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.

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.