Shifting Identities in the Black and Green Atlantic (Course Reflection)

Over the course of the semester, we have studied various works that have helped us investigate the complicated relationship between the Irish and Black Americans. Upon reflection on my blog posts, I tended to focus on the theme of shifting identities within and between each group and what prompted these shifts.

In the Black Atlantic realm, I discussed how Blackness was represented in performance by analyzing the In Dahomey play and the Mardi Gras Krewe parades in Cities of the Dead. Both groups made use of racial stereotypes and caricatures like blackface, one as an act of ridicule to whites and the other to entertain and profit from whites. Both sought to change the narrative of Black people in their own way but I challenged their methods, likening them to a double-edged sword due to the backfiring consequences for the collective Black reputation. Regarding Moon and the Mars, I discussed how the Black people in New York were living in multi-ethnic communities and co-opted traditions from these groups and made them their own, like Pinkster. Regarding Transatlantic, I discussed how Frederick Douglass had to reckon with both Irish and Black struggles during his trip to Ireland and how he had to reckon with his own identity post-servitude. Regarding Characteristics of Negro Expression, I discussed Zora Neale Hurston’s statements about originality and mimicry and the dynamic and fluid nature of culture. Regarding Uptight, I raised several questions about the purpose of the remake, one being if it was it was meant to show intra-racial divisions during a contentious time in Black history.

In the Green Atlantic realm, I discussed how the Irish “became white” when they came to America and shed themselves of their previous identity in order to ascend the socioeconomic ladder, at the expense of Black people in response to the David Lloyd reading. I also discussed how the Irish reckoned with their newfound freedom post-Independence through the experience of Gypo Nolan in Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer. 

All of these works revealed how each community dealt with navigating new spaces and circumstances. They each were faced with various struggles and had to make difficult decisions about how they were going to move forward in society, some that many of us may not agree with today. Despite an overall rocky relationship, each group still managed to see each other as kindred spirits and took influence from each other which manifested itself in various ways. From this course, I have a better understanding of the nuanced relationship between the Black and Irish and look forward to seeing how this relationship will progress in the coming years.

Was Uptight an appropriate remake of the Informer?

After watching Uptight and reading and watching the Informer, I believe the Informer plot was not an appropriate medium to tell the story of the black revolutionaries. Despite some superficial similarities, the Irish and Black causes had different circumstances that were not adequately taken into consideration. One glaring example where this can be found is in each informant’s motive. Gypo informs because he seemingly “needs” the money, whether for basic necessities or for passage to America where there are better opportunities to succeed. Gypo meditates on his decision before pulling the trigger. Tank informs out of spite, in the heat of the moment, not because he needs the money to survive or to help the Black cause in some noble way. Both stories are centered around betrayal, but it is unclear what the greater purpose of Tank’s betrayal was. This difference in motive also highlights the different lenses that the stories are viewed—one national and the other racial. Things that would be considered endearing and humorous or even neutral qualities for the Irish would be considered disdainful for the Black community. For example, association with crime (stealing of guns), Tank’s degeneracy and absent fatherhood, Clarence’s relationship with the police, and Laurie’s association with welfare and prostitution are all rooted in Jim Crow era stereotypes like Sambo, Uncle Tom, and Jezebel. Although the Uptight movie was not meant to be a mockery of Black people, it is still viewed through a racial lens that likens the behavior of an individual to the behavior of the community.

If the purpose of Uptight was to be some sort of social commentary, it seems as if the message got muddled within the plot. Was it meant to give a view into the inner working and conflicts of the Black Power movement? Was it meant to show us the mental toll of the movement on those within the organization, similar to Gypo’s mental devolution in the Informer? Further, did Jules Dassin, of white Ukrainian heritage, being the director largely contribute to why this remake missed the mark due to his lack of understanding of both communities? Despite being a part of the black community, I am left with more question with this film than the Irish film it was adapted from.

Gypo’s mental devolution in The Informer

In The Informer book and movie, Gypo Nolan betrays his friend Frankie McPhillip without much deliberation or consideration. In the book, he decides that his need for temporary shelter is worth more than his friend’s safety despite having an opportunity to secure shelter otherwise. In the movie, he decides the passage to America for him and his “girlfriend” Katie is worth more than his friend’s safety. This thinking was very short-sighted of him as he did not think of all the repercussions that could arise or perhaps he simply did not care. After informing on his friend, he becomes very paranoid, likely from overwhelming guilt, and views everyone as a threat and begins to dig his own grave. However, this paranoia does not last for long as he quickly descends into a drunken stupor where he acts utterly reckless and believes he is untouchable. When at the Court of Inquiry, he attempts to play the victim despite all evidence pointing to him, until he finally confesses and repeatedly claims that he “didn’t know why” he informed. After this, he still tries to escape his fate until he is eventually caught and killed by the Organization. It is only as he is dying that he apologizes to Frankie and his mother, who forgives him also claims that “ye didn’t know what ye were doin”(312).

My question lies in whether Gypo actually did not understand what he was doing and was going through some mental illness or knew exactly what he was doing and was just afraid to face the consequences. How could he so quickly betray a fellow comrade that did nothing to slight him? Gypo does initially state that Frankie was the more clever one who came up with all their plans but later becomes confident in his own plan of evading capture. It seems that he got in his own way because of his drunkenness. Although it is a common Irish stereotype, in this case I suspect it was because of his desire to quiet the lingering guilt about what he had done. There are many scenes of him sorrowfully remembering the bounty poster of Frankie even within his drunkenness which shows that he was conscious of his actions, despite the book stating that “he was not at all conscious of being an informer”(284). There was also no formal or informal medical diagnosis stating that he was mentally incapacitated. Gypo is given a small redemption arc at the end when at the church apologizing, but this is after karma struck. It seems that he is not genuinely sorry for what he did, just sorry that he got caught.

Is any culture original?

In Zora Neale Hurston’s Characteristics of Negro Expression, I found the discussion of originality and imitation to be quite interesting in the context of the larger Transatlantic identity. The semester thus far we have struggled to define what Blackness is. I believe this is because there is not only one way to be Black. Blackness is an amalgamation of different experiences, cultures, circumstances, etc. that cannot be easily captured in a tangible way. In the case of early African-Americans, they were forced to shed practically all remnants of the cultures they came from, which led them to develop a new culture from their surroundings, which is all they had to go off of. They did not copy, but instead drew inspiration from the people and new cultures they were around. Hurston captures this phenomenon eloquently when she states, “While he lives and moves in the midst of a white civilization, everything that he touches is re-interpreted for his own use”(28). When we look at the grand scheme of things, we can see that everything is borrowed in some way from an earlier source, no matter how big or small. In that sense, we can think of everything as being both original and unoriginal at the same time. Culture is fluid, so the best thing we can really do is appreciate everyone’s innovations. To say that the Negro is “lacking in originality”(28) is another ignorant and hypocritical White supremacist tactic used to devalue and dehumanize Black people who managed to not only survive but thrive in the midst of their treacherous circumstances.
In a related fashion, I also really liked how Hurston reclaimed the term mimicry as a positive. It is not something done mindlessly but takes effort and intelligence. It also reminds me of the History, Memory, and Performance reading and the ideas of surrogation, displaced transmission, and the ephemeral nature of performance. Every time something is performed it is new; no two performances are exactly the same. With this in mind, I can ascertain that all mimicry has a form of originality.

Do the ends justify the means In Dahomey?

In Dahomey was certainly a play that pushed the boundaries of Black theatre in America in the early 20th century. It gave Black people the opportunity to change their narrative and tell a story that did not solely conform to the rigid stereotypes of minstrelsy. They gave their characters unique personalities and depth and sent them on a national adventure. Nonetheless, the production team still decided not to stray to far from the status quo. They still wore blackface, still did cakewalks, and still ridiculed their own race. In essence, as Daphne Brooks put it, they “straddle the boundaries between an ‘authentic’ and ‘fanciful’ blackness”(223). However, can they really be authentic while still actively portraying stereotypes put on them by their oppressors? Further, can they truly progress if they are still pandering to their oppressors? It seems that the production team was not willing to fully revolutionize the industry but make enough changes to put them closer to where they wanted to be in due time. This, unsurprisingly, was met with backlash from not only white critics but Black ones as well. In trying to appease both sides, they did just the opposite. White critics complained that it was “insufficiently Negroid” (210) and that it “gives us the negro who has assimilated what is worst in European civilization instead of the negro at best, in close and sympathetic touch with nature” (234). They did not care about the talent of the actors or the plot development, but solely the usual stereotypes that were not present. On the other hand, Black critics complained that it was not pushing the boundaries enough. Both questioned its political and cultural relevance. This begs the question of whether they should have just made the production void of all minstrel stereotypes. I, for one, think they should have produced a play that was as “authentic” and “natural” as possible to them. I understand why they chose to straddle the boundaries as they were in a precarious economic and social situation. It was used as a stepping stone to advance their careers as entertainers, playwrights, composers, etc. However, because they chose to compromise, I don’t think this play made as much of a social impact as they claimed it would’ve.

Douglass as Ireland’s Hero?

In class this past week, we discussed Frederick Douglass’ views on the Irish plight in comparison to that of American slaves. From what I ascertained, the main question was whether Douglass should’ve have sympathized with and aligned more with the Irish struggles. Although some may say he should have, I would say that he has no obligation to Ireland, just as they have no obligation to American slaves. He came to  Ireland for a purpose, which was to escape possible capture and to promote his book and the anti-slavery cause. Further, from the Transatlantic book, it was apparent that he was still processing his own trauma from slavery. For example, when he was getting  measurements done at the tailor, it says that he “flinched a moment when the tape was put around his neck” and he had “never been measured by a white man before” (56). Also when discussing temperance and his reasons for not drinking, he states that he “did not want to lose control” and that there was “too much of the master in it” (58). It is clear from these examples that he is going through enough of his own mental turmoil to adopt more external trauma. Even beyond his internal struggles, it is clear to me and was clear to Douglass and that the struggles between the Black and Irish in America were not equivalent. The Irish were never oppressed for characteristics they couldn’t change. For the most part, you can not really tell if someone is Irish on just by their physical appearance, which isolates them from a whole realm of discrimination that Black people face. They are able to change their identity when it suits them, which is exactly what happened when they came to America. The widespread  anti-slavery sentiment did not fully carry over when they realized that Black people were their competition, not their brothers and sister in the fight against oppressive forces. Jenkins discusses this phenomenon thoroughly in “Beyond the Pale”, where he stated that the vast majority of Irish Americans were actively pro-slavery or at least firmly tolerant of it. They heavily desired to assimilate into American society and would do whatever it took to not end up destitute like how they were in Ireland. If the Irish emigrants are so willing to hold Black people in disregard then why should Douglass be willing to be a savior to them?

2 responses to “Douglass as Ireland’s Hero?”

  1. cpracht

    I completely agree with your point Lola about how neither the Irish nor the American slaves really had an obligation to help each other because they were both dealing with major social issues at the time. To explain my point in class a little bit more, I was mostly arguing that, because of this lack of obligation to each other, it might have been a little inappropriate for Douglass to seek financial help from the Ireland at the time. We definitely see the sympathy that he has for the poor of Ireland, and I do not think that Douglass was intentionally acting in a way that ignored Ireland’s struggles. He clearly states near the beginning of the text that Dublin was as he expected it to be, and that he did not anticipate the immense poverty. But overall I think that you are right, and that he absolutely would not be expected to try to help the Irish, because like you mention, he is grappling with his own trauma and fighting for Abolition.

  2. motoole

    This is a really great point to make. I agree that Douglass had no obligation to the Irish, considering his own trauma from escaping slavery and the weight of the fight for Abolition that he carried. It is also very true that the Irish in America grabbed on to the opportunity that white skin provided them with, and choose that privilege over standing in solidarity with Black Americans. I also do see Professor Kinyon’s point as well— that Douglass could not fully see the struggle of the Irish because he could not speak out against the people who brought him over from America.

Irish Accepting their Whiteness

The whole process of the Irish becoming white in the United States sheds much light on how race is a fictional and fluid concept that was used to oppress certain groups in the name of advancing capitalism. There are many similarities between the oppression of the Irish and Africans but also many key differences, which allowed them to transform from the persecuted into the privileged. One key difference is the circumstance that brought them to America. The wave of Irish immigration in the 19th century was primarily due to the famine, while African immigration was primarily due to the transatlantic slave trade. Although both were very unfortunate circumstances, one was voluntary while the other was not. This already set the Irish up for greater freedom and potential to progress. In addition, according to the Lloyd reading, the Irish were discriminated against essentially because they refused to subscribe to capitalism and were content with being poor. It also did not help that they were Irish. The Africans on the other hand were not given a choice in the matter and were just assumed to be hopeless and always in “need” of white guidance. It is clear from this that race was never about inherent physical differences, but a tactic for controlling the labor supply and maintaining the current economic order. Once the Irish made themselves useful to this order, they began to move up the totem pole and gain status in society at the expense of their Black counterparts. Ironically, they didn’t have to change who they were fundamentally but just redirect their “mob” mentality elsewhere. The only thing standing in the way of their social mobility was themselves. Because of this, I argue that the Irish did not “become” white, but were always white and finally just chose to accept the space for them that was always there. In contrast, many Black people greatly desired to be a part of this capitalist system but were denied the opportunity to do so to ensure that there would always be a group at the bottom to handle all the menial work. The Irish never had any allegiance or loyalty to Black people because they were not struggling for the same reasons. All the degrading comparisons in the media that likened the Irish to Black people were done to bully them into fully transitioning into White Americanhood. Ultimately, they did what they had to do to thrive and that meant not just distancing themselves from Black people but also taking a lead role in their oppression.

The Displaced Transmission of Pinkster

In Moon and the Mars, I found the discussion of “Pinkster” interesting as it seemed to correlate with Roach’s discussion surrogation and genealogies of performance. Pinkster or Pinksteren in Dutch was originally a religious holiday to celebrate Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles 50 days after Easter. It was then adopted by enslaved Africans who made it a holiday to reunite with their loved ones and celebrate. It was often the only time of year where enslaved people would get a slave-owner sanctioned break from work so it definitely meant much to them. In some ways it still remained similar to the Dutch celebration while in others the African Americans made it their own. For the Dutch, it was a time to take off work, go to church, and visit family and friends. while  African Americans kept those aspects but added more festivities into the mix. In the book, we can see Theo’s black side of the family keeping with the Dutch by inviting family, friends, and neighbors over, not working, and attending their A.M.E. Zion church, while also going to a Carnival and celebrating their ceremonial black king, King Charles, who was crowned amongst the slaves. While looking into the holiday on my own, I also found that it combined elements from both Africans and Europeans like drinking, games, music, and dance. It was also a way for them to retain West-African traditions with their style of dance and the complex rhythms of the drummers and clappers.

This example of surrogation differs from some of Roach’s examples in the sense that there was no overt intent to erase its Dutch origins, and both cultures were able to come together and celebrate. Although the event did become more associated with African-American culture, it was because the Dutch shifted their focus to newer American holidays and had no desire maintain some kind of dominion over Pinkster. They let it evolve and become displaced but conversely, the African Americans respected the original tradition and maintained some of its cultural integrity.