Will the Irish ever be able to again exist as their own race?

In class conversations about the Green Atlantic, many conversations centered around the idea of the Irish becoming white, whether it was on the first day of class in discussion of Baldwin’s work, or the latest class while reviewing “Aren’t We a Little White for that Kind of Thing.” This idea in itself is an interesting one—there are many proposed answers to explain this phenomenon of the Irish facing a similar oppression that Black people faced, whether it be their appearance that sets them apart or their use of Black people as an “outgroup” to establish themselves in the “in group” of white people. However, I noticed that in all of these conversations, Irish people exist somewhere on a spectrum between black and white. 

A prime example of this is found in “Aren’t We a Little White for that Thing,” when Onkey wrote that “In Ireland, blackness becomes a foil for the Irish to explain their experience of colonial oppression, to define a transatlantic antiracist, anticolonial identity. In the United States, however, blackness becomes a negative foil, used by Irish-Americans to distance themselves from African Americans in order to assimilate into mainstream white American society” (Onkey 2). Here, Onkey nails the head on what I interpret as a serious issue for the Irish identity: whether trying to become closer to blackness in Ireland for an explanation of antiracism, or further from blackness to become closer to whiteness, the Irish do not stand on their own as their own racial identity. They are always a function of either blackness or whiteness. 

It is interesting to use this conclusion of the Irish as “trapped” between black and white identities to provide possible conclusions on whether this accounts for the appropriation of Irish culture discussed in class. In The Irish in Us, Diane Negra seems to think so, but writes that “Irish Americans’ rediscovery of their ethnicity, so long obscured by the muck of green beer and shamrocks, certainly has the potential to be a healthy antidote to the ‘identity panic’ Gitlin has described” (Negra 27). Negra’s comment leaves me hopeful that the Irish identity is not permanently trapped between the spectrum of black and white for consumption on either side, and that the race can be on its own. 

How Do Souls Fit Into the Transatlantic?

In class discussions about the Transatlantic, we have covered countless different aspects, living and nonliving; we’ve discussed how language, land, social hierarchy, culture, and other things are affected in the exchange of people and ideas that coincide with the Black and Green Atlantic. To be quite honest, I thought we had covered every possible feature. However, one passage in The Commitments made me realize there had been something left undiscussed: 

“Soul is dynamic. It can’t be caught.It can’t be chained. They could chain the slaves but they couldn’t chain their soul…Soul is the rhythm of the people…The Labor Party doesn’t have soul…The people o’ Dublin, our people, remember need soul” (Doyle 39). 
 This passage, while not directly related to the Transatlantic, left me wondering where souls lie in the Transatlantic experience. When individuals leave their homes to travel to new countries or continents, where they likely face intense discrimination and cultural abuse, do their souls travel with them and endure this pain? Or do they alternatively “stay” in their original home, left behind in the transatlantic experience? In my opinion, this excerpt from The Commitments could be interpreted to argue either alternative. If a soul can’t be chained, it cannot be chained to its homeland, which suggests that it moves with its owner to their new home, despite the challenges that lay in its path. On the other hand, if a soul cannot be chained, it cannot be chained to its owner, and may not want to leave the place it is being forcefully removed from, either from famine (Green Atlantic) or the slave trade (Black Atlantic). The permeability of souls poses an interesting question in defining the Transatlantic: if souls can be left behind in their original homes, are the people who make a transatlantic journey ever able to find themselves again? Or will the part of them left behind prevent themselves from fully assimilating to their new life?

Final Thoughts on Presentations

While the presentations in class were all incredibly unique and pursued their own niche, there was one common theme that I found pervaded through most of the discussions: the notion of consumption. This term, “consumption,” is intentionally vague—it can reference consumption of culture, consumption in a performative sense, or physical consumption of land with the shifting of water and the Atlantic. In regards to my working thesis, aspects of the other culture within a binary are consumed to become a part of the “dominant” culture. On the other hand, prejudices from the “dominant” culture are consumed to affect the other culture’s perception of self. For example, in The Octoroon, or, Life in Louisiana: A Play in Four Acts, Zoe consumes negative prejudices against black people from the white people in her life until they permeate her identity. In Mules and Men, Hurston and the people she interviews consume stories that explain happenings in their world, and the consumption of these stories provide them with answers to life’s questions. This notion of consumption is not limited to only my thesis. 

In relation to performance, the audience members consume the persona that the performer displays for them. This form of consumption provides the performer with a sense of power; they get to control how they are perceived, they dictate the narrative to be consumed. 

Consumption of different languages leads to new words, slang, and phrases. When cultures encounter each other, the language of the “dominant” culture is consumed to the point that it becomes the prominent language of the shared land. Similar to performance, language can be used and consumed as a means of power: to speak in and consume native language is to create space for one’s native culture. 

Ultimately, this conference series was incredibly helpful because it provided me with another way of understanding the transatlantic experience: within the struggles of cultural exchange are battles of consumption, and these battles can be used as a method to reclaim power.

Language and Cultural Comparison

In my studies of “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” Zora Neale Hurston’s discussion of dialect and her idea that the preservation of Black speech is essential to the expression of Black identity. This preservation of language is quite obvious in Hurston’s work, particularly in the dialogue of Mules and Men. Since I am particularly interested in the formation of identity through the Black and Green Atlantic, the effect speech has on identity was particularly fascinating, and left me wondering how the transatlantic affected speech, if there were changes and if these changes affected the identity of transnationalists. When discussing the power of speech, Hurston wrote that “there are so many quirks that belong only to certain localities that nothing less than a volume would be accurate” (Characteristics 31). I had not previously considered language as an individualized expression of self, but this lens led me to reconsider the way the characters speak in Mules and Men. The double negatives, nonstandard spellings and incorrect conjugations all contribute to the character’s expression of self. I realized that the dialect I had been viewing as “incorrect” in terms of grammar was not necessarily incorrect, but it rather simply did not align with the white-centric language I have known and learned throughout my life. It was interesting to consider a world in which I read the novel and did not find the dialogue confusing or difficult to understand, and the consideration of this alternative universe led me to wonder if any culture or identity is able to be defined without being compared to others. A vastly oversimplified version of this is found in someone who identifies as tall: they likely view themselves as such because, when they stand next to other people, they are significantly taller than them. If they had no one else to compare themselves to, they would not view themselves as tall. In fact, they might not consider their height at all. It is interesting to ponder how cultural comparison was changed or increased through the transatlantic, and how the effects are still observed today. 

Desire for a Hero in Determining Social Structure

In my viewing of The Playboy of the Western World, I found myself shocked at how prevalent the idea of a “hero” was in the play. This is first seen in Christy’s introduction to the villagers of Mayo, when they view him as a hero as he describes his killing his father;they admire his physical superiority and view him as noble. Despite the fact that he did not truly possess all of the admirable characteristics the group projected onto him, he accepted this persona, and even romantically talks to Pegeen despite the fact that she is only truly interested in his hero-like persona. Despite his best efforts to mask his true identity, Christy cannot hide his lies forever—the fact that his father is still alive poses a major problem, but more than that is the fundamental impossibility to hide who one truly is. The play ends in the death of Christy’s heroic sham and all of the villagers turning against him.

Christy’s identity scheme featured in The Playboy of the Western World reminded me of in-class discussions of the Americanization of the Irish identity. As Prof. Mouton-Kinyon explained in class, some people adopt an Irish heritage without truly knowing any of its history due to a desire to be part of the group that is seen as “the underdogs” that can tell a triumphant story of all they overcame. In other words, these people long to be “a hero” just as Christy did. It is interesting to consider the ways in which we as a society enable this falsification of identity just as the villagers of Mayo enabled Christy from his first line of the script in the play. The play and conversations in class cause me to ponder how we can make space to acknowledge privilege and true identity in conversations about personhood, and even simpler than that, how we draw the line between who we are and who we want to be when describing ourselves. 

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. 

Comparing Lilliput’s Customs to Society

Despite the fact that a lot of Gulliver’s Travels is abstract and bizarre, beneath those layers is a satire that contains many comparisons to today’s society. One instance in which this is clear is the description of the Lilliput society, which is a legion of miniature humans, measuring six inches tall. There are many oddities within the Lilliputian government, one example being their selection of officials according to their skills at rope-dancing. This is bizarre to Gulliver, but perfectly logical to the Lilliputians, which could be a commentary on society’s tendency to value meaningless things, such as skin color or material possessions. Smith continues his commentary on materialism through the Lilliputians’ inventory of Gulliver’s possessions, which they take very seriously despite the fact that he does not have many significant possessions. Regardless of the aspects of Lilliput that may seem arbitrary or ridiculous, there are aspects worth admiring, many of which are lacking in today’s society. 

In his description of the Lilliputian crime and punishment system, Gulliver explains the logic behind their assignment of value to crimes, all of which have moral explanations. The Lilliputians view fraud as a more serious crime than theft and frequently punish it with death because “care and vigilance, with a very common understanding, may preserve a man’s goods from thieves, but honesty has no defense against superior cunning,” and “the honest dealer is always undone, and the knave gets the advantage” (Smith 44). It is possible that this is Smith expressing admiration for societies that greatly value honesty and trust, and that he notices a lack of those qualities in real life. Smith also seems to admire societies that value community over the individual, which is seen in the way children are raised. By raising children in public nurseries, they are shielded from the selfish tendencies of their parents, which could possibly help them better serve society.

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.

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.