The Black and Green Atlantic: Similar, but Different, and Still Much Left to Discover

Going into this semester, I did not really know what to expect. As I had no experience with Irish or black texts, jumping into dense theoretical materials was a challenge. It is certainly not the easiest to think of things abstractly. Looking back at the blog posts from the first few weeks, I remember wondering when all of the texts that we were reading would make sense and come together to form “The Black and Green Atlantic.” 

In my midterm paper, I wrote about the shared sense of placelessness between the Irish and the blacks, as seen in Gulliver’s Travels and McCann’s TransAtlantic. In that part of the course, I was still asking whether or not the two groups should be allowed to make comparisons. We were dealing with a lot of Irish texts that were using problematic comparisons, such as “wage slavery.”  I thought that determining whether the groups would be allowed to gesture would be a definite yes or no, but I came to realize that it is not that simple a question. Our course objective was not to determine whether these texts were allowed to exist, but to grapple with the texts that do exist and ask “why?” This is when I began to rethink the whole way that I was looking at the course. Comparisons can, and have been made. I started thinking about the gestures found within the texts and asking whether they were appropriate or not and why. In order for them to be appropriate and to work, the comparison must be just that—a comparison, not a proclamation of being exactly the same. As we saw in The Commitments, it is possible for the Irish to make gestures towards black culture in a show of solidarity. These gestures, however, only work to a certain extent, and it is when you completely collapse the two identities that the gesture falls apart and becomes problematic. While the Irish and Black experiences contain general similarities, they are not the same and cannot be equated. The differences in their cultures and their travels work to create a divide between the two identities. 

This semester flew by, and I feel that we have learned and covered so much material on the Black and Green Atlantic. Yet, there is still material that we were just unable to fit into the course, and there is so much more to be discovered in the Atlantic. The flurry of questions and puzzling scenes in “An Octoroon” represented to me many of the questions that remain and how this topic has endless possibilities. For me, questions remain on the role of Irish Americans and where they fit into the mix. Joey gave us a taste of that in The Commitments, but I wish that we had been able to discuss where they fit into the greater scheme of this journey. Who claims the Irish Americans? Why do their gestures always seem to be problematic? Even in “An Octoroon,” Jacob-Jenkins erases Boucicault’s Irish identity and he is just left “white.” Could we consider Boucicault an Irish American? What does this say about Irish Americans today? Overall, I am grateful for the great discussions we were able to have this semester. I feel that we took our own journey across the Atlantic this semester—a journey that will certainly affect the way that I view and question gestures going forward.

Final Thoughts

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.

“Fuck Me? Fuck You!” The Mentality of the Black and Green Atlantic

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.

Complex Identities in the Black and Green Atlantic

Coming into this class I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the comparison between Black and Green would be like — two colonized entities, I thought I could see where we were going — and I was excited to read some new and different authors, expanding my horizons that way.  Needless to say, as I find is often the case with classes here, I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I might and my expectations didn’t quite cut it.  The conversations we’ve had and conclusions we’ve drawn in this class have been complex, confusing, sometimes contradictory and distinctly stimulating. Sometimes I knew exactly what I thought, other times I had no idea and my mind was frequently changed by everyone in class and the things you all noticed that I’d never thought of or didn’t see. The end result was that staring down the barrel of our final paper and the end of our class, I was thinking many things, sort of my own tempest of black and green narratives, and I couldn’t quite consolidate everything floating around in my head into one thing I felt compelled to write about. 

And then I wondered if that lack of cohesion could be my take away instead, or a way of formulating my final thoughts.  We’ve talked a lot about what placing pieces from both sides of the Atlantic together actually does, and at what point that comparison is no longer helpful or appropriate. Histories are so focused on creating a singular story, a definitive narrative, and that definitely does not apply to this class and the many perspectives and people we have read. My conclusion then ultimately is that both the Black and the Green Atlantic, as groups of people that suffered great oppressions and were told who they could or were allowed to be, use the gestures across the ocean, whether overt or not, to think about their own place and identities, trying to codify a sense of self. However, because of fundamental differences in experience — different types of hunger, the ownership of bodies, access to eventual whiteness — there is a point at which the comparison fails to say anything more about either identity, and at that point the search for self must ultimately come from within — that no experiences can define them but their own, as groups and as individuals. 

Ultimately I think our journey through the class is what led us to where we are now, and what allows me to see and analyze the comparative model that is the foundation for our course. Every piece we read and discussion we had was necessary to build our understanding of both the Black and the Green Atlantic — from the theory to Douglass to Synge to Walcott and everyone else — and finally allows us to critique the model itself.  My final thoughts are that the model was helpful to provide a framework for understanding and we can see that reflected in the literature and the fact that the comparison exists at all. But the true sense of who each of these peoples are, acknowledging the fact that I am generalizing, comes from self exploration and characterization of identity and from the individual experiences of each. 

Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen

I recently came across a Louis Armstrong performance of the song, “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen.”  The song is an African-American spiritual that was popularized by a number of African-American singers, including Armstrong. This song is a fitting anthem for a lot of the gesturing between the Black and Green that we’ve seen in the class. Frederick Douglass doesn’t know the trouble the persecuted Irish Catholics have witnessed. Seamus Heaney didn’t know the trouble African-Americans endured when he wrote about the Black Panthers in 1970. The Commitments and Roddy Doyle did not understand the trouble of African-American Soul singers when they appropriated their songs. These misunderstandings remind me of bell hooks’s quote, “White folks who do not see black pain never really understand the complexity of black pleasure. And it is no wonder that when they attempt to imitate the joy in living which they see as the ‘essence’ of soul and blackness, their cultural productions may have an air of sham and falseness that may titillate and even move white audiences but leave many black folks cold” (Onkey 26).

However, focusing too much on the mistaken gestures threatens under-appreciating the relationship between the Black and the Green. Instead of looking at how Frederick Douglass occasionally looks at Irish Catholics, we can look at Daniel O’Connell, who lobbies for Irish independence alongside an end to slavery. Foreshadowing Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote from the Birmingham Jail, O’Connell said, “My spirit walks abroad upon sea and land, and wherever there is oppression I hate the oppressor, and wherever the tyrant rears his head I will deal my bolts upon it, and wherever there is sorrow and suffering, there is my spirit to succor and relieve” (Onkey 15). We could also look at how Synge’s “Riders to the Sea” influences Hurston’s “John Redding Goes to the Sea” or how James Weldon Johnson calls on African-Americans to find a form that resembles Synge’s to talk about their experience (Renaissance and Radicalism 484). Rather than focusing on Seamus Heaney, we could discuss Bernadette Devlin giving the keys to New York City to the Black Panthers.

At the end of the day, neither African-Americans nor the Irish can properly understand the trouble the other has seen. Yet, if any two groups can sympathize with similar feelings of oppression, it is the Irish and African-Americans. Though the Irish were never enslaved, they understand leaving home against one’s will. Though African-Americans did not experience the intensity of the hatred between Catholics and Protestants, they understood the use of religion to justify oppression. Though the oppressions of the Black and the Green were neither the same nor equal, these two peoples understood the inability to feel at home at home. This feeling of placeless-ness and not the comparison between two oppressions is the Black and Green Atlantic.

Digging In…

It was mentioned yesterday that one topic you would have liked to learn more about is the period in the middle of the twentieth century that joins the Black and Green Atlantics. That time of radicalism and revolution.

It is a period that interests me as well and I look forward to discussing it with a new group of students in the Fall. The course, Bloody Conflict in America and Ireland: 1968-69, will explore how the decade that began with young idealism and revolutionary possibilities, ended with raised fists and violent terror.

One way that that period is rich with connections are the visual images that were created.

Thinking of this moment, I immediately remember the Guinness poster created in the 1970s that commercializes the “Black is Beautiful” slogan. That slogan became popular in the 1960s as a way of promoting black beauty and confidence that black women should reject European beauty standards, including wearing their hair naturally. Sixty years later, politics still surround the way in which black women wear their hair.

Though I have to do more research into the history of the poster, a 1978 NY Times editorial on the Americanization of modern Ireland found the poster crude. In, “The Blueing of Ireland,” the staff writer wrote:

On a commanding hillside overlooking Waterford stands a new hostelry imported from Miami, its lobby dominated by a huge bar and its environs stripped of any distracting public verandas. It took a week and the counsel of American, not Irish, guides to find “real” Irish bread and other delicacies. Most hotels limit themselves to American‐style toast and commercial marmalade. The potato alone has survived the cosmopolitan pretensions of the new Irish kitchen. And, as one American observed, the Irish have become an instant‐coffee nation. They are surrounded, too, by billboards, the worst of them shouting “Black is Beautiful” for the Guinness dark beer people. The one consolation of Ireland is the snail’s pace of everything — including change. There is still time to save the Republic if enough Americans will let it be known that they cross the Atlantic to find a taste of Ireland not home.

Personally, I like the Guinness “Black is Beautiful” poster. It makes me smile. Black is beautiful and the poster adds an additional layer to the multiple connections between black America and Ireland. The fascination (and at times, fetishization) of blackness in Ireland does not seem violent. For better or worse, even those offensive gestures are attempts at understanding Irish displacement; expressing solidarity with another participant in the struggle.

On 24 May, the Working Class Movement Library (WCML) is holding an online discussion regarding their Spring 2020 exhibition. This move to an online forum is another reminder about how in loss we have also gained during the pandemic. If it were business as usual, I would not have the opportunity to participate in the exhibition. If you take a look at the posters from the Civil Rights Era in Ireland, you will find a Black Panthers, Free Huey poster. And when I wrote WCML to find out more information on the exhibition, the exhibit’s curator was reminded of this moment remembered by Eamonn McCann in War and an Irish Town.

One of the loudest cheers I ever heard in the Bogside came in response to the cry: “The whole black nation has to be put together as a black army, and we’re gonna walk on this nation, we’re gonna walk on this racist power structure and we’re gonna say to the whole damn government-STICK ‘EM UP MOTHERFUCKER, this is a hold up, we’ve come for what’s ours…

The declaration was the last item in the ten-point programme of the Black Panther Party, enunciated in rich, booming R&B tones on the soundtrack of a film projected against the gable which was later to become Free Derry Wall, in the small hours of a riotous night in 1969.

The cheer had as much to do with the daring of the language as with the sentiment of the slogan. But it also signalled the extent to which civil rights campaigners at that time felt an association with the Panthers, then under murderous assault by the feds and local police forces across the US.

The international dimension has virtually been written out of history. The North is scarcely mentioned in accounts of sixties revolutionism, even by some who came among us to be pictured at barricades, clenched fists on militant show.

To insist now on the relevance of internationalism is to venture onto ground which has been little disturbed by the stride of standard-issue chroniclers who assume that Northern Ireland…

There’s a deep well of these connections and it was a pleasure sharing some of them with you. I look forward to seeing you all again in the Fall.

More information on the posters can be found here. Please get in touch if you are interested in joining the 24 May talk.