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. 

Discussion Questions (4/22)

  1. Can we compare the Irish and African-Americans without also discussing Irish-Americans?
  2. Did the Irish have a choice of who to throw their allegiance behind when they arrived in America?
  3. How do these articles complicate the history of minstrelsy and does that change the way we should look at it in texts such as The Octoroon?

Imperialism and the “White Savior” Complex in “A Tempest”

While Caliban stands out as the figure most associated with Cesaire’s adaptation of Shakespeare, I found his use of Prospero and a conqueror and slave master equally fascinating.  In his opening scene, Prospero finds comfort in his “books and instruments,” clear signs of European civilization or “whiteness,” in the “disgusting place,” which he nevertheless wishes to own and possess for his own sake.  Even when Prospero openly criticizes the land and calls its natives beasts, he feels compelled to bring his white perspective and bring it out of what he supposes to be filth, according to his own conceptions of civility.   His claims to Ariel that he’ll have his desired freedom “when I’m good and ready” also show this extreme narcissism and self-importance seen in our previous discussions of colorism and “readiness.”  Because Ariel is lighter skinned and does not wish to resort to violence as Caliban does, Prospero looks slightly more kindly upon Ariel, despite his continued efforts to form them to his own conceptions of humanity and proper behavior, acting as a “white savior” to these people he deems to be sub-human until he can correct them or wipe them out.

Once Caliban enters the scene, Prospero’s instincts truly emerge, feeling threatened by Caliban because of his darker skin suggesting his “never-readiness” to enter the world of Prospero and his preference of violence and direct activism to counteract the oppressive tactics of the white slaver.  Prospero again shows his need to impart his white ways upon the black natives when he criticizes Caliban “mumbling his native language again,” as if he can no longer act as he is accustomed to in his own land after Prospero has come in with the intent to whitewash or destroy the natives and their culture to promote the spreading of his own perceived civility.  And even when Prospero does pass on pieces of knowledge and culture, Caliban points out that they are only things which can barely harm the authority of the white imperialist, keeping science and higher ideals deliberately from the natives so as to maintain his own dominance over them.  As a result, Caliban effectively weaponizes the English language, one of the few things Prospero has passed to him besides instruction on slavery, to use it against his captor.  Yet, Prospero disregards this clear sign of humanity and intelligence in Caliban, who even knows more languages than his colonizer, and resorts to the use of violence to keep Caliban under his thumb, subtly indicating to the audience that perhaps these harsh practices reveal the beast within Prospero and Caliban’s rejection and embracing of humanity show his higher status.

In the ending scene of the play, Prospero has this status ripped from him, as he decides to stay with Caliban, valuing his apparent imperialism over leaving the island.  In this way, Prospero has allowed imperialism to corrupt him, as he is consumed by the desire to control and rule over others in  a foreign land than to return to his own.  With the script flipped. Caliban now becomes the master in a sense, gaining his land back for himself where he can thrive, while Prospero struggles to maintain his crumbling “civilization” on the island.   Once he must fend for himself, Prospero realizes he is doomed, “Have to think about making a fire,” at which point he finally begins to think of Caliban as his companion and equal when he cannot live on his own.  Unable to “let [his] work perish,” Prospero loses his power when his illusion of empire fails, while Caliban is able to survive by his own means, showing that native peoples, both within the work and the real world, are able to persist and survive without the interference and “advancements” of white civilization.  As Caliban ends the work celebrating his freedom, Cesaire delegitimizes any notion of the “white savior” while the former conqueror Prospero freezes and starves and the native Caliban is able to reclaim his former way of life.


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.

Marriage and the Lack of Whiteness in Hurston’s Stories

In both Color Struck and John Redding Goes to Sea, there is a marriage that is left unfulfilled after a death. Emma’s marriage with John is unfulfilled due to the death of her daughter and John Redding’s marriage with Stella  is unfulfilled due to his own death. I believe that the fact that both stories include these unfulfilled marriages resulting from death and lack the presence of whiteness reveals Hurston’s belief that the institution of marriage is inherently flawed because it is a white Christian invention. John Redding’s marriage acts only as a restricting force in his life, preventing him on going on a journey across the world. When he decides to both go on his journey and remain married he dies, showing that Hurston believes one cannot be free to choose their own path under the constricting force of marriage. Emma’s wait to be married to John in Color Struck shows a similar issue. Emma does not follow new ideas such as interracial marriage because she is bogged down in traditional thinking, which leads her to wait in sadness for John to marry her for twenty years. The traditional Christian ideas of marriage hold both John Redding and Emma from living adventurously, which causes the mood of sadness at the end of both stories.

The sad endings of these stories are a result of the black characters’ inability to live within the confines of Christian marriage, an institution founded by whites. I believe the lack of whiteness in both stories then furthers the ridiculousness of the restrictive ideas of Christian marriage. The African American adoption of the white ideas of marriage seems unnatural in both stories. The queerness and exploratory nature of John Redding contrasts with the simplicity and dullness of marriage. Emma’s life as a single mother contrasts with traditional patriarchal ideas that come with being in a Christian marriage. Being happily married does not feel like the right ending for John Redding or Emma because Hurston is not comfortable with the idea of marriage itself. The reason there is a failed marriage at the end of both stories is because the institution acts as a white intrusion on Hurston’s vision of black society, preventing that very society from reaching bliss.

A Glimmer of Hope in a Troublesome Text

Throughout this week, I have had some difficulty trying to discover key takeaways from Boucicault’s The Octoroon. From my first reading of the work, I was disgusted by Boucicault’s attempts to mimic African-American language in the text and his portrayal of the savage, barely able to speak Native American (played by himself). By the end, I was ashamed of my interest in the plotline despite the blackface presented throughout the play. Yet Daphne Brooks’ reading of the text changed my views and one specific point opened my eyes to the way this text could be viewed in a somewhat more positive moral light. Brooks describes Zoe, the title character, as a representation of disunion, a “manifestation of the crisis that miscegenation law sought to police,” and “impossible” (Brooks 34). In other words, Zoe was a tragic mulatta whose color-mixed existence disrupted order in the universe of the play. In order to restore order, the tragic mulatta must die (either socially or physically), which Boucicault adheres to in this work. Yet he does this with a sharp provocation of the racist society, as Brooks describes through Zoe’s death scene: “With her eyes changing color as well, Zoe is at once ‘cleansed’ of her blackness and blackened by the act of suffering as a horrified array of onlookers watch her rapidly transmuting body (41).” As this quote asserts, Boucicault grants the audience’s wish to restore order but ensures that Zoe’s whiteness is restored as she dies. George describes her features as white as she passes away. Thus, the audience sees a white woman lying dead on the stage, a victim of the slave society. It is a powerful critique of an oppressive system. While I am not sure this point absolves Boucicault of the other troublesome aspects of this reading, Brooks shows that, within this troubling presentation, there exists at least a hint of resistance to the oppressive slave society and racial hierarchy well-known to his audience.