I’m so glad I rescued my notebook from sitting in my dorm room for months! As I flip through the pages, I can see how this course worked up to painting a fuller picture of the Black & Green Atlantic. We began on the very first day with the hybridity of the Atlantic and moved throughout the semester to texts that dealt with memory, origin, race, movement, identity, perception, belonging, conflict, trauma, language, and representation. Each week added new layers to the parallel between the Irish and African American experiences, including both shortfalls and aha moments.
I struggled (and still continue to struggle) with the topic of my final paper. I wanted to create an argument for a succinct definition of what the Black & Green Atlantic is and means, and what the gestures drawn between the two conclude. I got really hung up on formulating this definition for our second to last day of class because I didn’t have an answer, and all of the thoughts that were flashing through my mind couldn’t find their way into a sentence or two. I think my shortfall is in the word definition, because to me there isn’t one when it comes to the Atlantic world we are looking at. This calls me back to Gilroy and our first day – I have written in the first few lines of my notes: ‘once we get to modernity languages and cultures are constantly changing/everything is hybrid/ nationality, ethnicity, and race are not stable concepts.’ The Black and Green Atlantic – the parallels drawn between Irish and African Americans – is not stable. A full conclusion cannot be formed because the identities continue to transform and the journeys across the Atlantic continue. For example, the piece we read for this week was written within the last few years. Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ An Octoroon turned a melodrama about slavery into a melodrama about race in America, and added new dimensions to what we learned about The Octoroon along with minstrelsy, drama, and the meaning of art. If we had looked at the Black & Green Atlantic before 2014, Jacob-Jenkins voice would not have been included. The conversation is still continuing as the gestures ebb and flow between fitting together and falling apart.
I saw the ebb and flow between the transatlantic gestures working as we progressed through the course. Some weeks, the parallel between the two seemed to really fit – specifically Gulliver and belonging, Synge and Hurston in the telling of stories, and Walcott and the hybrid identity. Other weeks, the parallel seemed to ebb and really didn’t work for me – Heaney and the Black Panthers, The Informer and Uptight!. In other words looking at some texts gestures made me really see the transatlantic world come together, while others made me skeptical of the parallel that was being drawn between the two.
When I look at the Black and Green Atlantic as a whole, I see how connected the world is. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in light of the pandemic because I have never felt more connected to the rest of the world than I do right now. Traversing the Atlantic comes with cultural exchange. It comes with building bridges and connections. It comes with drawing parallels and gesturing to the experiences of others because you feel connected – modernity allows us to feel connected to the broader world – even if the comparisons drawn aren’t the same at all.
In Doyle’s novel The Commitments it is hard to understand the economic state of Ireland and how this impacts the characters in the novel without seeing it. This caused an initial disconnect in my reading, until the history of Ireland and its influence on Doyle’s writing was further explained in class. It is important for readers to understand the constant inflation, high unemployment, and lack of economic growth the Irish were experiencing, which would lead to Jimmy calling the Irish the blacks of Europe.
Contextualizing The Commitments brought entirely new meaning to the connection Jimmy brings to soul music and black identity. Still problematic and lopsided, I can see that it is more about the connection of poverty rather than race. I think this novel is a more extreme example of something written for the people of its time. While the novel is engaging, its full intention cannot be properly understood without the context of time and place. Does Roddy Doyle assume knowledge so that the novel means something different to Irish audiences than other audiences? Can it be a lasting novel, when its context doesn’t make sense within a decade or two later?
In Walcott’s interview with Bill Moyers he mentions Caliban from The Tempest. Walcott explains that Caliban is not talked about like Tarzan. He says the best poetry – besides Prospero’s speech – is spoken by Caliban in the end. For Walcott, this is where the greatness of Shakespeare is because he gives Caliban a musical language. Caliban learns from Prospero. Walcott provides Caliban from The Tempest as an example of his ideal of sharing rather than dependence between colonizer and colonized.
Césaire’s A Tempest offers a very different view on Caliban’s language. Caliban does not speak in beautiful poetic forms like in The Tempest. He tells Prospero “You didn’t teach me a thing! Except to jabber in your own language so that I could understand your orders” (17). Caliban uses his language to curse and spurn Prospero, while Prospero responds, “Beating is the only language you really understand” (19). In Césaire’s adaptation, there is no beautiful, shared language – there are only ugly words spoken between Prospero and Caliban. Prospero does nothing to teach Caliban, hiding his knowledge of science and magic from him and only sharing this with Ariel. Prospero’s language is the instrument which takes away Caliban’s freedom and it is forced upon Caliban to make him understand orders. The language Prospero and Caliban speak is not a true sharing because it is unwillingly done so.
Walcott said in the interview that he likes to focus on the present rather than his past. He was brought up in what he describes as a benign colonial situation, but the history of his family would not have looked like his present. It is a present and positive view which he brings to his writing, but it is also confined and tested by works like A Tempest, as Césaire challenges Walcott’s interpretation of the beauty of Caliban and his learned language.
How do Afa and Shabine compare? Do both reflect Walcott’s identity and story in a similar way? What are their motivations to go to Sea? How does the play versus poetry/epic form reflect their main characters?
What do you make of the circularity of Sea at Dauphin? The play begins and ends with Afa preparing to go to sea. What does this suggest about the nature of the sea and Afa’s relationship to it?
How does Shabine represent torn identity? Do some parts of his identity come through more than others?
We are currently reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved in one of my classes and an image we discussed relates to this class so well. Super general plot – The story follows Sethe who escapes with her children from a plantation in Kentucky. In our class discussion we talked about how Sethe’s womb can be compared to the Atlantic Ocean. When Sethe’s water breaks in the story, the pool of water is compared directly to the ocean. We discussed how like the Atlantic, the womb delivers babies to a life in slavery. The novel likens the ocean – the womb – to a grave. I thought this was really interesting to think about in our discussions about the Atlantic world. Beloved considers that the Atlantic Ocean and its history is so deeply rooted in Sethe that she carries it when she is carrying her baby.
Seamus Heaney’s Punishment was a difficult read for me this week for multiple reasons. One is the question also addressed by Julian in his blog post about whether Heaney’s perspective about the continuity of suffering gives reason for the one inflicting suffering. Another reason was Heaney’s description of the female bog bodies – this was really difficult to read. He sexualized these tortured bodies, describing their nipples and naked front. He calls the bodies “My poor scapegoat” and say that he “almost love[d]” the woman. Heaney also shows understanding with the exact revenge wanted by the perpetrator of the act, showing his want for power and ownership over the bog body.
Heaney wrote poetry at a critical time in Ireland’s history. It is important to study and remember The Troubles and specifically the bog bodies. But in my opinion, Heaney’s narration and the way he wrote history in this poem is disgusting. Writing about the women who were tarred in feathered in a sexualizing way is problematic and abhorrent. What are other’s thoughts? Do you see value to Heaney’s poems in remembering and capturing the history of The Troubles and the bog bodies taking into account the way they are described? Did you find a similar difficulty in reading?
How does the line from Punishment “My poor scapegoat, I almost love you” shift the tone of the poem? What is the significance the possessive pronoun here? Does it convey understanding or power?
In Stephen O’Neill’s presentation he talks about the influence The Troubles had on works of literature and art at that time, stating, “Even where writer would’ve maybe not wanted to represent anything about The Troubles at all, the conflict deeply impacts them and is generally always present”. How does this statement draw comparisons between Irish and African American writers and works we have read so far?