally offensive term, which was interesting to me because of how this is so drastically different from America, in which “the American dream” is all about making your own way in the world and successfully “rising to the top” in a capitalist society. Even American elites tend to recognize that trying to climb the social ladder is honorable, while in Ireland this is looked down upon.

In this way, the movie highlights a difference between the Black Atlantic and the Green Atlantic, and the way that Irish culture changed once making the journey to America. As we saw in stories like Moon and the Mars, the Irish who moved to America were very entrepreneurial and tried to climb the social ladder to survive, because this was culturally viewed as a good thing in the United States. As we saw in Daniel O’Connell’s address, the Irish also assimilated into American society by upholding slavery as well. O’Connell chastised these Irish in his letter, saying that they were ignoring their original Irish values. All of these instances of shifts in Irish culture call to mind my argument in my conference paper, in which the Black and Green Atlantic changes with each generation, and looks different with each new wave of children that are being raised in a completely different environment.

2 responses to “The Informer, The Social Climber”

  1. Lola

    This distinction in values indeed reflects the differing views on capitalism across the Atlantic. We learned from Lloyd that the Irish were staunchly anti-capitalist and content with their “low maintenance” lifestyle. However, what is interesting is that other characters in the film have no problem with Gypo flaunting his money, for example when he buys the whole town fish and chips. Everyone was super excited, some even sucking up to him, and not criticizing his newfound “status” then.

  2. motoole

    This is a really great point to make. I agree that Daniel O’Connell’s address to the Irish Repeal Association of Cincinnati is really applicable to the behavior we see in the novel and film. While social climbing was a way for the Irish to become white in America, it was not tolerated in Ireland to bring down others for your own social and economic gain. I think this film really represents the change in social values that occurred across the Green Atlantic.

Hurston and John the Apostle

In Zora Neale Hurston’s “The Characteristics of Negro Expression,” she discusses culture heroes, including figures in Christianity, such as God, the Devil, and Peter the Apostle. Although she does mention the name “John,” it is in reference to John Henry, who (as far as I know) is not related to John the Apostle, which surprised me because of how often the name John is used in the “lies” that Hurston documents in Mules and Men. One example of this is in a story starting on page 80 of Mules and Men, in which a slave named John tells Ole Massa that he can tell fortunes and Ole Massa, claiming that John has never lied to him, makes a bet against somebody else about it. This is not the first story Hurston includes in which a slave master owns a slave named John who he trusts immensely, and this theme reminded me of John the Beloved Apostle, whom Jesus often favored and trusted. 

I also noticed a lot of trickery in the stories that the characters in Mules and Men tell each other, especially with slaves tricking Ole Massa. This makes me wonder about the Transatlantic nature of the stories that they tell–it makes me question if the trickery in the stories stems from the uncertainty and instability that comes with life in slavery, as well as tenuous relationships with other groups like the Irish, who ultimately sided against Black Americans after a period of struggling alongside each other. The fact that “John” is a continual figure is further evidence of the way that Black Americans weaved Christianity into their culture, and the Beloved Apostle himself might represent a desire to be seen as a loyal slave to escape mistreatment. However, John’s mischief in the story, specifically the way that he lied about being able to tell fortunes and used a match to represent calling down lighting, presents an underlying message that it is tricking the white man, in this case Ole Massa, that is the ultimate goal. In this way, slaves and freed Black Americans ironically use Christianity against their oppressors who imposed the religion upon them in the first place. 

Revenge and Religion

In “The Playboy of the Western World,” I was intrigued by the way that death and violence were treated with such lightheartedness by the characters. I recognize that this play is largely satirical, but it was still interesting that Pegeen and her family praised Christy once they heard that he had murdered his own father, even if it was provoked by the father’s mistreatment of his son. Death is taken so lightly that this was considered honorable, and even heroic. Not only this, but Pegeen and her family simply accepted Christy’s explanation without any evidence that he had a justifiable reason to kill a man, and her father, Michael, even left her alone with him at night. 

This is not the only instance in which revenge murder is not only tolerated, but encouraged. When Christy’s father shows up later in the play, and Christy is proven to be a liar, the characters once again act upon Christy’s father’s word, without any sort of proof. There is no legal trial or official judgment when the characters decide to hang Christy; they simply decide to take matters into their own hands, which makes sense in the context of the play because it is already established that killing is almost a necessary way to deliver justice, about which nobody seems to think twice. Michael even says, “If we took pity on you, the Lord God would, maybe, bring us ruin from the law to-day, so you’d best come easy, for hanging is an easy and a speedy end” (1:57:35). This represents the underlying religious tone that is present throughout the play, and how God is a huge factor in the characters’ actions. The idea that God would prefer that they actually kill Christy instead of spare him is ironic, and does not really align with the forgiving nature of God that Catholics tend to preach. 

The tension between a supposedly-merciful God and the characters’ tendencies towards violence as a religious form of revenge serves as a point of reflection for the audience. The play might be considered a critique on Irish Catholicism, if it allows for such brutality. This makes me wonder if the play, which was set in the early 1900s, applied to the context of our class, might even be speaking to hatred involving racism. Although it does not directly deal with race, I wonder if the play’s depiction of Irish Catholic values gone astray can be applied to Irish racism towards Black Americans during and after the Civil War, especially with the knowledge of Daniel O’Connell’s disgusted stance on Irish Catholic involvement in American slavery.

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.

Thoughts on Cultural Comparison in “A Voyage to Lilliput”

In the section of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift titled “A Voyage to Lilliput,” the main character, Gulliver, becomes shipwrecked on an island inhabited by what appears to be very tiny people, the Lilliputians, whom he estimates are about 6 inches tall. During this time, Gulliver is captured and brought to the emperor, and there is an exchange of culture for both parties. I noticed that Gulliver often compares Lilliputian ways to those with which he is more familiar. For example, he describes one Lilliputian as having “an Austrian Lip and arched Nose” (Swift 24). In another instance, Gulliver describes Lilliputian clothes by saying, “the Fashion of it between the Asiatick and the European” (Swift 25). These are only a few moments of cultural comparisons made by Gulliver.

Gulliver rarely passes judgment on cultural norms in Lilliput, with the exception of commenting on differences between his knowledge of home and this new territory. In fact, he often mentions the existence of laws and social customs in Lilliput, and he praises the work of the Lilliputians. When the Lilliputians mathematically determine how much food is necessary for Gulliver to not starve, he goes so far as to write, “By which, the Reader may conceive an Idea of the Ingenuity of that People” (Swift 37). This hints at the underlying respect that Gulliver seems to have for the people who took him in. However, there are instances where the actions and values of the Lilliputians seem ridiculous enough to be satirical, such as when divisions among citizens arise because of laws regarding the way in which they crack their eggs (Swift 41). 

This makes me wonder if Gulliver’s Travels is mocking the dynamic between Europeans and Native Americans, likening native traditions and customs to over exaggerated, fictional social norms. The fact that Gulliver is so much larger in size than the Lilliputians alone seems to suggest that any power that the Lilliputians believe they have over him is merely an illusion, and Gulliver is just playing along. Thus, although “A Voyage to Lilliput” has a significantly different ending than historical colonialism, it seems to model the European mentality at the time. 

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?

Blog #1: Realization of Class Conflict in Moon and the Mars

In the 1861 section of Moon and the Mars, readers witness Theo come into a new kind of consciousness. We as readers have essentially grown up with her as she moves through life in Five Points, seeing the historically-significant world through her eyes, and consequently losing innocence as the novel progresses and Theo gains life experience. Until now, we understand Theo’s financial situation to a certain extent; we know that her family is usually short on money, but we can also recognize that Theo considers herself a “lucky orphan” because she has family, rarely lacks for food (with the exception of the depression), and always has a roof over her head. It is during the chapter titled “War” that Theo realizes exactly where her and her family fall in terms of economic status. 

Near the beginning of the chapter, Ciaran approaches Theo and tells her that Grammy Cahill and the rest of their Irish family are rich, but Theo retorts that they are poor. Ciaran then says, “Well, here’s what’s what, Madam Scholar. There’s poor and there’s poor” (Corthron 306). He proceeds to show Theo his cousin’s boardinghouse, which is flooded often and smells bad, and Theo realizes the extent of her privilege (Corthron 307). Shortly afterwards, Theo and Ciaran take a carriage ride through Central Park, and Jamey, the driver, tells them that the experience is extremely expensive, proclaiming, “You know when the real customers have a carriage ride, one carriage ride, the fare could support a poor man and his family a year?” (Corthron 308). Theo and Ciaran are in disbelief, and Theo once again realizes the extent of her privilege, but in a completely different light. 

Between these two scenes, Corthron effectively educates both Theo and the reader about class divisions and conflict in roughly four short pages. Theo experiences the living conditions of the poorest of the poor, but she also has the brief opportunity to live the high life. I felt that this was a significant moment as Theo comes of age and starts to realize her financial place in society. She experiences disgust for the boardinghouse, and a different kind of disgust for those with the money to ride in Central Park carriages. Although her situation has not changed, readers are faced with a new duality, in which Theo can both be grateful for what she has and long for what she does not. This is very important in any coming-of-age novel because it presents a new complexity that accompanies maturity, but it also might come with confusion for such a young narrator. In this way, Corthron might be attempting to speak at a universal truth about guilt and privilege.

One response to “Blog #1: Realization of Class Conflict in Moon and the Mars”

  1. motoole

    I really enjoyed reading your analysis of class conflict in the novel, and think you’re spot on about Theo’s burgeoning understanding of her own economic level. From the beginning of the book, we see differences between Theo’s life and the other children in the neighborhood who live on the street and face the threat of freezing or starving to death. Although Theo’s families face a period of struggle during the depression, she most often always has enough to eat, and multiple different roofs to sleep under at any time. But despite these facts, she still does live in poverty. I think your comment about the ‘complexity that accompanies maturity’ is a really great interpretation of Corthron’s choice in including this nuance about class.