Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen

I recently came across a Louis Armstrong performance of the song, “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen.”  The song is an African-American spiritual that was popularized by a number of African-American singers, including Armstrong. This song is a fitting anthem for a lot of the gesturing between the Black and Green that we’ve seen in the class. Frederick Douglass doesn’t know the trouble the persecuted Irish Catholics have witnessed. Seamus Heaney didn’t know the trouble African-Americans endured when he wrote about the Black Panthers in 1970. The Commitments and Roddy Doyle did not understand the trouble of African-American Soul singers when they appropriated their songs. These misunderstandings remind me of bell hooks’s quote, “White folks who do not see black pain never really understand the complexity of black pleasure. And it is no wonder that when they attempt to imitate the joy in living which they see as the ‘essence’ of soul and blackness, their cultural productions may have an air of sham and falseness that may titillate and even move white audiences but leave many black folks cold” (Onkey 26).

However, focusing too much on the mistaken gestures threatens under-appreciating the relationship between the Black and the Green. Instead of looking at how Frederick Douglass occasionally looks at Irish Catholics, we can look at Daniel O’Connell, who lobbies for Irish independence alongside an end to slavery. Foreshadowing Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote from the Birmingham Jail, O’Connell said, “My spirit walks abroad upon sea and land, and wherever there is oppression I hate the oppressor, and wherever the tyrant rears his head I will deal my bolts upon it, and wherever there is sorrow and suffering, there is my spirit to succor and relieve” (Onkey 15). We could also look at how Synge’s “Riders to the Sea” influences Hurston’s “John Redding Goes to the Sea” or how James Weldon Johnson calls on African-Americans to find a form that resembles Synge’s to talk about their experience (Renaissance and Radicalism 484). Rather than focusing on Seamus Heaney, we could discuss Bernadette Devlin giving the keys to New York City to the Black Panthers.

At the end of the day, neither African-Americans nor the Irish can properly understand the trouble the other has seen. Yet, if any two groups can sympathize with similar feelings of oppression, it is the Irish and African-Americans. Though the Irish were never enslaved, they understand leaving home against one’s will. Though African-Americans did not experience the intensity of the hatred between Catholics and Protestants, they understood the use of religion to justify oppression. Though the oppressions of the Black and the Green were neither the same nor equal, these two peoples understood the inability to feel at home at home. This feeling of placeless-ness and not the comparison between two oppressions is the Black and Green Atlantic.

Discussion Questions (4/27)

  1. Though Jacobs-Jenkins remains relatively faithful to Boucicault’s work, he distinctly adds more conversation between the slaves in which the slaves speak in a contemporary way. What effect does that addition have?
  2. What is significance between the house slave and field slave dynamic, drawn out in Act 3?
  3. In Act 4, Wahnotee brutally kills McCloskey. Considering that Wahnotee was played by the playwright in red face and McCloskey was played by BJJ in white face, does the play achieve the expectations it sets for the fourth act of a play?

My Soul Isn’t Your Soul

In The Commitments, Jimmy attempts to stop some band members from smoking weed because “drugs aren’t soul” (Doyle 66). When the band counters that American soul musicians smoked marijuana, Joey the Lips Fagan takes over, saying, “Not true, Brother. Real Soul Brothers say no to the weed. All drugs. Soul says no” (67). Of course, as the band attempts to prove, Joey is wrong; Marvin Gaye, possibly the most famous Soul musician in history, used marijuana extensively, for example. On one hand, this exchange shows Joey’s false understanding of African-American music and musicians, later shown forcefully through his dismissal of jazz. However, more broadly, it shows the inadequacy of transferring black music directly to the Irish context. As bell hooks writes, “White folks who do not see black pain never really understand the complexity of black pleasure. And it is no wonder that when they attempt to imitate the joy in living which they see as the ‘essence’ of soul and blackness, their cultural productions may have an air of sham and falseness that may titillate and even move white audiences but leave many black folks cold” (Onkey 26). Joey’s assertion that real Soul brothers didn’t smoke weed shows an inability to understand black pain of oppression and the memory of slavery. He can recognize the political resistance offered within Soul music but cannot comprehend the pain that creates this resistance. One of the main reasons for drug use in the 1960s was escaping reality yet Joey cannot envision reasons why African-Americans would attempt to escape reality in the 1960s.

Rather than acknowledging that the experiences of the African-Americans when creating Soul music and the Irish when singing it are different, Joey and Jimmy attempt to homogenize the experiences. A heroin epidemic causes this anti-drug stance in Ireland. Drug use was a real problem in the context of Ireland in the 1980s but not so condemned in 1960s Black America. The Irish cannot attempt to properly take from black culture without recognizing the distinct history of African-American oppression. Our class-wide repulsion at the singing of “Chain Gang” is the best example of this homogenizing of experience. The Irish did not experience the chain gang. Yet, like the example of drugs, this discrepancy is glossed over by the band and black experience is mapped directly onto the Irish experience. Through this lens, the Irish performance of Soul music becomes appropriation, forgoing the potential for creating solidarity through similar feelings of oppression and placeless-ness. Without recognizing the context, The Commitments remove the important distinctions between the two experiences of oppression on different sides of the Atlantic which are necessary to avoid appropriation.

Discussion Questions (4/22)

  1. Can we compare the Irish and African-Americans without also discussing Irish-Americans?
  2. Did the Irish have a choice of who to throw their allegiance behind when they arrived in America?
  3. How do these articles complicate the history of minstrelsy and does that change the way we should look at it in texts such as The Octoroon?

4/20 Discussion Questions

  1. Why does the band change the songs to make them more “Dubliny?” Is that enough to be considered Dublin Soul?
  2. What is the significance of the divide between jazz and soul? Is Joey the Lips Fagan right about asserting the supremacy of soul?
  3. Why does the group break up? Does “sex,” the impetus for soul, cause the split? Were they destined not to make it?

Living Within The Color Line But Along the Color Spectrum

In Derek Walcott’s Sea at Dauphin, the characters use a mix of Creole and English when speaking with each other. For instance, early in the play, Afa, speaking with Gacia, says, “Merci…Ay, ay, boug. ‘Ous riche, a whole one? Is only natural for wind to blow so hard, but to turn, and turn (47).” This mix of language is remarkably fluid; the characters speak both languages to everyone and even switch back and forth over the course of a sentence.

Walcott was known as an exceptional presenter of hybridity. This language is one example of that. Hybridity is natural in the Caribbean, rather than terrifying. Take, for comparison, the depiction of hybridity in The Octoroon by Boucicault. The phrase “octoroon” is a desperate attempt to retain the color line. By defining this person in exact proportions (1/8 black, 7/8 white), society attempts to keep that division between black and white. Yet Walcott doesn’t abide by that division; where white, colonial society ends and Black society begins is nearly impossible to tell. Rather than starkly divided, the two sides are fluidly united.

Yet, while Walcott’s work may present a Caribbean that does not stick to the color line, Césaire introduces the reader to a color spectrum. In A Tempest, Prospero treats Ariel, a mulatto slave, and Caliban, an African slave, completely differently. When he first speaks to Ariel in the play, Prospero calls him an “intellectual (16).” In his first interactions with Caliban, he calls the slave “an ugly ape” and “a savage” (17). While these conversations are not the first time Prospero has interacted with the slaves, and thus their previous interactions could have contributed to widening the discrepancy between these two depictions, it is impossible to view Prospero’s words without looking at the race of the two slaves. If anything, these scenes show that whiteness still has some value in the Caribbean even if the color line is not as prominently defined as in the United States. As Ryan helpfully pointed out, Ariel has access to Prospero’s magic and Caliban does not. Additionally, Ariel ends the play deserving of freedom while Caliban does not. Whiteness carries privilege even if it is not full whiteness. Looking at Walcott and Césaire together, we see that hybridity is celebrated as an integral part of the Caribbean experience yet a color spectrum still remains in which one’s closeness to whiteness provides certain privileges and advantages.

Discussion Questions (4/8)

How should we view Ariel’s freedom in A Tempest? He uses the approach of non-violent submission and Prospero frees him at the end. Is the Césaire’s model of countering oppression? How does colorism play into this situation?

Why does Césaire add Eshu to the play? What purpose does he serve?

Heaney writes that “For those awakening to the nightmare of history, revenge… can be a kind of vision (6).”  In The Schooner Flight, Shabine encounters History but, as Heaney asserts with Walcott’s writing, there is no seeking for revenge. What is history and why should it be approached in such a passive way?

Discussion Questions (4/6)

What is the significance of Creole language in our discussions of the transatlantic?

Over the course of this semester, the sea has continuously taken lives. Why is the sea so important to the two cultures we are examining and, in The Sea at Dauphin, why does Jules still want to go to the sea? What is the allure?

In section 9 of The Schooner Flight, Shabine says, “Progress is history’s dirty joke.” What is the relationship between history and progress?

What is happening with Maria Concepcion? I have some thoughts about her name but I’m not entirely sure of the situation with her.

“Sufficient Ground for Understanding and Absolution:” Thinking about Violence in Light of Our Reading This Week

This week, we’ve talked about a lot of violence. We read Heaney’s poetic descriptions of the bog bodies and witnessed death at the hands of the state and at the hands of the revolutionaries in The Informer and Uptight. We’ve also learned about The Troubles and three Bloody Sundays, two in Ireland and one in America. For anyone interested, Wikipedia acknowledges twenty “Bloody Sundays” around the world in the last century and a half.

This week, we also encountered Ciaran Carson’s reading of Heaney’s bog body poems, where he says, “It is as if he is saying suffering like this is natural; these things have always happened; they happened then, they happen now, and that is sufficient ground for understanding and absolution. It is as if there never were and never will be any political consequences of such acts.” At the very least, the assertion that “these things have always happened” seems to make sense in light of what we’ve seen.

Additionally, in her post on Uptight this week, Professor Kinyon highlighted two cases in 1963 where African-Americans were murdered and justice was not handed out until decades later. The INCORE article similarly noted that, in an attempt to heal the wounds still open from the Troubles, the police force in Ulster created a team in 2005 to investigate many unsolved murders from the time period. While justice was eventually served out in both the African-American and Irish contexts, the tremendous delay justifies Heaney’s perspective that there never would be any political consequences of violence and suffering.

Thus, the only question remaining to determine whether Heaney’s perspective, specifically in Punishment, is correct is whether the continuity of suffering and violence and the low consequences for it are sufficient grounds for understanding the side of the perpetrator and absolving them. Is the idea that violence just happens enough for us to understand and then absolve people from it?

I would disagree with this idea: the continuity of violence does not justify it. At some point, Heaney did not agree with this assertion either. In his article in the Listener, he castigates the Black Panthers for their openly violent rhetoric. To Heaney, it is grotesque and uncivil; the Black Panthers’ violence is not understood or absolved. Plainly, he sees it as wrong.

While the difference between his characterization of violence in The Troubles and violence in the later stages of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States could be explained by an outsider’s view of the Black Panthers, I would argue that the difference, instead, shows a lack of understanding of revolution. Revolution is based on the idea that the suffering and violence afflicted on the oppressed are not natural or justifiable. While the IRA and Black Panthers may have believed that the path to ending this suffering was inflicting suffering on the opposition, the core of any civil rights movement is an understanding that violence is not natural and understanding violence is not a reason to absolve the enemy, but rather to seek to end that suffering. While “these things have always happened,” the continuity of violence does not excuse the crime.