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.

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?