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.


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?

“I Forgot Something”: Community and Survival in “Uptight”

In The Informer and Uptight, both main characters display great guilt at their respective betrayals of friends and subsequent destruction of community.  Yet, The Informer’s ending of religious absolution and penitence is changed significantly in the ending of Uptight in which Tank receives no absolution and symbolically dies where he stood up to white oppression.  This major change is an important adaptation in the meta-narratives of both films; whereas The Informer ends with Gypo dying, but achieving forgiveness and exclaiming Frankie’s name in joy, suggesting a kind of mend between the two and the community, Uptight ends with Tank being shot, falling, and symbolically being downtrodden by the rubble he used to work with, suggesting an unresolved break in the community, as well as the continued debates of violence or peaceful means of protest.  With its nihilistic, more dour ending, Uptight shows that while there are similarities between the two films and they reference towards movements and events across the Atlantic, each group cannot compare itself to the other, also seen in Transatlantic.

Even thought Gypo mentions several times that he has fallen on hard times and doesn’t have much money, “Uptight” makes a point to show the desperation of Tank as well as other members of his community, most notably Laurie played  by Ruby Dee.  By piling up these external pressures upon Tank, Dassin and the writers suggest that Tank’s betrayal is the only way for him to attempt to get by, although it means separating himself from his community by killing Johnny.  The character of Daisy also represents this breaking of community, whose work as a police informant splits himself between membership with Johnny, Tank, and their community and the police force, as well as first introducing the idea of ratting out Johnny to the police.  This dilemma haunts Tank throughout the film, as he is already fighting to survive before he must hide from his own community because of his betrayal.  Once he turns Johnny in and he is murdered by the police, Tank goes on a quick downward spiral, tortured by his treason against his people and his quest for survival.  His own search for refuge and forgiveness echoes broader black concerns at the time, such as social belonging and upward progress.  The scene of the black Vietnam veterans echoes the growing tension of the black community, both against the oppressive white majority and also among themselves in their desire for successful protest.  Tank’s later scene with BG also refers back to this impossibility for the black man to survive in this increasingly hostile world.  When Tank begs “I got no place to go,” and BG only responds, “Then die!” this both foreshadows Tank’s own death after his betrayal excises him from the black community and also shows that it is perhaps preferable to die than to live within the place under the oppression of the white majority forces.  Once Tank is finally confronted in the steel mill, he is shot and killed in the same place where he worked for years, trapped toiling away and unable to resist prejudice and mistreatment.  Even when he did originally lash out, it caused him to get in trouble with the police, leading him to alcoholism, preventing him from helping Johnny.  This endless circle of oppression shows the bleak determinism of the black experience in the 1960’s: one can live in a system of oppression or die trying to escape.

Despite its basic description as a remake of reimagining of “The Informer,” “Uptight” and its world show a much more complex social setting, with the inner community of African Americans in the film already split early within the film on issues such as the most effective way to protest.  The more depressing ending of Dassin’s film captures the difficulty of black life immediately after the assassination of MLK and the idea of peaceful protest: either suffering or dying trying to function outside the system, Uptight‘s complex and difficult ending shows the fragile ideas of community and the elusive survival of everyday life under oppression.


I think that this past week, by looking at the different ways that both the African American community and the Irish community use the same coping techniques and how they gesture towards each other over history, I’ve gained an even deeper understanding of how they seem to be connected. When I went back over my previous discussion questions for Monday and Wednesday, I was struck again by how the questions I asked were so similar: is there something wrong when one side takes a coping/protesting method from the other side, and uses it for their own struggles?


I was rather conflicted about this question. When I was looking at Seamus Heaney’s poem “Strange Fruit”, and how it was directly borrowing from the song “Strange Fruit”, I thought that the answer was yes. There is something wrong with this instance of borrowing, though it was hard to place at first. And then when I asked the same question about UpTight as a remake of The Informer, I came up with the opposite answer. There was nothing wrong with this borrowing. Again, I couldn’t tell at first just what made this appropriate, and the previous instance inappropriate. After our class discussion, however, I think I may have figured it out. There seems to be a kind of “but…” statement attached to every similar circumstance that we can see between the two cultures.


The Irish were oppressed in their home country, but… they had a means of escape in America.

The Irish were not considered white, but… they were able to transition into whiteness over time.

The Irish were maltreated, abused, and considered inferior, but… they were never slaves.


There is no “but” statement on the African American side of the transatlantic. This lack of a “but” makes it far easier for African Americans to gesture toward the Irish as an example, but harder for the Irish to gesture toward African Americans without taking this somewhat out of proportion.

When the Center Doesn’t Hold

One thing that stuck with me from this week was when Heaney quoted Yeats in his piece for The Listener. That’s not the first time I’ve seen that particular Yeats poem, The Second Coming, used to describe periods of extreme change. Joan Didion’s book Slouching Towards Bethlehem uses it to frame the disenchanted, lost youth of ‘the 67 Summer of Love and I believe it also informed the title of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I think the resonances of a second coming – the feelings of imminent, uncontrollable, violent change – frame our discussions of political protest both during the Troubles and the American Civil Rights movement very well.  There is a sense of confusion and loss and sadness that came with the change and seems to haunt that era and Uptight as well.  As we noted in class, 1968 felt like a fracturing of every effort towards change that activists had made up till then. The center was not holding and people were left with unredeemable circumstances and violence. I think that’s why Tank dies without redemption, unlike Gypo.  That isn’t to say that the circumstances Gypo encounters within The Informer aren’t violent too, but that attitudes had changed about activism and violent protest when Uptight was made.  Redemption was important for the audiences of the earlier film and is restorative, but backgrounded by the chaos of ‘68 and the world it seems to create, redemption is not possible and is potentially irreconcilable to the creators of Uptight – it’s the more accurate reflection of the state of their world.

We discussed in class how these two films have very different tenors and I think part of that is a result of who was making the films.  The Informer was made by an Irish American about the Irish whereas Uptight was made by Black activists about Black activism. It makes Tank’s character really interesting. Gypo can easily be read as a caricature, like the stage Irishman from the days of Synge.  I wonder how we are to read Tank then.  His desperation and subsequent turn to alcohol compounds throughout the movie as each new tragedy or misfortune befalls him, beginning with Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. Does his descent, like his death, say something about the desperation and frustration of the time itself? Or does it seek to present a critique of the caricature Gypo posed in the original film?

As an aside, over the weekend I started watching Self Made, the Netflix show based on the life of  Madam C.J. Walker. The first episode details the beginnings of her company and a dramatization of some of the driving forces behind her ventures.  It really seemed to highlight some of the themes we were talking about with Color Struck about community, image, and belonging and made me think hard about how I phrased my question on colorism for class last Wednesday.  I think the show focuses a lot on the pain associated with colorism and its violent history, but with a main character that is less self-defeating than Hurston’s Emma.  If anyone gets the chance to watch (I haven’t watched much more, but it seems interesting), I’d be curious to know your thoughts on the way these themes are represented in the show, particularly after our discussion about drama and preservation.  

“Sufficient Ground for Understanding and Absolution:” Thinking about Violence in Light of Our Reading This Week

This week, we’ve talked about a lot of violence. We read Heaney’s poetic descriptions of the bog bodies and witnessed death at the hands of the state and at the hands of the revolutionaries in The Informer and Uptight. We’ve also learned about The Troubles and three Bloody Sundays, two in Ireland and one in America. For anyone interested, Wikipedia acknowledges twenty “Bloody Sundays” around the world in the last century and a half.

This week, we also encountered Ciaran Carson’s reading of Heaney’s bog body poems, where he says, “It is as if he is saying suffering like this is natural; these things have always happened; they happened then, they happen now, and that is sufficient ground for understanding and absolution. It is as if there never were and never will be any political consequences of such acts.” At the very least, the assertion that “these things have always happened” seems to make sense in light of what we’ve seen.

Additionally, in her post on Uptight this week, Professor Kinyon highlighted two cases in 1963 where African-Americans were murdered and justice was not handed out until decades later. The INCORE article similarly noted that, in an attempt to heal the wounds still open from the Troubles, the police force in Ulster created a team in 2005 to investigate many unsolved murders from the time period. While justice was eventually served out in both the African-American and Irish contexts, the tremendous delay justifies Heaney’s perspective that there never would be any political consequences of violence and suffering.

Thus, the only question remaining to determine whether Heaney’s perspective, specifically in Punishment, is correct is whether the continuity of suffering and violence and the low consequences for it are sufficient grounds for understanding the side of the perpetrator and absolving them. Is the idea that violence just happens enough for us to understand and then absolve people from it?

I would disagree with this idea: the continuity of violence does not justify it. At some point, Heaney did not agree with this assertion either. In his article in the Listener, he castigates the Black Panthers for their openly violent rhetoric. To Heaney, it is grotesque and uncivil; the Black Panthers’ violence is not understood or absolved. Plainly, he sees it as wrong.

While the difference between his characterization of violence in The Troubles and violence in the later stages of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States could be explained by an outsider’s view of the Black Panthers, I would argue that the difference, instead, shows a lack of understanding of revolution. Revolution is based on the idea that the suffering and violence afflicted on the oppressed are not natural or justifiable. While the IRA and Black Panthers may have believed that the path to ending this suffering was inflicting suffering on the opposition, the core of any civil rights movement is an understanding that violence is not natural and understanding violence is not a reason to absolve the enemy, but rather to seek to end that suffering. While “these things have always happened,” the continuity of violence does not excuse the crime.

3/30 Discussion Questions

  1. There is a comparison to be made between the revolutionary language of blacks in America and the Irish in Ireland. Why is it that the Irish were so soft-spoken in comparison to the Black Panthers of America?
  2. Is Heaney’s comparison of Irish killings to black lynchings in America justified? What are the main similarities and differences between the two?

Discussion 3/30

My question has to do with the uses of African American music and poems in Irish protests. We saw a clip of the song “We Shall Overcome” being sung by both African American and Irish protesting crowds, and there is also the parallel between the song “Strange Fruit” and Heaney’s poem “Strange Fruit”. My question is, are the two situations analogous? Is it acceptable to use the same songs and same meanings for Irish protests, or is there something that makes the situation different? Is it a show of solidarity, or a misuse of something almost sacred?

Discussion Questions (3/30)

  1. Why is “Northern Ireland” a contentious term?
  2. I know someone else has asked this already, but what is the effect of depicting women in Heaney’s poetry?
  3. Does the civil rights push of Irish Catholics follow a similar path to the African-American civil rights movement of starting with non-violence (for the most part) and moving toward more militant measures? Or are the non-violent and violent approaches more simultaneous?