When writing out my final thoughts on our class, I cannot stop thinking about the scene between Jacobs-Jenkins and Boucicault in “An Octoroon” where the two playwrights engage in a back and forth game of telling the other, “fuck you.” At first glance, this argument seems to be a simple attempt at humor, depicting two playwrights arguing against each other for little reason other than the fact that they’re both drinking. But I believe that this half-page of expletives is a perfect way to describe the engagement between the blacks and Irish of the Atlantic throughout the course of history.
Throughout the course of this semester we have seen African Americans and the Irish attempt to describe their systems of oppression through analogies toward the other group. I am arguing in my final paper that these analogies are mainly one-sided on the part of the Irish and that African Americans typically reject the comparison. The black vocalization of “fuck me? fuck you!” can be interpreted as “fuck me for not understanding your struggle? fuck you for making the comparison!” whereas the Irish vocalization of this phrase can be interpreted as “fuck me for making the comparison? fuck you for not understanding our struggle!” This ends up being a constant loop, just as we see in “An Octoroon,” a back and forth game of trying to figure out whether the two groups’ struggles are equivalent to one another. But I don’t believe that equivalence decides whether the Black and Green comparison is valid.
There are similarities between the two struggles, albeit I believe African Americans had it much harder than the Irish, but arguing against one another over who’s struggle was more severe does not really do much to improve one’s situation. At first I believed Douglass’s claim that “there is no comparison” between the two struggles, but now I am starting to doubt my initial thought. Human suffering should be something anyone can empathize with, yet we divide our sufferings based on race. If we believe Gilroy that race is nothing but a social construct, then why do we restrict our empathy based on differences in race? The “fuck me? fuck you!” mentality is predicated upon differences in race; Jacob-Jenkins and Boucicault offer two interpretations of the same story and argue with each other over who is a true playwright, the black playwright of the modern era who struggles to produce the play or the Irish playwright who wrote the original story who put on the production with ease. The two men are too focused on their differences to accept that, maybe, both of their interpretations of the same story are valid. There is a struggle between African Americans and the Irish to empathize with each other throughout every work we’ve read due to the differences in their struggles, and the constant focus on which situation was more severe. But if the two groups could hone in on the similarities of the struggles, I believe that we live closer to Gilroy’s image of a world without race than a world where groups constantly question the validity of pleas for empathy.
At first, Joey “The Lips” Fagan seems like the savior of The Commitments. Joey brings a sense of genuine Soul artistry to the group of Irish misfits, being that he claims to have toured in America with professional Soul artists. But when he brings his talent to The Commitments, the reader starts to see that he may not be the genuine Soul artist he claims to be, and rather, is a poser attempting to appropriate black culture. I believe that Doyle intended for the reader to doubt the authenticity of Joey’s character and his music because he does not believe that the Irish and African American experiences are comparable.
Joey acts as a vessel that brings American Soul to Ireland. He is able to transmit the basic tropes of Soul to the band, but does not seem genuine in his performance of the music. He specifically sets boundaries in what the band can perform, describing them as “corners.” He claims these corners are to prevent the band from delving into the realm of Jazz, a music that he believes is too intellectual and against the working man. This is troublesome because Jazz was created by working-class American blacks. He intentionally sets limits on the black music he is able to perform, showing that he worships black music but cannot access it entirely due to his distance from American black culture. Hints that point toward Joey being a wealthy man also lead to this conclusion because they show he is not a member of the working class, and therefore cannot properly connect with the music of the working man. He also seems to believe that he cannot genuinely perform Soul music due to his own lack of blackness.
Joey’s frustration with not being born black penetrates the novel in often uncomfortable ways. He describes some of the greatest Jazz musicians as not genuinely black and even goes as far to say Charlie Parker had “no right to his black skin.” This shows that he believes the ability to genuinely perform black music comes from having black skin, not entirely from musical talent. When the band inevitably breaks up, Joey comes to the conclusion that Soul just wasn’t right for Ireland, revealing that he does not believe non-blacks can have a genuine appreciation of black music. When Joey tells Jimmy that he is going back to America to perform with a dead artist, this implies that he has realized he is nothing more than an appropriator and ultimately cannot live as the great Soul artist he formerly saw himself as.
In A Tempest, Caliban describes Prospero’s powers specifically as “white magic.” This white magic is portrayed as a force opposing the natural order of the island in the way that invasive technologies of colonizers had in the real world. Caliban even complains about Prospero’s technology and civilization that he brings to the island. I believe that Cesaire intended to equate the blend of white technology and culture into the force of “white magic” in order to give the power of white colonizers a name that is descriptive both of its other-worldliness to less technological cultures and its opposition to natural order.
Prospero’s colonization of the island is unnatural both to the natives of the island and the drunks who attempt to colonize it themselves, but for different reasons. When the drunks complain to Caliban of the rough nature of the island, he replies that the nature is unnaturally wild due to Prospero’s white magic. But Caliban and the drunken colonizers are, in reality, complaining about two separate problems. Caliban is merely upset at Prospero’s control of the island whereas the colonizers are upset at the island itself. Caliban blames their despair on Prospero simply so they help him reclaim the land. This scene shows that there is no “white magic” in actuality, but Prospero’s technology still makes him a stronger opponent than Caliban. The two drunken whites that intend to colonize the island are not stronger than Caliban, however, because they are cut off from their technology, and therefore cannot control the unruly nature of the island.
“White magic” is a direct tool of the civilizing mission that Prospero describes throughout the play. It is not magic itself, but the ability to use technology to modify and control nature to one’s desire. Prospero cannot control Caliban or Ariel themselves, but his technological power threatens them enough to make them follow his orders. I think that Cesaire’s use of the “white magic” theme ultimately points to the unnaturality of slavery. It is a system that is imposed on the world by those meaning to bend nature, and is therefore unnatural and otherworldly. Prospero’s very existence on the island is forced due to his exile from his home country, showing that his “civilized” way of life does not truly belong in the natural world.
The Informer and Uptight both tell rather similar stories, yet the majority of our class found Uptight to be a better production than its predecessor. This is surprising to me not only because the opinion was almost universal among the class, but also because The Informer is praised by critics while Uptight is almost ignored. I believe that Uptight builds off The Informer in a critical way that allows the film to succeed in the modern era while its predecessor fails. The black revolutionaries in Uptight are nuanced and are historically framed in the time period shortly after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. But the characters in The Informer lack nuance of opinion and blend together in a film that does not present much historical context to explain the situation of the characters.
The Informer divides the Irish into two main groups that are ultimately stereotypes of Irish culture. First there are the revolutionaries who are depicted as violent and unrelenting, shooting and killing whoever they deem harmful to a revolutionary movement that is not given any context. Then there are the rest of the Irish and Gypo, who are depicted as a crowd of drunks. Gypo is depicted as a complex character, but the people he associates with throughout his evening ultimately use him as a tool to consume more alcohol while he uses them as a tool to feed his ego in a strange drunken symbiotic relationship. The film’s choice to divide the Irish into sober revolutionaries and drunken manipulators furthers the stereotypes of the Irish being violent and drunk. Gypo serving as the protagonist complicates this perpetuation of Irish stereotypes because he serves as an intersection between the two groups of Irish in the film, and thus fits both the stereotype of violence and drunkenness.
Uptight on the other hand does not place its characters into crowds, and works to build arguments for black civil rights from a multitude of perspectives. At first glance, the film could be viewed as a conflict between violent revolutionaries and non-violent revolutionaries. But many of the characters intersect between the two perspectives, and voice opinions that are far more complicated than being solely violent or solely non-violent. Tank is a former member of the violent side who chooses non-violence in the wake of Dr. King’s movement, but is eager to change sides once again when he needs money. Teddy is a white man fighting for black civil rights that believe the two races must unite in order to defeat oppression. Clarence is gay and cooperates with the police, but also listens to various records by black artists, thus partaking in black culture without being a revolutionary. And one member of B.G.’s violent movement remarks that he wouldn’t have resorted to violence as a method of protest had whites not done it first. This blending of different opinions in Uptight gives each character a unique personality and perspective, thus making the ability for the audience member to stereotype characters in the film far more difficult. The nuance of political opinions in the film allows the characters to be viewed both as individuals and members of a group, which is why I believe the film is an improvement from The Informer; Uptight uses the plot line of The Informer to paint a narrative of the American black civil rights movement, but eliminates the elements of its predecessor that could lead to the stereotyping of its characters.
In both Color Struck and John Redding Goes to Sea, there is a marriage that is left unfulfilled after a death. Emma’s marriage with John is unfulfilled due to the death of her daughter and John Redding’s marriage with Stella is unfulfilled due to his own death. I believe that the fact that both stories include these unfulfilled marriages resulting from death and lack the presence of whiteness reveals Hurston’s belief that the institution of marriage is inherently flawed because it is a white Christian invention. John Redding’s marriage acts only as a restricting force in his life, preventing him on going on a journey across the world. When he decides to both go on his journey and remain married he dies, showing that Hurston believes one cannot be free to choose their own path under the constricting force of marriage. Emma’s wait to be married to John in Color Struck shows a similar issue. Emma does not follow new ideas such as interracial marriage because she is bogged down in traditional thinking, which leads her to wait in sadness for John to marry her for twenty years. The traditional Christian ideas of marriage hold both John Redding and Emma from living adventurously, which causes the mood of sadness at the end of both stories.
The sad endings of these stories are a result of the black characters’ inability to live within the confines of Christian marriage, an institution founded by whites. I believe the lack of whiteness in both stories then furthers the ridiculousness of the restrictive ideas of Christian marriage. The African American adoption of the white ideas of marriage seems unnatural in both stories. The queerness and exploratory nature of John Redding contrasts with the simplicity and dullness of marriage. Emma’s life as a single mother contrasts with traditional patriarchal ideas that come with being in a Christian marriage. Being happily married does not feel like the right ending for John Redding or Emma because Hurston is not comfortable with the idea of marriage itself. The reason there is a failed marriage at the end of both stories is because the institution acts as a white intrusion on Hurston’s vision of black society, preventing that very society from reaching bliss.