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.

“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.

4/27 Discussion

One main question I had was, how in the world is this play staged? Reading it makes it sound very confusing, but I can’t picture how it could have actually been staged at all.

What is the reason for the odd stage directions? BJJ is giving a sort of commentary in them – is this commentary meant for the audience at all?

What was the reason for Brer Rabbit? He doesn’t really interact onstage, other than wandering in occasionally to observe what is going on, or to look at the audience. What does the addition of Brer Rabbit do for this play?

4/27 Discussion

  1. Who is the Playwright supposed to represent in the prologue?
  2. In what ways does Jenkins-Jacob critique theatre in his creation of it? How does this add to our conversation of creating art for the sake of art from In Dahomey?
  3. Is the use of white face in An Octoroon minstrelsy? How is it different and how does this build off of works that we have read before?

4/27 Discussion Questions

First off, I just want to say that there is so much going on in this play — I’m glad we’ll get to discuss it together. I barely know where to start.

What does the tripling of roles in An Octoroon add to our conversation about identity and encounter within minstrelsy?

With our knowledge about theatre and the uses of drama from our course, what is BJJ trying to say when he writes, “I’m a ‘black playwright.’ I don’ t know exactly what that means.” How does this introduction affect how we treat the play that follows?

A big deal is made  out of the camera and how its relevance to the play doesn’t age well.   Does this say something about modernity and its relationship to the play’s themes? Or maybe the development of theatre?

4/27 Discussion Questions

What do the bees represent in the Prologue? How does the Prologue work to frame the play and how would the play be different without it? Does Jacob-Jenkin’s use of comedy add to the messages that he is putting forth in the play?

In the fourth act, BJJ and Playwright remark that the fourth act of the play is the most important and holds the most potential. Why did Branden Jacob-Jenkins choose to interrupt the play and derail it in the fourth act if it is supposedly the most important? What comes across in allowing BJJ and the playwright back onto the stage?

As the last text that we are reading, how does this compare to the others and what does it tell us about the Black and Green Atlantic? Where does it fit? What texts are the most similar to it and what are the least?

Discussion Questions (4/27)

  1. Though Jacobs-Jenkins remains relatively faithful to Boucicault’s work, he distinctly adds more conversation between the slaves in which the slaves speak in a contemporary way. What effect does that addition have?
  2. What is significance between the house slave and field slave dynamic, drawn out in Act 3?
  3. In Act 4, Wahnotee brutally kills McCloskey. Considering that Wahnotee was played by the playwright in red face and McCloskey was played by BJJ in white face, does the play achieve the expectations it sets for the fourth act of a play?

4/27 Discussion questions

  1. What does the comic relief of Minnie and Dido serve in the play? Do they simply point out the ridiculousness of the plot as the ending suggests or do they serve to point out the absurdity of slavery in general?
  2. The several asides from the playwright also function in a comedic way, but at times they are rather grim like when he remembers he has no therapist and turns to alcohol as his therapy. The darkness depicts the continuation of African American struggle in the modern world, but is layered underneath comedic elements. Why does Jacobs-Jenkins bury serious issues within comedy and is it appropriate to do so?
  3. The “trial” of M’Closky is an intersection of whites, blacks, and a Native American man. Ultimately M’Closky’s punishment is death by the Tomahawk even though George insisted on giving him a fair trial rather than giving into revenge. Was the murder of M’Closky a moral punishment misconstrued by white terms of justice or was his murder truly unjust?

4/27 Discussion Questions

  1.  How does the inclusion of BJJ and the playwright interjecting the story affect the reception of the story?  In his explanation of Act IV to the audience, does Jacobs-Jenkins suggest that these sorts of works are played out?
  2. How does the use of whiteface tie into our previous mentions of reclaimations of minstrelsy?  Is this genuine colorblind casting, or is Jenkins suggesting something else?
  3. In his desire to make art without analysis of the race problem, does Jacobs-Jenkins’s inclusion of the racialized stereotype imply that racism is nearly inevitable in America, especially in a space with meetings of peoples of different backgrounds like in Terrebonne?
  4. In the slight title shift from “The” to “An,” is this a suggestion from Jenkins that these sorts of stories of oppression have become too common, seen in his frustration with others analyzing his work as tackling the race problem, and that this sort of mistreatment has become so widespread that this tale is just one of many?

An Octoroon Presentation & Discussion Questions


I have attached a link to my presentation below. Hope you guys enjoy!  

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does the addition of the Prologue in An Octoroon do for the play as a whole? 
  2. Does the slave dialogue remind you of other work that we’ve seen (Especially in Act 3)
  3. BJJ believes that Boucicault’s original ending is the best version, and how Boucicault intended the play to be seen. What does that tell you about the evolution of theater?
  4.  Given what we’ve seen the past few weeks, if you are of the culture you are portraying, are you exempt from “crossing the line”?