Definition of a Culture

Claude McKay and Zora Neale Hurston both seek to redefine the narrative of the African American identity. Several generations of slavery had passed, and now slaves were no longer African but African-American. This identity was utterly distinct from West Africa. These people had generations in America and were tied to the imperialist land, separated from their culture. In an attempt to demean them, white people created stereotypes to define the African American identity. They called them lazy, stupid, slow, violent, and physically superior. A monolith was made of Black Americans. In an effort to reshape this narrative, these authors explore their perspectives and histories to reveal the vastly different lives African-Americans had. 

In “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” Hurston pokes fun at the assumptions white people make about Black behaviors and their explanation. In one section, she speaks about the absence of privacy in the community. In a sarcastic tone, she states that “discord is more natural than accord” (28). The belief that chaos came naturally to Black people was nonsensical. If such were the case, elaborate systems and kingdoms could not be spearheaded by them. It perpetuates this idea that we would be unable to lead successful societies. She furthers this connection by drawing it back to Africa and aligning it with some innate animal aspect. Either way, it could be perceived as a performance by the people and their audience. McKay takes this same goal and applies it to Banjo, who is always seeking something outward. Despite his status, people in more significant positions of power cannot help but pay attention to him. This is the revelation of the position of Black Americans. Each thing is perceived as a performance waiting to be understood and analyzed by some audience, even when there is no goal to the actions. Their way of must be categorized and labeled by the dominant culture.

Narratives and the Irish Threat

As we explored how the Irish became white, I found it rather difficult to truly understand their struggle. The plight of Irish immigrants has never fully been discussed in my classrooms. Like many others, I paired them with other white people and saw them no different. Their only exception was that they had a famine, but so what? Everyone suffered. 

What I failed to understand was the construction of race at the time. Whiteness was not accessible to everyone, regardless of skin color. It was deeply interwoven with status in class, religion, and features. As Britain foraged ahead as a colonial power, their symbols of beauty and intelligence colonized the world. In their view, the Irish, poor and Catholic, yet happy, posed a threat to the very foundations of society this colonial power defined (Llyod 5). They were like a contagious infestation, a rather hateful perspective. This fear was rooted in possible political instability. In my Creating Citizens class, we discussed the role narratives have in defining national identities and shaping the perfect citizen. If the working class, who suffered so greatly under British imperialism, realized that the public land they had could not be industrialized, but rather be used for their own purposes, it would challenge all the authority of the crown. The working class could not be activated. In Irish society, the land and government were at the service of the people; resources included (6). Fear-mongering continued, manifesting in the paranoia that Irish people were savages with infectious diseases (7-8). This is not unlike the handling of the AIDS epidemic. The population was excluded allowing an issue to fester because solutions were not provided, especially since they were integrating into society. The story of the Irish may be one of transformation and removal, but it was begotten in exclusion. 

Expedited Girlhood in “Moon and the Mars”

Essential to becoming an adult is experiencing hardship and challenges that force an individual to prioritize aspects of their identity and reshape their perception of the world around them. While these challenges are significant, they ought to not be experienced too early in life so as not to taint the joys and obliviousness of childhood. This expedited childhood is a key theme in Kia Corthron’s Moon and the Mars, especially among the female characters; the racial, financial, and political strife faced by the young characters force them to shift the way they view the world and rob them of childlike carelessness. 

The most obvious example of expedited girlhood is found in the protagonist, Theo. As discussed in class, Theo is more of a witness than a spectator to the changing world around her, as she has a more involved role. The social and political developments she witnesses, such as the Fugitive Slave Act or the dissolution of Five Points, are hardly digestible topics for a young girl and force her to adopt feelings of strong independence and caution. Despite being an orphan, Theo was hardly alone as a child: she had a large hodgepodge family that cared for her. Still, when they leave to go West as Five Points dissolves and the Civil War approaches, Theo finds herself increasingly alone. This independence is paired with the development of Theo’s beliefs, as she forms opinions about current events and voices them to her family. Her naiveté and distinct knowledge of her surroundings allow Theo to push the envelope in conversation with both sides of her family. One example of this is Theo’s comment about the Sioux hangings, as she narrates that “Everybody hears this and stops frozen to stare at me, like my Cahill family did yesterday when I mentioned the Choctaws owned slaves” (Corthron 435). The dramatic political moment occurring in her childhood prompts Theo to form political opinions and have difficult conversations sooner than she may have otherwise.  The supporting characters of the novel also experience expedited girlhood, as proven through the characters Hen and Kaelyn. As a teenage girl in pursuit of guaranteed freedom, Hen ventures to Canada alone, already filled with “disappointment” and “discouragement” (400) in regards to the life she experienced in America. Kaelyn, a young girl arrested for stealing bread, has faced such strife in her eight-nine years of life that she prefers life in jail. As Kaelyn explains, “You know what they have in jail? Food” (420). The girls of Moon and the Mars are so robbed of their childhoods that they must already look for new opportunities to provide themselves a better life, and they must do this alone.

Theo’s Development through the Lens of Double Consciousness

While the intricacy of language employed by both Gilroy and Roach in their respective books leaves me with as many questions as answers, upon first reading I was immediately drawn to the shared use of the phrase “double consciousness” in the first paragraph of each author’s introduction. Despite the intersection of topics discussed by the two authors, their individual understandings of double consciousness do not entirely align. My interpretation of the ways in which Gilroy and Roach approach double consciousness prompts me to consider how Theo, a child meddling between two distinct cultures, experiences this form of doubleness throughout her development. 

As a naive seven-year-old, Theo has a strong sense of identity that we, as readers, gain access to through her inner monologue. This confidence is juxtaposed by strangers’ confusion regarding Theo’s appearance, seen through her experience with being called names like “mongrel” by onlookers who cannot seem to decipher her identity (Corthron, 18). This division between Theo’s identity and image corresponds to Gilroy’s portrayal of double consciousness, or doubleness, as a distinction between one’s individual existence and their existence in the eyes of others. Theo is not bothered by her perceived doubleness, however, as she is confident in her identity as a mutt and is not disturbed by the remarks of Nativists. 

Theo’s identity remains strong and steadfast throughout her adolescence, but with age and experience she assumes new roles in both her family and society at large. The dissonance between Theo’s identity within her Irish family and her role as an abolitionist becomes apparent upon her learning that her relatives complete work for companies that enable the continuation of slavery. In the eyes of her Cahill family, Theo is a child with as many privileges as other Irish children in the Five Points District. As an African American, however, Theo assumes the role of an aspiring abolitionist, refusing to support any systems that promote the enslavement of her people. This division between Theo’s perceived identity and her self-assumed role connects to Roach’s definition of double consciousness as “the self-reflexive interaction of identity and role” that engenders “demanding psychological obligations” (Roach, 1). Growing up as a mixed child in two families of different racial and cultural backgrounds becomes more of an issue as Theo gains an understanding of her ability to serve as an abolitionist, and this coming-of-age experience is complicated by the Cahill family’s late acknowledgement of the importance of race in Theo’s life.

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.

Appreciation or Appropriation?

This week has really made me think critically about the cultural exchanges we’ve seen throughout the semester.  Especially through the medium of music. Music is a really important and poignant method of self reflection and culture. But it’s also really nebulous and, as artists often borrow from one another so liberally, it’s hard sometimes to trace the true origins of music (and I would argue that sometimes it doesn’t matter). I knew there were issues in the music industry, especially in America, over this “Love and Theft” idea — Elvis is the first example that comes to mind.  There is a history of the commodification of black culture, similar to the commodification of black bodies, and a seeming “validation” of those cultural forms and subsequent success when placed in the hands of, typically, white men. And there is blatantly something wrong with that — an erasure of history and context like what we discussed with the use of “Chain Gang” by The Commitments. What I hadn’t considered, was if this is a form of minstrelsy, a commodification of the performance of blackness? Is it a performance of blackness? I guess I’m still struggling with where to draw the lines. To what extent does music not belong to one specific people or history? What distinguishes artists that are influenced by soul music and jazz and the blues in a positive way, and those who try to remove it from or don’t recognize the people who created it? Is context that critical element that separates them? I don’t know.       

I think this consideration of context can go a long way towards coming up with a true and nuanced definition of the transatlantic and the black and green — especially as we read the appropriateness of these gestures.  Someone mentioned in class that The Commitments present a sort of spectrum of these gestures, from those we can see to those that are manifestly inappropriate. I really see the transatlantic as a space of encounter, and a place to try to understand the long standing histories of colonialism and what it meant to be colonized.  Within that however, there must also be an understanding of where the histories diverge and the differences between class and race. When The Commitments hit upon contexts that relate, their gestures help them to understand their situation. When they erase or don’t know the nuance of the oppressions of African Americans, the relation becomes problematic. No one comes to an encounter without their history.  In the same way artists, whether musical or otherwise, can’t enact this particular black and green encounter without a consideration not only of the similar histories, but of the different oppressions as well.

Walcott and the Sea

Walcott physically embodies the Caribbean’s hybridity and translates it into his work. This hybridity can be seen very clearly in his use of the sea in his works, which is responsible for the hybrid identity of the Caribbean people in the first place. The characters’ connections to the sea explore the ideas of hybridity, its connection to the sea, and how identities are connected to and are constantly being altered by the water. 

In The Sea at Dauphin, both the livelihood and identity of the people of St. Lucia are dependent upon the sea. On a basic level, Dauphin is a fishing village that is full of fishermen who work to catch food that helps to feed their families and the town. The sea, however, also was the source that helped to shape the mixed language and culture that make up their identity. The characters in the play speak a mixture of Creole and English, a language reflecting those of the real Caribbean inhabitants. This language is the result of the native islanders’ interactions with the French and English colonizers, who came to the island via the sea and forever changed their identity and that of the island. While older characters such as Hounakin are not as directly connected to the physical sea, the younger characters are all directly connected to the sea in some way. This suggests that the future of the islanders and their identities are even more inherently connected to the sea and the hybridized identity that it brings than the older generation had been. 

 In “The Schooner Flight,” Walcott explores what effects traveling the sea has on Shabine’s hybridized identity. Shabine leaves behind his home and ventures out to the unfamiliar sea. This is different from The Sea at Dauphin, where people venture to sea to fish but further travel is not mentioned. As a result of this, Walcott gives the reader a closer look into what happens to the already hybridized identity of a Caribbean person when they venture off of their island. Shabine’s experience depicts how one carries their identity with them, even when they leave, and how it comes to be affected and even further hybridized through travels. While Shabine is leaving behind the island physically, he carries the memories of it—most notably in his constant reminders of his lover, Maria. No matter what Shabine does or how far he travels, he is unable to shake the memory of her and his longing to return. His identity, as well as his remembrance of her shifts, however, as he gains a greater sense of the colonizer’s religion. Maria and this religion become intertwined and his travels on the sea work to alter and form a greater sense of hybridity within his identity. 

 As Heaney mentions, Walcott gives space in his works to explore the different facets of identity. In these works, we see examples of the Caribbean’s hybridized identities in both those who stay and those who choose to venture away from the islands. In both cases, the sea not only was the initial source of mixing in the Caribbean that brought about hybridized identities, but the place that continues to bring about further mixing. Walcott’s use of the sea and his clear connections to how it comes to mix the identity of the people has helped me not only to understand the hybridized identity of the Caribbean, but also to better realize the functions of sea on all identities—especially in relation to groups that we have looked at this semester.

The Complexity of Identity

I was most struck by our reflections on hybridity this week and the various ways it manifested in the different works we looked at and the ways it complicates identity. Walcott, unnecessarily pointed out by Heaney, clearly interacts with the intersections of history and identity within his work and Heaney’s characterization of this hybridity is conventional and mundane, despite the beauty of the language he communicates it in.  His view of Walcott’s work plays into tropes about the Caribbean and the Atlantic experience, that I think some of us were skirting around activating in our descriptions of Walcott’s poetry and its flow – tropes of lyricism encoded in the language and people, that, while maybe not entirely inaccurate, fail to grasp the true dynamics of hybridic identity. Heaney says of Walcott “From the beginning he has never simplified or sold short. Africa and England are in him.” (Heaney, 6).  This statement is its own unintentionally ironic and blunt simplification of what we know to be the complex histories at work here and as I believe Alexis pointed out, who is Heaney, as an Irishman, to be the judge of how Walcott expresses his hybridic identity. The Irish too have their realm of hybridity within their sphere, which I think we can see Heaney attempting to reconcile in his own work about the Troubles, but that does not privilege him to assign value judgements for the expressions of another’s identity. How does he truly know that Walcott’s activations of both the Caribbean and Egypt are “risky” or “large appropriations” and even if they are, with what experience does he legitimize them?       

I’m curious to know how we would have read Heaney’s assessments of Walcott had we not had the collective aha moment last week about the nature of comparisons between the Black and the Green and the fundamental distinctions between them and if we would have come to the came conclusions. 

Heaney’s comment about Africa and England is interesting too based on what we have discussed about the ideas of a homeland and how the memory of a homeland becomes unique to those that hold it.  There is a change of time and distance and I think that plays into hybridic identity too – history and identity aren’t static or easily separable. We can see this, the idea of hybridity as exchange and ultimately change within A Tempest too.  As we, and the text, attempted to point out, the process of colonization changes the colonizer as much as it changes the colonized – you can’t dehumanize someone else without losing some of your humanity in the process – and Prospero’s cruelty is a marker of that.  In the same way that The Tempest couldn’t be translated to French without Cesaire imbibing himself, and the subsequent English translation for our version of A Tempest would have lost some of Cesaire. Once again, that was rambling, but I’m essentially trying to assert that identities can’t be distilled into stock categories.  There is change in the creation of hybridic identities that can’t fully be quantified, but should be appreciated.

A Response to the Critics Who Hated UpTight!

Who has the authority to determine what one is allowed to use to describe their experiences? In class this week, we looked at how film critics slammed UpTight! for its choice to adapt an Irish story to the African American context. I’d like to respond to these critics with the argument that The Informer is not an exclusively Irish story, as it lacks the foundation in Irish history. Since the movie is not specifically Irish, anyone is free to adapt it. UpTight!, on the other hand, takes The Informer’s frame and develops it into a specifically Black story.

While the book that it is based on is clearly founded in its Irish roots, The Informer does not carry an effective amount of Irish identity and could be about any culture. The director himself was actually Irish American, not Irish. There is a vagueness in identity present from the very beginning of the movie, as the Judas reference fails to place the reader within a specifically Irish context. Judas has a clear connection to Christianity and works as a parallel to Gypo, but the movie’s main focus is not on that of religion. While it depicted some of the culture and suffering of the Irish people, it sacrificed the opportunity to make a larger political statement and tie itself more firmly in the Irish identity in the hopes of appealing to a wider audience. In failing to tackle the specific Irish history, The Informer allows a passive audience. Americans are not involved in Irish life so they may not know what is going on or make the connections. Being an Irish American, the director would also have been lacking in experience and understanding of the Irish people. The Informer truly could have been about any time period or any people; it did not seem specific to the Irish or educate the audience about them on more than a superficial and basic level. The movie and its structure actually reminded me much of old gangster movies, which I associate with a more Italian identity.   

If The Informer is not a specifically Irish film, then why isn’t it fair to adapt it to the African American experience? Through the African American’s use of this frame, they altered it in order to showcase their own specific identity. Unlike The Informer, it could not have been based anywhere. The audience’s first introduction to UpTight! is with real footage from MLK’s funeral and the African American response to it. MLK has a clear connection to the black political moment that is what the movie is focused on. By starting with MLK, the movie is committing to telling the story of a specifically and unmistakably African American experience founded in reality. As the movie continues, layers are added to more fully depict what life looks like for African Americans and their broader struggles. Those involved hoped to use this film as a way to educate and gain support for their cause.  It was produced by many people involved in the movements and you can really see their dedication to the project and drawing attention to the injustices and struggles. The film showcases a recognizable setting for Americans, as it takes place in the very real time and place that they are living. As a result of the layers and strong foundation in the history of African Americans, the viewers become more active and should have a response to what they see on screen and its relation to the world they are living in. Unfortunately, this film was never able to achieve the full glory and recognition that it deserved. 

The critics’ excuses for why the film should not have been made are cop-out responses. There are many examples of problematic comparisons that the Irish have made with the blacks that have been widely used and accepted, such as the phrase “wage slavery,” so adapting a film that’s arguably not even Irish should not be the thing that crosses the line. It’s not as if the makers of UpTight! were trying to ignore the fact that it was a remake, it was something they were upfront about. Even if one considers The Informer to be a strongly Irish film, the comparisons being made are not degrading to the Irish or their struggles. Therefore, the critics’ reasoning is faulty and seems to be more of an excuse to degrade the impact of UpTight!— a film that undeniably contributes to the African American story and it is a true shame that it has been mostly forgotten.

Reclaiming Minstrelsy

This week’s readings were an interesting extension of our conversations about minstrelsy, making a different framework for considering its role in racial history and identity. White people donning blackface and performing their ideas about blackness clearly and overtly comes from racist narratives and a desire for Irish and other immigrants to separate themselves in order to be read as white. Brooks’ ideas about minstrelsy in The Octoroon provided the first complication to this reading, demonstrating the subversive places where minstrelsy actually allows these identities to interact, creating the space for racially liminal bodies.  The racial nuance of In Dahomey takes this one step further. As a piece of traveling theater, it powerfully allowed for a reclamation of black narratives and bodies through an overtly racist medium. 

Williams and Walker factor into themes of exhibitionism and exchange of their era. Getting their start in performing africaness at a world’s fair, they not only demonstrate their cultural distance from the “homeland” they enact in In Dahomey, they also begin to participate in the various ways identity was codified — it wasn’t just minstrelsy on the stage.  Their performance of blackness on stage, however, is meant to serve a distinctly different purpose than the otherness on display at the fairs.  In Dahomey was pushing for a collective artistic agenda, cleverly allowing for empowerment under the guise of debasement or debauchery.  As every creative mind involved in the performance was black, they could take back this medium that was used against them and repurpose it right under the nose of white audiences.  I still have some questions about their enactment about this however, and our discussions of the successfulness of this kind of subversion touched on that. In Dahomey demonstrates the imposition of structures of racism and racial identity constructions that make its subversive elements hard or impossible to read by contemporary white audiences. Does its artistic vision and reclamation of these tropes by cooperative black efforts counteract the continued performance of blackness as an other? As a transitional piece, from our 21st century perspective, I think it can be constructively read both ways — despite the fact that it presents racist tropes of performative blackness, it was a step forward and a form of empowerment necessary to make space for later black performers and allowing them to perform without needing to perform race as well.