The Real Irish American Story Not Taught in Schools – If We Knew Our History Series

If We Knew Our History Series

The Real Irish American Story Not Taught in SchoolsMarch 16, 2012

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By Bill Bigelow

“Wear green on St. Patrick’s Day or get pinched.” That pretty much sums up the Irish-American “curriculum” that I learned when I was in school. Yes, I recall a nod to the so-called Potato Famine, but it was mentioned only in passing.

Sadly, today’s high school textbooks continue to largely ignore the famine, despite the fact that it was responsible for unimaginable suffering and the deaths of more than a million Irish peasants, and that it triggered the greatest wave of Irish immigration in U.S. history. Nor do textbooks make any attempt to help students link famines past and present.

Yet there is no shortage of material that can bring these dramatic events to life in the classroom. In my own high school social studies classes, I begin with Sinead O’Connor’s haunting rendition of “Skibbereen,” which includes the verse:

… Oh it’s well I do remember, that bleak

December day,

The landlord and the sheriff came, to drive

Us all away

They set my roof on fire, with their cursed

English spleen

And that’s another reason why I left old




By contrast, Holt McDougal’s U.S. history textbook The Americans, devotes a flat two sentences to “The Great Potato Famine.” Prentice Hall’s America: Pathways to the Present fails to offer a single quote from the time. The text calls the famine a “horrible disaster,” as if it were a natural calamity like an earthquake. And in an awful single paragraph, Houghton Mifflin’s The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People blames the “ravages of famine” simply on “a blight,” and the only contemporaneous quote comes, inappropriately, from a landlord, who describes the surviving tenants as “famished and ghastly skeletons.” Uniformly, social studies textbooks fail to allow the Irish to speak for themselves, to narrate their own horror.

These timid slivers of knowledge not only deprive students of rich lessons in Irish-American history, they exemplify much of what is wrong with today’s curricular reliance on corporate-produced textbooks.

First, does anyone really think that students will remember anything from the books’ dull and lifeless paragraphs? Today’s textbooks contain no stories of actual people. We meet no one, learn nothing of anyone’s life, encounter no injustice, no resistance. This is a curriculum bound for boredom. As someone who spent almost 30 years teaching high school social studies, I can testify that students will be unlikely to seek to learn more about events so emptied of drama, emotion, and humanity.

Nor do these texts raise any critical questions for students to consider. For example, it’s important for students to learn that the crop failure in Ireland affectedonly the potato—during the worst famine years, other food production was robust. Michael Pollan notes in The Botany of Desire, “Ireland’s was surely the biggest experiment in monoculture ever attempted and surely the most convincing proof of its folly.” But if only this one variety of potato, the Lumper, failed, and other crops thrived, why did people starve?

“Paddy’s Lament” recounts the famine and the Irish diaspora to America.

Thomas Gallagher points out in Paddy’s Lament, that during the first winter of famine, 1846-47, as perhaps 400,000 Irish peasants starved, landlords exported 17 million pounds sterling worth of grain, cattle, pigs, flour, eggs, and poultry—food that could have prevented those deaths. Throughout the famine, as Gallagher notes, there was an abundance of food produced in Ireland, yet the landlords exported it to markets abroad.

The school curriculum could and should ask students to reflect on the contradiction of starvation amidst plenty, on the ethics of food exports amidst famine. And it should ask why these patterns persist into our own time.

More than a century and a half after the “Great Famine,” we live with similar, perhaps even more glaring contradictions. Raj Patel opens his book, Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System: “Today, when we produce more food than ever before, more than one in ten people on Earth are hungry. The hunger of 800 million happens at the same time as another historical first: that they are outnumbered by the one billion people on this planet who are overweight.”

“Stuffed and Starved”: Raj Patel’s comprehensive investigation into the global food network is useful for students to reflect on patterns of poverty that persist today.

Patel’s book sets out to account for “the rot at the core of the modern food system.” This is a curricular journey that our students should also be on — reflecting on patterns of poverty, power, and inequality that stretch from 19thcentury Ireland to 21st century Africa, India, Appalachia, and Oakland; that explore what happens when food and land are regarded purely as commodities in a global system of profit.

But today’s corporate textbook-producers are no more interested in feeding student curiosity about this inequality than were British landlords interested in feeding Irish peasants. Take Pearson, the global publishing giant. At its website, the corporation announces (redundantly) that “we measure our progress against three key measures: earnings, cash and return on invested capital.” The Pearson empire had 2011 worldwide sales of more than $9 billion—that’s nine thousand million dollars, as I might tell my students. Multinationals like Pearson have no interest in promoting critical thinking about an economic system whose profit-first premises they embrace with gusto.

Hunger on Trial teaching activity available online.

As mentioned, there is no absence of teaching materials on the Irish famine that can touch head and heart. In a role play, “Hunger on Trial,” that I wrote and taught to my own students in Portland, Oregon—included at the Zinn Education Project website— students investigate who or what was responsible for the famine. The British landlords, who demanded rent from the starving poor and exported other food crops? The British government, which allowed these food exports and offered scant aid to Irish peasants? The Anglican Church, which failed to denounce selfish landlords or to act on behalf of the poor? A system of distribution, which sacrificed Irish peasants to the logic of colonialism and the capitalist market?

These are rich and troubling ethical questions. They are exactly the kind of issues that fire students to life and allow them to see that history is not simply a chronology of dead facts stretching through time.

So go ahead: Have a Guinness, wear a bit of green, and put on the Chieftains. But let’s honor the Irish with our curiosity. Let’s make sure that our schools show some respect, by studying the social forces that starved and uprooted over a million Irish—and that are starving and uprooting people today.


Bill Bigelow taught high school social studies in Portland, Ore. for almost 30 years. He is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine and co-director of the online Zinn Education Project, This project, inspired by the work of historian Howard Zinn, offers free materials to teach a fuller “people’s history” than is found in commercial textbooks. Bigelow is author or co-editor of numerous books, including A People’s History for the Classroomand The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration.

Bill Bigelow taught high school social studies in Portland, Ore. for almost 30 years. He is the curriculum editor ofRethinking Schools magazine, co-director of the online Zinn Education Project,, and is author of A People’s History for the Classroom.


How Ferguson exposed a civil rights generational divide


The racial crisis in Ferguson, Mo., has uncovered a divide within the Black community – one based on generation, class and the cloudy political vision offered by African-American politics in the Obama age.

When asked who is the leader of the ongoing protests since the killing of Michael Brown – protests that have triggered Missouri’s governor to declare a state of emergency and curfew – one young man from St. Louis answered, “Do we have a leader? No,” and he went on to suggest that the martyred Brown, himself, offered the best example of leadership for Ferguson’s angry and alienated young people.

Two tracks
Protests on the streets of that city operated on two separate tracks: Civil rights leaders organized effective nonviolent marches even as young protesters, and some would-be outlaws, descended into violence and looting in parts of the city. Leaders such as the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton visited Ferguson, but their pleas for calm were ineffective.

Ironically, the Black person who provided arguably the most visible leadership during the Ferguson events was Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, whose forceful yet compassionate presence and policing tactics helped to temporarily defuse the escalating crisis.

That young people in Ferguson refused to heed calls for nonviolence should come as no surprise. Demonstrations at the height of the civil rights era featured sporadic incidents of violence waged by angry Black Americans outraged at racism and poverty, but unwilling or unable to commit to the discipline of nonviolence. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. encountered these episodes in Birmingham, Ala., and Memphis, Tenn., and was famously heckled when he visited Watts in the aftermath of Los Angeles’ 1965 rebellion.

Can’t relate
What makes the current situation different from the 1960s is that we have no Stokely Carmichael or Black Panthers who can properly relate to the young people in and outside of Ferguson, who have used the language of violence to convey rage and disappointment.

Make no mistake. Brown’s killing is not the root cause of Ferguson’s violence. It’s merely the spark that triggered it.

Poverty, segregation, unemployment and a climate of anti-Black racism haunt tiny Ferguson and the wider St. Louis metropolitan area. Riots, Dr. King reminded us, are “the language of the unheard” and oppressed.

It’s no wonder, then, that local young Black men and women can’t identify a single Black leader or organization as the leader of the chaotic demonstrations in which they have participated.

National Black political leaders from the civil rights era have tried, through organizational outreach, speeches, media – both traditional and social – marches and demonstrations to reach out to and stay connected with a new generation of young people. But this effort bumps up against the limitations of resources and outreach.

No advocates
America’s racial underclass, the off-the-grid hustlers and entrepreneurs who many Black elites ignore or demonize, rarely sees political leaders of any color advocating for them. The divide, while generational on the surface, is also fueled by class, as young people with education, networks and access tend to view politics as a long-term process – one that comes with victories, but also compromise and setbacks.

Millions of young Blacks have no entrée to the nuances of American democracy and racial struggle. Their world is more painfully straightforward and wrenching – Black folks get shot in the streets with no hope of justice.

The ideal response to this tragedy, one that our national civil rights narrative promotes but, in fact, was never entirely true, is for the entire Black population of Ferguson to put on their best church clothes and nonviolently show the world what happened to Michael Brown. But in the age of Obama, these young people find the lessons of the civil rights era increasingly hard to comprehend.

What progress?
Certainly, the frequency of police killings of Black men, the Iraq War-styled police presence in Ferguson and the numbing persistence of racial segregation and violence makes talk of racial progress ring hollow.

That puts civil rights leaders in a tough spot. They’re wary of being too critical of President Obama’s track record on race and poverty, aware that Attorney General Eric Holder is his staunch ally and conservatives as “race hustlers have pilloried them” eager to arouse the rabble.

But perhaps most importantly, the very constituency they often claim to speak for – the voiceless Black youth who have come out in Ferguson over the past few weeks – find these leaders’ voices indistinguishable from the political ‘white noise’ that only unfettered violence seems capable of breaking through.

Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is the author of “Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America”, “Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama”, and “Stokely: A Life.”


College Students Are Unprepared to Deal with Racism

Imaani Jamillah El-Burki

Africana Studies Post-Doctoral Fellow, Lehigh University

Posted: 12/04/2013 3:47 pm

Current college students lack the knowledge foundation to deal with the reality of racism. This has been made evident by a recent incident at Lehigh University. Around 2 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 6 a multicultural residence hall, the Umoja House, was egged and vandalized with a series of racial epithets. The actions of these nameless individuals was reminiscent of the overt racism experienced by people of color two or more generations ago; it was an act of terrorism designed to hurt, intimidate and alarm the entire Lehigh community. Furthermore, it became evidence of the serious limitation of our current post-racial “la la land.” In the aftermath of this incident, I found that my students, who are socialized to believe the post-racial rhetoric, are not prepared to deal with the continued existence of racial inequality. They are perplexed when the history of racism reveals itself to be very much a part of our present.

Those who adhere to the current trend in dialogue around race would argue that the campus was taken back in time. After all, many believe we no longer live in a world where overt racism, discrimination or racial terrorism shapes the lives of people of color. People no longer see racism–personal, institutional or otherwise– as an excuse for underachievement, a rationale for special consideration, or a basis for additional societal support. Our current world is one of openness and racial togetherness with equal opportunity to achieve.

It is this rhetoric of racial inclusiveness that has shaped the world of my students. As part of my appointment in the Africana Studies department at Lehigh University, I teach an undergraduate course on media portrayals of race. Two days each week I have the opportunity to teach (and learn from) some of the most open and eager students. These purportedly disengaged Millennials made a conscious decision to study a topic that some would argue is no longer relevant.

The students come to class very optimistic. They are members of a generation that has been taught that it is no big deal for people to be in interracial relationships, and they tend to have some sort of regular contact with those who are different from them. Unlike older generations, they primarily see social class as more of a determinant of marginalization than race and assume racial tolerance and openness. On some level this is very good and must be acknowledged.

And yet we sat in class the Wednesday after the incident and struggled together to figure out how to react and what to do. The vandalism that occurred isn’t supposed to happen in America any more. As such, the sort of conversations we should have, the actions we should take and the search for an appropriate response is certainly not part of their “cultural tool kit.”

As a person who studies racial portrayals and the social impact, I felt momentarily helpless as I acknowledged that educators in the generation before mine, who were raised during the Cold War and who might remember Kennedy’s Voting Rights Act, are now instructing a generation of young people who barely know who Malcolm X is, can recall Che Guevara only because of his image on tee shirts, who do not know about Reagan’s War on Drugs, and think that the presence of financially successful Asian immigrants is an indication that America is on the right path. And while I am generalizing, the truth is that the current generation has no language to discuss racial conflict and are nearly helpless to understand, address and respond to continued racism.

I was confused as well. I am the child of parents who grew up at the end of the Civil Rights Movement. And even as I understand it, it is not a part of my direct experience. My position as the child of intellectuals most likely has more to do with my understanding of the United States’ racialized history than anything else. I have never encountered what my students woke up to that Wednesday morning and did not know how to handle it.

Right now Lehigh is dealing with blatant and deliberate racism. When I spoke with my students they literally asked me what to do. The white students seemed afraid of appearing racist and the black students seemed afraid of appearing overly sensitive or militant. What the entire group had in common was no historical or contemporary context within which to place this act or even discuss to it.

Post-racial students have been abandoned. When it comes to dealing with issues of race many do not know what to do because it is framed as something that no longer occurs, even as what happened tells us it does. The result of believing that racism doesn’t exist is that whenever racist acts or more persistent problems like racial segregation are made obvious, the post-racial generation is required to acknowledge racism in a world where everything provides the opposite message. The students at Lehigh are experiencing a serious disruption to their worldview.

I felt sorry for my students. They were lost and confused. The Civil Rights generation was able to recognize on some level and saw some basis in reality for why people feel racism is an issue, even if they didn’t agree. The current generation doesn’t have that. Let’s protect the next generation by arming them with information. We can do this by teaching them to acknowledge that race matters so that they can effectively fight against racism, and other forms of bigotry, when it appears. This is the only way we will eliminate racism as our social reality for the generations to come.