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.

When Language Fails, What Are We Left With?

The idea of language failing to effectively communicate one’s feelings and experiences is something that fascinates me. As an English major, the idea that words can fail should seem unfathomable. Yet, being unable to articulate a feeling or traumatic experience is something that is a reality to those such as the Irish, who struggle with how to explain their sense of self. This week, in relation to both the Douglass and McCann pieces, we talked a lot about the referencing of the “other” group when trying to explain one’s own experience. 

Specifically, I want to address the way in which the word “slave” or “slavery” is used in connection to the experiences of both the Blacks and the Irish. The Irish and Blacks are two groups of people being told, “You are this.”  In the quest for liberty from these labels, they must ask, “If I’m not what they have been saying I am, who am I?” In the case of the Irish, as we discussed earlier in the semester, the Irish were referred to as white n******. This connection to the Blacks was ingrained into the ways that they viewed themselves. Perhaps this is where the Irish’s feelings and metaphors of being a “wage” slave or like a slave stems from. 

In Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom, he writes about how the Irish’s use of “slave” is an unfair comparison that shouldn’t be drawn (Douglass). McCann’s TransAtlantic, however, is not as outright in his condemnation. One gets the sense that McCann’s Douglass is uneasy with the shared use of the terms, but he is not as confrontational about it as the real Douglass was in his piece. Both the Irish and Blacks underwent awful oppression but their circumstances were far from the same. The Irish are poor and hungry, but they are free and can grow food. The Irish Americans were also not oppressed in the same manner as the Blacks and are given chances to be the oppressor in America. The Blacks, however, were always the oppressed and never the oppressor. 

While perhaps not accurate, I do not think that this adoption or comparison is ill-intentioned. I do not think that the language itself is malicious, but the mindset behind it can become problematic. Phrases such as the “Black O’Connell” take away from Douglass’ own merits and individual identity. He can’t just be Douglass because of his race, even in Ireland. All of this is a very important discussion, as Prof. Kinyon pointed out, remains a very relevant topic even in today’s political sphere, where it unfortunately remains a problem. This raises even further questions: If words fail people, such as the Irish, who just want their experiences and flights to be recognized, what do we do? Do we forgive their missteps in language? What can we do to correct them? Certainly, there are no clear cut answers to these questions, but they are ones that individuals and society must consider as we move forward in history.

Increments of Gray

“Dawn unlocked the morning with increments of gray”

This week’s piece, Transatlantic, focuses on the in-between state of Douglass in Ireland. Douglass escaped slavery in America and experiences a sense of freedom in Ireland. In Dublin, he is waited upon by a footman, eats fancy meals, and tours the country giving speeches. Yet, he still feels like a captive – he is constantly watched by Webb and paraded around Ireland like a show-horse. McCann writes about Douglass’ self-reflection of this gray area: “He knew now what had brought him here – the chance to explore what it felt like to be free and captive at the same time” (85). This position gave Douglass power and authority in speaking against slavery because he knows what it is like to be both free and captive. He relates what the Irish cannot –  “To be in total bondage to everything,” Douglass says, “even the idea of one’s own peace” (85). But, this in-between state also creates a lack of control for Douglass over his life, and a lack of trust and uncertainty. How can you be truly free if you are wanted for capture? How can you be truly free when your family is still in bondage?

In my American Lit class we are reading The Sound and the Fury. This novel also deals with the deterioration of identity in an in-between state. Specifically, the character of Quinten relates the loss of power while being trapped in gray area. Quinten’s narrative in the story begins to fall apart when he feels a lack of control in his relationship with his sister, Caddy. Quinten narrates, “I seemed to be lying neither asleep nor awake looking down a long corridor or gray halflight where all stable things had become shadowy” (170). Douglass and Quinten are examples of the uncertainty and restlessness that come with a half-way state. Quinten, like Douglass, feels a lack of stability in his life and relates it through the use of the color gray. This builds upon one of the central ideas in class of transforming identity and belonging. In transitional states, where can we find a home?

The Awareness of Blackness

In the excerpt from TransAtlantic, I was struck by Douglass’ consistent knowledge of his own blackness. We see a reference to this in the opening paragraphs: “Douglass carried his own leather trunk to the waiting carriage: he was not yet used to being waited upon (40).” Thinking about carrying this weight and his later descriptions of the barbells, Douglass understands that he carries the weight of enslavement and the causes of black slaves on his back. It results in a nervousness. For example, the narrator notes at one point that “if [Douglas] showed a chink, they would shine a light through, stun him, maybe even blind him. He could not allow for a single mistake (52).” Additionally, the narrator asserts, “So much was expected of him. Every turn. Every gesture (50).” These passages show the pressure Douglass feels from the audience to represent his entire race in an authentic way. Earlier this week, we discussed whether Douglass was a “spectacle” or “novelty” in Ireland. These passages would seem to give this notion credibility. But I would also argue that it is part of Douglass’ appeal. He brings attention to the cause and his concerns may not be about whether he is treated as a spectacle or not but whether he is presenting an authentic truth about slavery that will resonate with the Irish people. Viewing him as only a spectacle makes some sense, but also assigns the Irish a superiority that I am not convinced they felt. We must remember that Irish-Americans (and not the Irish) were treated as white; thus, we may be ascribing our own views of white and black on the Irish depicted here. McCann’s Douglass was certainly aware of his own blackness, but the extent that the Irish were is not apparent.