Spearheads Gone Too Fast

From all three works that we have looked at this week as well as Vinen’s 1968, it seems quite clear that most of the revolutionaries were enthusiastic young people, pushing a rigid organizational machine forward with strict rules, an unquestionable ideology, and unrelenting force. The “Organization” in each of the three works based on The Informer’s story is quite like spearheads. They were sharp—most never hesitated to use lethal force for the sake of the movement. They were fast—it was less than two days from hearing about Frankie’s death to killing Gypo. They were rigid—to join the movement was to effectively pledge for life. Such an organization closely resembles a military and should in principle have immense power to penetrate the existing status quo. However, it is perhaps exactly its overwhelming force that takes it too far, and in turn causes the movement to fall short in achieving its goals.

Liam O’Flaherty expresses the shortcoming of such organization in The Informer, a bleak portrayal of the Irish Civil War and the future of Ireland. The rigidity of structure and dogmatism of the Revolutionary Organization often turns on itself. Because of the “rules,” Gypo and Frankie were kicked out of the Organization and left without support. This is the main underlying cause of all that unfolded in the story. Gypo, in desperation, informed on Frankie just for 20 pounds. Again, based on the principle that betrayers must die, Gallagher hunted down Gypo and sentenced him to death. But Gypo, victimized by the rule and locked up in the cell, had to fight for survival, so he escaped. Gallagher fell into panic, and it could not be more clear that all his rambling of political theories is intended to ridicule the singular ideology of the Organization. The rigidity of the Organization put itself in grave danger, as Gypo got the chance to inform on Gallagher.

However, John Ford’s movie of the same name paints a completely different picture, praising the movement and inciting hope. He purposefully moved the timeframe to the Irish War of Independence to avoid any negative implications brought on by the Irish Civil War. The film portrays Gallagher as a calm, intelligent, and determined figure, fighting for the justice of the Irish people. The power of the organization is highly praised at the end, as Gallagher firmly refutes Katie’s plead to spare Gypo and says, “For Ireland!” This seems like a contradiction to O’Flaherty’s message, but one needs to look no further than John Ford’s biography to understand why. John Ford is Catholic and Irish American, so it makes perfect sense for him as an outsider to romanticize the War of Independence, and subsequently the IRA. However, in changing the story’s setting to the War of Independence, an important point is neglected: The War of Independence led to the split of the IRA into two factions, and precisely because of its militant and unyielding nature, led to the bloody Civil War.

The message of Uptight clearly does not shed positive light on the rising violent movement of Black America following King’s death. The addition of characters such as the old black leader who supports nonviolent protests and Teddy conveys another grave side effect of powerful militant organizations: lack of diversity. This not only refers to lack of tolerance for its members, such as Frankie and Gypo, but also to members of the general society. The old black leader desperately wanted to work with B. G., but only because of his opposition to violence they rejected him. Teddy was outright rejected simply because he was white, as “that’s the policy.” The racial struggle and the Irish Civil War certainly had many differences, but I think Jules Dassin was trying to make a point that diversity matters in all revolutions, especially immediately following King’s death. O’Flaherty’s novel touches on diversity, as Frankie’s father himself was a Socialist but wanted nonviolence. But Uptight’s emphasis on diversity was on a new level. King’s movement was unique; it was an enthusiastic youth movement, but also possessed many distinct qualities: nonviolence, diversity, tolerance, engagement, etc. There was hope that the spearheads of the radical youth would slow down just enough to gain traction with the society at large and bring about actual change. But King was murdered. The spearheads shot forward and the story repeated that of Ireland in the early 1920s: violence, killing, rejection of one’s own members, rejecting any outside voice.

Dassin saw hope in King’s approach. But that hope was quickly extinguished as King was murdered, leaving an almost helpless message in Uptight. The fire of revolution spread fast in 68’, rounding up young spearheads across the Atlantic. But perhaps that precise mechanism of rounding people up into ideology-driven, intolerant, fast-moving organizations caused their downfall. Slowing down and allowing the inflow of ideas and people might have got them closer to their goals in the first place.

Focus on what connects us

The first course that I taught at the University level was a Modern Black American lit class. We read texts from the Harlem Renaissance, the civil rights era, and then ended the course examining neo-slave narratives. The final text that we read was Edward P Jones’s The Known World. At the end of this class—and now all of my classes—I ask students what worked, what did not work, and what they learned in the course. At the end of this first course, what surprised the primarily white students of the class was the fact that there is consistent criticism of white liberalism in the African American texts that we read. In this class, and many more since, white students are taken aback when they discover that black American writers are equally as critical of white liberalism as they are of white supremacy. One student in that first class, stated that one thing he learned, and what really stood out for him, was this criticism of white liberalism in African American texts.

In our class—Bloody Conflict in America and Ireland: 1968-69—we have come across some of this criticism. In King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he criticizes liberal white America. He writes:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I emphasize the last sentence in the excerpt from King’s text to draw attention to the reason why white liberalism, or the white moderate as King references, is so disconcerting for many black Americans. Hearing someone say, I believe you are right but I do not agree with the way in which you are attempting to achieve your goals, is frustrating. For many black Americans, the vehemently non-racist white American who individually says, I judge each person as they are, but does very little to dismantle the structural system that allows racism in America to persist, is as problematic or “more bewildering than” the openly racist white person. To this “go slow” approach, King said in an address on 4 April 1967, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” 53 years later, while much progress has been made in dismantling systematic racism, the events that have occurred this year shows that a sense of urgency is still needed as Americans struggle to tackle structural oppression.

In the film Uptight, the frustration that structural change has not been achieved for black America is demonstrated through the performances of each of the characters. The black characters in the film are poor, hungry, angry, and completely disenfranchised. The new generation has decided to take up arms in hopes that a violent revolt will finally make white America see that black Americans are worthy of civil liberties. The white character in the film Teddy says, “You can’t do it alone. Without me you cannot win.” He is proven right. When he tries calling to warn the group about the police coming to get Johnny they hang up on him. They reject his help. Johnny is killed. This is an addition to the Dassin/Mayfield/Dee production of The Informer. I have to wonder why they added this detail to their version. Are the artists commenting on white and black cooperation in dismantling structural racism?

Made at the time of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, with a primarily black cast, Uptight (1968) attempts to capture the feeling of desolation and hopelessness that plagued Afro-America by the late 1960s. While Uptight is a remake of John Ford’s 1935 film The Informer, director Jules Dassin and cowriters Ruby Dee and Julian Mayfield use both Liam O’Flaherty’s novel The Informer and the Ford film to create Uptight. O’Flaherty’s The Informer reflects his frustration with his newly forming country. Ford’s version concentrates on the Irish struggle for independence from the United Kingdom. Dassin, Dee, and Mayfield take these two representations of Irish conflict and repackage them into an Afro-American context. The film focuses on both black insurgency and the “civil war” brewing between members of the civil rights movement (which soon after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. would split into warring factions).

When Uptight premiered December 1968, some of the reviews were not favorable and specifically these reviewers were annoyed that The Informer had been remade with a black cast. Famed film critic Roger Ebert wrote 19 February 1969, that Uptight was a good but less than perfect film. He writes: “Dassin made a strategic error at the very beginning, when he chose ‘Up Tight’ as a remake of ‘The Informer,’ Liam O’Flaherty’s novel (and John Ford’s film) about the Irish revolution. The transplant doesn’t work. The Irish and black revolutions have little in common, either in methods or in style.” One unnamed critic berated Dassin for basing his film on The Informer and thereby “setting up an implicit comparison between the noble history of the Irish struggle for independence and such a paltry thing as black insurgency in America’s inner cities.”

Not only does Ebert fail to realize that the book The Informer and the film The Informer are not concerned with the same moments in Irish history, he and the unknown critic both miss specific nuances of Irish history in their criticism of how the referenced Uptight relates to the Irish/Irish American projects. It is not that the Irish and Afro-American experience is the same; there are many differences between Ireland and Afro-America. Further, I do not think Mayfield, Dee, and Dassin are suggesting that the Afro-American and Irish experiences mirror each other. Rather, the artists are suggesting that there were intriguing similarities between the two situations and that perhaps those involved in the struggle can learn from each other. Perhaps, the makers of Uptight use the Irish situation to make a statement on commonalities between black Americans and their fellow white citizens. Rather than focus on what differentiates “the noble history of the Irish struggle for independence and such a paltry thing as black insurgency in America’s inner cities” perhaps being united in the fact that the struggle for liberty can unite people across boundaries is the underlining message of Uptight.

With the addition of Teddy as a character, the makers of Uptight suggest that while the frustration with white liberalism is valid, black Americans still need white Americans’s help to dismantle white supremacy.

For me, it is not about what separates us. My work is focused on what connects us. From my perspective, the differences between two groups or literatures makes the discovered similarities that much more exciting. Most importantly, in the the contrast, I focus on what can be learned by examining those connections.