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.

The Religion of Soul

Joey “The Lips” Fagan, an older musician who claims to have played with everyone from James Brown to the Beatles, claims “no influences but God My Lord” (25). But Joey’s religion is not regimented—Joey’s God “doesn’t kick up at the odd drink or a swear word now and again. Even a Sister, if you treat her with proper respect” (25). The line between Joey’s God and soul, the genre he loyally professes, is blurry throughout The Commitments. It seems that Joey preaches about soul as much as, or more, than he preaches about God. Indeed, the narrator notes his attachment to God as secondary to his possession of soul: “They had Joey The Lips Fagan. And that man had enough soul for all of them. He had God too” (26). Soul is the driving force behind Joey’s magnetism, even when Jimmy defines it contrary to traditional religiosity.

For Jimmy (and for the rest of The Commitments who take his word as given), soul is “the workin’ man’s rhythm. Sex an’ factory” (39). Despite this crudeness, Joey The Lips agrees. However, Joey is shut down by his band members when he attempts to draw a connection between soul and the Reverend Ed (40). The Commitments are not interested in religious figures like Reverend Ed; instead, they want to hear about his pilgrimages to James Brown, Sam Cooke, and Otis Redding. Joey does not shy away from sharing his experiences with the band, and he makes attempts at defining soul as frequently as Jimmy: “Soul is dignity—Dignity, soul” (41). Soul, like one might define their experience of religion, transcends the purely physical. Soul becomes a vessel for countless greater human emotions, and one’s collaborators in soul are “brothers and sisters,” even more than your religious brothers and sisters. Soul is the driving spiritual force behind The Commitments—that is, until they discover the “deadly” Byrds (165).

Informers across the Atlantic: a NYT review of “The Informer”

As I was thinking about what to write for this weekend’s blog post, I stumbled across a review from the New York Times of John Ford’s adaptation of “The Informer.” Clearly, this story has transatlantic power—adapted by one of the most prominent American directors and glowingly praised by arguably the most prominent American newspaper. The review recommends the movie as “a striking psychological study of a gutter Judas and a rawly impressive picture of the Dublin underworld during the Black and Tan terror” and “one of the finest dramas of the year.” Victor McLagen, who plays Gypo, is described as “just a bit sinister” and “a character worthy the pen of a Dostoevsky.”

Despite the notable positivity of the review, though, one line specifically stuck out to me: “Although the photoplay makes you understand why informer is the ugliest word in an Irishman’s vocabulary, there is a tragic quality in this man’s bewildered terror.” I certainly agree with the identification of a tragic quality in Gypo’s terror, but the easy assertion that “informer” is the gravest insult known to an Irishman poses some questions about the Black and Green Atlantic. Most obviously, I wonder about the historical origins of this stereotype—what Atlantic exchanges made this impression on the reviewer? Clearly, Americans are aware of some degree of colonial oppression against Ireland such that betraying one’s country is understood as the greatest sin.

The phrase also implies a contrast with American culture. An American audience understands why informer is “the ugliest word in an Irishman’s vocabulary” only after watching the movie, because it is not the ugliest word in an American’s vocabulary. For me, this brings the Fugitive Slave Act and the slave posters strewn across the pages of Moon and the Mars to mind. The Fugitive Slave Act, much like the 20 pounds from the police in “The Informer,” rewarded informing. Though the historical context is wildly different, it strikes me as another node of comparison across the Black and Green Atlantic. Informing leads to dire consequences for both the Irish and Black Americans, but this (presumably white) reviewer only recognizes that reality for the Irish.

Whiteness in Claude McKay’s Banjo

The project of defining whiteness has proved difficult over the course of our class. Similarly, defining what it means to be black is elusive—mostly because race is a fiction. Zora Neale Hurston and Claude McKay poke fun at the idea of essentializing a group of people based on their race. In Banjo, McKay highlights the diversity of the Black population of Marseilles. In a room full of dancers, he identifies the Senegalese in blue overalls, the Madagascan soldiers, a Congo boxer, a Martiniquan, and Banjo, our protagonist (49). The inhabitants of Marseilles come from all over the globe—their common race does not diminish that fact.

However, while the diversity of blackness is foregrounded, McKay’s characters offer different opinions on white people. One barkeeper, who is described as a “fervid apostle of Americanism” defines whiteness for his audience: “They are all the same white and prejudiced against black skin” (73). The Senegalese at the bar disagree with him, but the barkeeper insists that “white people, no matter of what nation, did not want to see colored people prosper” (74). This barkeeper defines whiteness, essentially, as being prejudiced.

Despite this clear definition, McKay provides several competing perceptions of whiteness. Banjo, for one, seems to disagree with this barkeep on all fronts—his ideal life is one of music and pleasure, rather than one that seeks to “lift the race higher” (77). It follows that his definition of whiteness is not so essentializing, though McKay doesn’t offer Banjo’s direct perspective. Ray, on the other hand, “always prefer[s] to listen” (77). He chastises Banjo for his rudeness toward the barkeeper, but insists that “there’s nothing in the world so interesting to me as Banjo and his orchestra” (92). Ray, for all his tranquility, seems to align himself with Banjo and Banjo’s worldview. This begs the question if McKay also aligns himself with Banjo’s worldview and Banjo’s repudiation of the barkeeper’s narrow definition of whiteness. Race is not easily definable in Marseilles, and through Banjo’s interactions with the barkeeper and his descriptions of the diversity of blackness, McKay makes that clear.

Sense of place in “Playboy of the Western World” and “Riders to the Sea”

When I was watching “Playboy of the Western World” and “Riders to the Sea,” one particular phrase that appeared in both works stood out to me—the “big world.” Characters in both plays refer to the “big world” as a place separate from their own. Michael, in “Playboy of the Western World” tells his family that “in the big world, it’s knives they use.” Maurya, in “Riders to the Sea,” notes another difference between this big world and Ireland: “In the big world the old people do be leaving things after them for their sons and children, but in this place it is the young men do be leaving things behind for them that do be old” (13). It is unclear whether the big world is the same as the western world that the title of “Playboy of the Western World” refers to, but Ireland is clearly not a part of this big world.

The distinction between the big world and Ireland, or the western world and Ireland, raises some questions about how the characters in these plays conceptualize their sense of place in the world. What, exactly, is the big world? What are the boundaries of the western world, of which Christy is the only playboy? Paradoxically, it seems like Ireland is at once a leader of the Western World and separate from it. Widow Quin laments Christy’s sailing from “Mayo to the western World,” implying a separation between the two, even as she claims Christy is the playboy of the western world. And though the big world is separate from Ireland, Sara calls for a toast to the wonders of the western world, which include “the pirates, preachers, poteen-makers, with the jobbing jockies; parching peelers, and the juries fill their stomachs selling judgments of the English law”—most of which are particular to Ireland. These characters share a lack of clarity about Ireland’s place within the world. Is their country, with its “stony scattered fields and scribes of bog,” part of the western world or isolated from it? (“Playboy of the Western World”).

The only clear boundary between Ireland and the western or big world is the sea which surrounds them. Indeed, the sea is a force to be reckoned with in “Riders to the Sea”—it kills Maurya’s husband and all five sons until “there isn’t anything more the sea can do to [her]” (23). Multiple characters in “Playboy of the Western World” refer to the sea that must be crossed to leave Ireland. Evidently, although the sense of place in these plays is contradictory, the sea/the Atlantic is a defining feature. The movement of the ocean, which we discussed when reading Gilroy’s work on the Atlantic, is an organizing feature for their conception of Ireland.

Public vs. Private Life in McCann’s Transatlantic

Our conversation in class on Wednesday about Douglass and the existence of a “hierarchy of struggle” in his work made me think about a theme we often discuss in another English class of mine—public vs. private life. In that class, we often think of public life as how one presents themselves in a political setting, and private life as how they present themselves internally or in a domestic setting. I think this framework really applies for understanding McCann’s portrayal of Douglass. He feels the weight of that contrast between public and private, especially as it relates to his support of the Irish people.

Three passages stood out to me with regard to Douglass’s conception of his public and private life. The first, which we discussed in class, depicts Douglass’s thought process as he is asked about “wage slavery” and Irish oppression after a lecture. He hesitates for a “long silence,” fully considering the weight of his words before he speaks. “He had to be judicious, he knew. There were newspaper reporters scribbling down every word. It would lead back to Britain and America” (65). Even early in his trip to Ireland, he feels the weight of American and English eyes on him. His words are not entirely his own—they belong, at least in part, to the abolitionist cause. By the end of the excerpt we read, Douglass makes up his mind about how to address Irish oppression in his public speaking: “There was only so much he could take upon himself. He had to look to what mattered. … The Irish were poor, but not enslaved” (85). Though this is literally true, ignoring the Irish cause seems insensitive after all he witnessed in his trip to Ireland. We are witnessing Douglass’ attempt to align his public speaking, which focused almost exclusively on slavery, with his private thoughts on the matter. Though he seems genuinely troubled by what he saw in Ireland, he has to “look to what mattered” to make sense of the great suffering in front of him. In this passage, Douglass’ public caution becomes private.

Finally, McCann’s narrative touches on the public vs. private life by highlighting Douglass’s private writing routine, which he imagined to involve using barbells made of the chains of slavery to exercise before he writes. On pg. 81-82, Douglass uses the barbells, then writes a letter to his wife Anna. But, even before he writes, he thinks of the letter’s disposal. “Anna might cherish hearing the letters read to her for an evening or two, but soon enough they would be burned. It gladdened him, really, that the letters would become smoke: it was so much of what happened to one’s own history” (82). Even locked alone in his room, Douglass is thankful for the public vs. private distinction. His letters to his wife would be burned and thus eternally relegated to the private sphere. The public—which includes everyone from his abolitionist colleagues to his previous masters—cannot see everything.

The Tyranny of Monarchy in “A Voyage to Lilliput”

As I was reading “A Voyage to Lilliput,” I was struck by Gulliver’s easy acceptance of the world around him. The fact that he was surrounded by thousands of six-inch tall people did not seem to surprise him; he was merely curious about their way of life. However, this “go with the flow” attitude made more sense when I considered the story as an allegory for Jonathan Swift’s political feelings. The notes describing who each character was theorized to represent oriented me toward that interpretation. And in considering Gulliver’s travels as an indicator of Swift’s political feelings, I was struck by his initial approval turned uneasiness toward the monarch of Lilliput. At the beginning of the voyage (in chapter II), Gulliver takes great pains to describe the emperor of Lilliput, with a tone of admiration. Gulliver notes his fashionable helmet and his fair way of financing his empire (25-27). He seems impressed by the lengths they go to make Gulliver comfortable, feeding him six oxen, forty sheep, and more every morning. However, as he begins to understand the inner workings of the Lilliputian court, his perspective changes.

The first doubt we see in Gulliver’s mind appears when describing the rope-dancing. Gulliver writes: “ … for by contending to excel themselves and their Fellows, they strain so far, that there is hardly one of them who hath not received a Fall, and some of them two or three” (32). Evidently, the lengths one goes to prove himself to the emperor are extreme, and Gulliver begins to wonder if they are too extreme. But Gulliver does not seriously doubt the monarch’s power until his own loyalty is questioned. He believes that he has acted entirely justly—even when he is forced to pee on the royal estate to put out a fire—so the emperor’s distrust turns him away. However, Swift makes it plain that this is not a personal distaste for this particular emperor of Lilliput. Rather, it is an inevitable outcome of a too-powerful monarch. When Gulliver first disobeys the emperor, he notes that “Of so little weight are the greatest Services to Princes, when put into the Ballance with a Refusal to gratify their passions” (44). By the end of his voyage to Lilliput, it is clear that Gulliver finds fault in princes, i.e. those with royal authority, as a whole. This implies that Jonathan Swift is dubious of complete royal power; even the best royals, even the clever emperor of Lilliput, can be easily swayed by dubious ministers or their own self-indulgence.

Mixtures and Blends in Moon and the Mars

While reading both the criticism and Moon and the Mars this week, I kept thinking about what Joseph Roach calls the “project of whiteness.” His idea is that inventing whiteness was an act of surrogacy, and the completion of that project required forgetting the “mixtures, blends, and provisional antitypes necessary to its production” (6). This is certainly reflected by the scant version of history taught in schools—the public education system continues to invent whiteness (and America) by forgetting the mixtures and blends necessary to its production. Roach goes on to adopt performance as a way to glimpse through this forgetting; he believes we can remember history by looking at orature. However, I think that Moon and the Mars is partially an attempt to remember the “mixtures, blends, and provisional antitypes” necessary to the production of whiteness. Though Moon and the Mars cannot entirely be categorized as orature because it is a text, the highly vernacular nature of the narration is an element of orature. Moreover, the emphasis on learning as a key element of the text, which we discussed in class, suggests that Moon and the Mars is trying to re-remember history.

Theo herself is one of the mixtures/blends that the project of whiteness often forgets. She is half-Black and half-Irish, which is a demographic entirely ignored in the American history that I was taught in school. By reframing history through Theo’s perspective—which Corthron does through the integration of the news into Theo’s everyday life—Corthron is remembering how a specific mixture/blend existed in the production of whiteness. 

Theo hears both her Irish family and her Black family’s opinions on current events, and she finds an interpretation of her own through mixing those opinions. Sometimes, her families offer contradictory opinions—Grammy Cahill condemns the House of Industry and supports Tammany Hall while Mr. Samuel and Grammy Brooks condemn and support the opposite. Her Irish family warns her of the House of Industry’s subjugation of Irish children, while her Black family cautions against the Democratic Tammany Hall (125-129). Theo, in attempting to reconcile these perspectives, is wary of both organizations. She leaves the House of Industry quickly: “I run out before she can adopt me into Irish slavery! Or colored slavery! Either way, I’m on the market!” (131). Theo recognizes the blended nature of her identity, and her interpretation of history is informed by it. As the audience learns alongside Theo, we get a new framing of history that emphasizes the previously forgotten mixtures and blends.