The Irish Black Thing

When the media probe the homicides resulting from gang wars, taking place in my Oakland neighborhood, they call upon the two or three African Americans listed on their Rolodexes to comment. Most of them live in places like Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Similarly, those on cable, who are commenting about how the “white working class,” or “Reagan democrats” are going to vote in Pennsylvania are as distant from “the white working class” as those Harvard experts are distant from the lives of those who live in neighborhoods like mine.

From the way they behave as experts on the “blue collar workers,” however, you’d think that they brown-bagged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to work instead of dining in some of the most exclusive restaurants in New York and Washington, often with the people whom they cover. That they motor to work in used Chevys instead of being chauffeur-driven in network limousine services.

Columnist Maureen Dowd identified the ethnics who are referred to in euphemistic phrases. She said that they were members of her tribe, the Irish (Times, 3/19/08), who are opposing Barack Obama’s steady march toward the Democratic nomination, ignoring the fact that hundreds of thousands of Irish Americans have probably already voted for the senator. As Dan Cassidy, author of CounterPunch Books’ How The Irish Invented Slang emailed me

“The [Rev]. Wright pseudo-flap sure isn’t keeping mainstream Dem. Micks from endorsing Obama in slews, ie Bob Casey other day, Pat Leahy, Teddy Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy, Patrick K., etc. I was with a slew of writers from Bill Kennedy to Dan Barry at NYT, TJ English, Peter Quinn, Terry Golway, etc ets & all are for Obama.”

Although there are many progressive Irish Americans like Cassidy, the media profile of Irish America lies somewhere between shrill talk-show hosts, who yell and interrupt their guests or a snarling resentful Archie Bunker types, or Bernard McQuirk ,whose comment about the Rutgers basketball team led to Don Imus’s firing, or a pugnacious Pat Buchanan who believes that it was Grant who surrendered at Appomattox.

In the movies it’s “Dirty Harry Callahan” who violates the constitutional rights of suspects.

There seems to be no place for a Pat Goggins of the San Francisco United Irish Cultural Center, or authors Bob Callahan and Dan Cassidy, who have worked for decades to heal whatever divisions exist between African Americans and Irish Americans.

When a memorial was held for Callahan in Berkeley, a few weeks ago, there were African Americans in attendance including Al Young, the poet laureate of California, and Joyce Carol Thomas, winner of a National Book Award. Callahan not only counted friends in the African-American community but Native American and Hispanic communities as well. He’s the one who put me in touch with Andy Hope, poet of the Tlingit tribe, a relationship that led to my partner, Carla Blank, and I to being made honorary Klan members on September 26, 1998, during an all day potlatch held in Sitka, Alaska.

When I told a professor at an eastern college that my mother and grandmother claimed Irish ancestry, he laughed. Since the Irish were indentured servants working on the same plantations as African Americans, why should it be a surprise that hundreds of thousands of African Americans are members of the Celtic Diaspora as well as the African Diaspora? Gerry Adams, of Sinn Fein, cited this plantation experience when lecturing to students at the University of California at Berkeley.

He said that it was the plantation owners who created whiteness as a standard. They wanted to separate the two groups. Some of those Irish men who left Ireland during the potato famine married African-American women, and as Noel Ignatiev points out in his book, How The Irish Became White, Irish American women married African American men. He writes,

“In New York, the majority of cases of ‘mixed’ matings involving Irish women.The same was true in Boston. A list of employees of the Narragansett and National Brick company in 1850 includes a number described as of Irish nationality who are also listed as “mulattoes.”

In the 1860s, Muhammad Ali’s great great grandfather, Abe Grady, came from Ireland. If Alex Haley had done a “Roots” about tracing his father’s ancestry it would have taken him twelve generations into Ireland. Isn’t it odd that so called Reagan democrats — Dowd’s Irish –e would be opposed to Obama. His mother was Irish, a descendant of Falmouth Kearney, who arrived in New York in 1850, a fact never mentioned when the cable guys are exhibiting their expertise about bowling and beer guzzling.

As the late John Mohar of the Delancey Street Foundation said, when introducing me at a dinner held by the Celtic Foundation, if one drop of black blood makes you black- a commercial definition created by those for whom human beings were assets like cattle — why doesn’t one drop of Irish blood make you Irish?

The cotton planter’s one-drop rule shows little change in racial definitions since the medieval notion that the child of a black and white relationship would be polka dot.

American scientists may be able to analyze the chemical composition of one of Saturn’s moons, but when it comes to race ,the national discussion is back in the stone age. Some of our leading public intellectuals sound like Fred Flinstones when discussing the issue. Callahan knew his way around this and other topics, because he did his homework. In the material distributed during his memorial service held at Anna’s Jazz Island in Berkeley, Robert Owen Callahan was described as “Gifted with a silver tongue, rapid-fire synaptic flashes and a huge store of talk, he was unabashed in his enthusiasms, embracing the best of both the schlock and the sublime of American culture and with a characteristic Callahan zeal.”

He had a gargantuan intellectual appetite. (He could eat, too!)He was a genius. He had a mind that roamed over a number of fields of interests, from ecology, archeology, anthropology, botany, the Native American oral tradition to comics.

He edited The New Smithsonian Book Of Comic Book Stories. He wrote the narrative for the famous graphics novel, “The Dark Hotel,” illustrated by the great cartoonist, Spain Rodriguez. It was a cult classic. He was also a publisher.

I introduced Callahan to Zora Neale Hurston. He was responsible for republishing some of her books, including her masterpiece, Tell My Horse. At the time of his death, he was working with Joyce Carol Thomas on a graphics novel based upon Zora Neale Hurston’s work. We both took tenuous steps into each other’s world. When Callahan invited me to a dinner held by the Irish Cultural Center I called him several times during the day to seek his assurance that I wouldn’t be harmed. I was treated very well, and my presence was even announced from the stage. On the night of the Holmes-Cooney fight, Callahan his son David and I went to the Oakland auditorium to watch it on the big screen. While David, who was a youngster at the time, mingled with the crowd, Callahan, seeing that he and David were the only whites in attendance, looked around and said, “I hope that Cooney loses.”

While the Irish and Blacks have clashed in street riots, there have also been instances where the blacks and Irish joined in rebellion. On the evening of March 5, 1770, Crispus Attucks, an African American was in the front lines of a group of thirty to sixty Americans who clashed with the British, resulting in the Boston Massacre. Behind Attucks were those described by John Adams, who represented the British Soldiers, in court, as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs”.

The result of this confrontation was the Boston Massacre. In 1741 a group consisting of Irish and blacks engaged in a “plot to burn New York and murder its inhabitants.” The leader, a slave named Ceasar, Peggy Kerry and a catholic priest named John Ur were executed.

John F.Kennedy, in the minds of some, did more to advance the Civil Rights movement than any president in history, publicly as well as privately. When I visited the black employees at Lockheed Martin in February, I was informed that Kennedy threatened to withhold federal funds unless Lockheed integrated its lunch rooms. Maybe that’s why, according to Abraham Bolden, author of The Echo from Dealy Plaza, some white secret service men called Kennedy “a nigger lover,” and vowed never to take a bullet for the president. Both Callahan and I were Kennedy admirers; Callahan was co-author of Who Shot JFK?.

We listened to each other and learned from each other. It was Callahan who selected some New York Irish American intellectuals to lecture at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Such inter ethnic communication is far more useful than cable shows pitting one group against another in an effort to raise ratings. No one denies that a racial divide exists in the country; the media exacerbate it for money. That’s been the American media’s mission for over two hundred years. A number of those murderous riots during which the Irish and blacks clashed were inflamed by a yellow press.

Callahan taught me a lot about myself and about the history of white ethnics something that my formal education neglected to cover. In the school books as well as in the media, we’re either blacks or whites. The whites are always San Antonio, and blacks are always the Knicks.

Callahan was a white man who listened. Though he would object to such a designation. Callahan, editor of “Callahan’s Irish Quarterly, “and author of The Big Book Of Irish-American Culture was most of all an Irish American.

We got along with Callahan because unlike many “whites,” he never forgot where he came from. He never forgot his roots.

[Note: In 2007 the magazine Irish America voted Dan Cassidy one its 100 top Irish Americans in that year. The same magazine similarly honored CounterPunch coeditor Alexander Cockburn in 1992. Editors.]

ISHMAEL REED is a poet, novelist and essayist who lives in Oakland. His widely-accalimed novels include, Mumbo Jumbo, the Freelance Pallbearers and the Last Days of Louisiana Red. He has recently published a fantastic book on Oakland: Blues City: a Walk in Oakland and Carroll and Graf has recently published a thick volume of his poems: New and Collected Poems: 1964-2006.

He is also the editor of the online zine Konch.

Copyright 2008 ISHMAEL REED






Ishmael Reed’s latest play is “The Conductor.”