Rooted – Connections in the Atlantic

As I finish the semester, I cannot help but think that I wasn’t all that far off from my original thoughts at the beginning of the semester. The Black experience continues to be unique in a way that cannot be replicated. However, after encountering Irish literature for the first time, I have realized the disparities and distress of colonization on this group of people. People across time have learned to see and respect each other long before academics could pin these pieces together. Our ancestors have looked across the Atlantic, hoping they would find understanding and connection. Artists and creators are usually the first to find each other. In this Black and Green Atlantic, struggle, music, and bodies have merged together to create cultures in a post-Middle Passage world. 

“Down with the system that makes one man a serf and the other a slave, then sets them at each other’s throat” (Eagan 39). Tension exists between these two Atlantic peoples and it starts with the system. It is uncomfortable to analyze these two oppressed groups, seemingly pitted against each other. It makes me question how much these sorts of analyses contributed to it. Regardless, there are objective differences between the two groups, and Eagan encapsulates that here. The Irish were placed into servitude while Black people were forced into slavery. The suffering of either side should not be diminished, but their circumstances are wildly different. Irish people chose to migrate under arduous conditions – flee or die. Africans were caught in nets and chained in their forced migration. One was based in self-preservation, and the other was denied choice. Douglass struggled with this knowledge as he moved across Ireland with his slave shackles. The pieces of this movement do not fit together neatly. I once thought that a new blend of cultures would come out of this, like the perfect Venn diagram. That was a big misconception. Different bodies of people were the result, but there exists a unique boundary between the two marking their distinction. This is the boundary of race. The Irish chose to assimilate into ‘whiteness’, gaining privileges they were blocked off from before. They “were not trying to become white – they were fighting to prevent the elevation of non whites” (Meagher 223). This type of backwards hatred can only come from those who were not originally in a position of power. 

I still am not sure what to make of my stance on this, especially when I consider the modern context of Black people and people of color. The entire context of this course has been a personal reflection of where I stand with all my identities in relation to others.

Black = Irish (not really)

The Commitments focuses on tying the Black American culture with the Irish. One of the main ways this happens is through the formation of a band to play soul music in Dublin. Jimmy creates a connection between African Americans and the Irish position by declaring that he’s black and proud (Doyle 10) and that the “Irish are the niggers of Europe” (11). Before any real explanation of this connection by performance is made, he defines the linkage. The first effect of this is to indicate that the Irish-Black condition extends beyond the scope of musical performance. This is an affirmation of the links Irish creators found with their counterparts across the Atlantic. The second effect is the reaction his band members have to this statement. In the movie, they all stare at him, shocked that the statement was even made. In the book, they were shocked as well, but they agreed (11). The difference in reception indicates a difference in the issues each work seeks to address. The movie makes it clear that aligning with the soul genre and Jimmy’s take on it was destined to fail. In contrast, the book demands that a comparison be made, but the Irish must take what they have received in this transaction and create their own. The transatlantic demands that newness is created from the past. 

The difference in the endings creates a large gap in the treatment of the Atlantic in this context. The movie leaves off on a rather negative note. Each person breaks out on their own journey using music to whatever extent they need. They define their own genres and shape it into their identities. Deco got to record songs, Nathalie was successful, and The Brassers became an all-female band. The novel denied that and instead took those musicians and pulled them together to make The Brassers sing country-punk (129). They did not need to copy and define themselves according to Black standards. They could create their own niche in the Dublin vortex.


“The Informer” portrays Dublin as a place of poverty and betrayal. The opening scene shows a dusty city with women haggard and covered scurrying about. It is a desolate and saddening picture, but it sets the scene for motives. When people are poor, they will do what they must in order to survive. The wanted poster of a man floats around the city, offering 20 pounds for him. It sticks to the feet of various people and eventually to the man who turns him over to the police. News and deeds of the citizens of Dublin follow them wherever they go. They can choose to act on it for their own benefit or not. In this case, the Informer did. He betrayed his friend by releasing the information about the wanted man to the police. This then leads to a gruesome murder by the police in front of that man’s family. For a body, he receives 20 pounds. In comparison, it only costs 10 pounds to get to America. Life is worth double the American Dream, yet the Informer squanders it by getting drunk off his guilt. 

The violent reaction of the community shows how deplorable it is to betray even criminals to the police. The Irish have positioned themselves against the police. They are suspicious of those watching them and edgy against the military. Each person hates the Informer, yet none of them are aware it is the same person they are benefiting from. Gippo gives the rest of the money to Katie in front of the investigators, thereby exposing himself. In exchange, they are ready to kill Gippo but even Frankie’s sister does not want that to happen. It is before the mother, “Mary”, that this Judas repents and then dies. At the very least, he is saved, not from the community, but by the Lord. 

Definition of a Culture

Claude McKay and Zora Neale Hurston both seek to redefine the narrative of the African American identity. Several generations of slavery had passed, and now slaves were no longer African but African-American. This identity was utterly distinct from West Africa. These people had generations in America and were tied to the imperialist land, separated from their culture. In an attempt to demean them, white people created stereotypes to define the African American identity. They called them lazy, stupid, slow, violent, and physically superior. A monolith was made of Black Americans. In an effort to reshape this narrative, these authors explore their perspectives and histories to reveal the vastly different lives African-Americans had. 

In “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” Hurston pokes fun at the assumptions white people make about Black behaviors and their explanation. In one section, she speaks about the absence of privacy in the community. In a sarcastic tone, she states that “discord is more natural than accord” (28). The belief that chaos came naturally to Black people was nonsensical. If such were the case, elaborate systems and kingdoms could not be spearheaded by them. It perpetuates this idea that we would be unable to lead successful societies. She furthers this connection by drawing it back to Africa and aligning it with some innate animal aspect. Either way, it could be perceived as a performance by the people and their audience. McKay takes this same goal and applies it to Banjo, who is always seeking something outward. Despite his status, people in more significant positions of power cannot help but pay attention to him. This is the revelation of the position of Black Americans. Each thing is perceived as a performance waiting to be understood and analyzed by some audience, even when there is no goal to the actions. Their way of must be categorized and labeled by the dominant culture.

The Weight of the Struggle

Learning to comprehend the transatlantic struggle requires tugging on a variety of perspectives. The impact of slavery, famine, and trade showed up differently for each group of people. Who and how to help became prominent questions as cultures crossed to create new experiences. When Douglass escaped and fled to Ireland with the support of abolitionists, tension sparked between his struggle to speak out against slavery and the beginning of the Irish famine. 

In class, disputes arose over sympathy or lack thereof Douglass had toward the suffering of the Irish. People found him to be disconnected and distant even though he was going through issues as well. However, I disagree. Douglass was vaguely aware of the Irish suffering, even encountering it firsthand. Despite that, his position in society prevented him from being able to show up as a dazzling figure of transformation. When Douglass began to intermingle with the Irish and speak out against their pain, Webb made sure to remind him that he can’t bite the hand that feeds him. It’s a quiet display of power that reminds him that the power dynamic in the relationship. Douglass is still a slave and his tour in Europe is to raise money to buy his freedom. He cannot step on others toes in the process of trying to free himself. That interaction gave him an additional mental strain. He was not blind to the suffering. He saw the welts around a child’s neck, indicative of abuse. However, he himself was draggign around his own chains in the shape of barbells, lifting them, exhausting himself to remind him of the work he had to do before he became this self. 

While we cannot expect leaders of various social movements to support every cause actively, they are still able to interact with the concepts and ideologies of the various freedom movements. McDowell and Douglass interacted closely here, but many movements have been tied together – Black and Yellow Power, for instance, are very closely linked. When one group protested, they were joined by the other. Minorities needed to stick together in front of a divisive majority. It was intentional that news sources made a point to set the Irish and Black populations against each other as tensions rose in the States. It is hard to dismantle systems of activism when they understand why each is fighting for the other. This was apparent as Black activists stood up to support people against the Vietnam War and Asian discrimination.

Narratives and the Irish Threat

As we explored how the Irish became white, I found it rather difficult to truly understand their struggle. The plight of Irish immigrants has never fully been discussed in my classrooms. Like many others, I paired them with other white people and saw them no different. Their only exception was that they had a famine, but so what? Everyone suffered. 

What I failed to understand was the construction of race at the time. Whiteness was not accessible to everyone, regardless of skin color. It was deeply interwoven with status in class, religion, and features. As Britain foraged ahead as a colonial power, their symbols of beauty and intelligence colonized the world. In their view, the Irish, poor and Catholic, yet happy, posed a threat to the very foundations of society this colonial power defined (Llyod 5). They were like a contagious infestation, a rather hateful perspective. This fear was rooted in possible political instability. In my Creating Citizens class, we discussed the role narratives have in defining national identities and shaping the perfect citizen. If the working class, who suffered so greatly under British imperialism, realized that the public land they had could not be industrialized, but rather be used for their own purposes, it would challenge all the authority of the crown. The working class could not be activated. In Irish society, the land and government were at the service of the people; resources included (6). Fear-mongering continued, manifesting in the paranoia that Irish people were savages with infectious diseases (7-8). This is not unlike the handling of the AIDS epidemic. The population was excluded allowing an issue to fester because solutions were not provided, especially since they were integrating into society. The story of the Irish may be one of transformation and removal, but it was begotten in exclusion. 

The Narrative

My first thought when defining the Atlantic was the struggle of the Middle Passage. I could not think past the slave narratives and the history lessons of the cane and tobacco traded for people. The standard history is rooted in pain and robbery. There were moments of creativity, however, they were dulled by the dehumanization of people forced into chattel slavery. The Black and Green Atlantic serves to take a closer look at that narrative; to remove the deficit-based thinking and uncover the ways in which struggles and pain have brought flourishing. In separation comes combination, and new pockets of existence come to be. The Irish, deprived of food, and caught in political turmoil needed to find sanctuary and a future. Black people on the other hand were deprived of citizenship, culture, family, and identity. Their ostracization in society placed them in some proximity to each other. 

I have lived in New York my whole life, yet I did not know the history of Seneca Village or Five Points. Both no longer exist in the city. My New York is an immigrant city full of culture, compacted by songs, and moved by dance. Theo would agree as she walks the streets, independent at her young age, that everything and nothing shows. Theo is outfitted with both her Irish and Black heritage. She is able to identify the different aspects between her Irish family and her Black family. The cultures also intermingle in the streets. Queens is now a center for immigrants as well with many first-generation Americans who come from multi-ethnic backgrounds. These neighborhoods are underdeveloped compared to the gentrified parts of the city yet they are representative of the snapshots of various home countries. The neighborhoods are the final memories of a time that no longer exists in a country mostly forgotten. Soon, those pieces will merge and become distinctive parts of American culture, hailing immigrant backgrounds.