Saturday, March 17, 2012

St. Patrick's Day: Kinship, Bridge-Building, and Snake-Wrangling

     In the late 1990’s, I was part of a video link between boy’s high schools in Newark and Orange, New Jersey and Omagh in Ulster. Video links are a simple matter today, but back then, it was cutting edge - it took a tech team on either side of the pond, and we lost either the video or audio portion several times. 

     The event officially was to share story-telling. Unofficially, it was about overcoming decades of segregation and bigotry: racial in the US, religious in Ireland. The US kids were amazed that there could be segregation in Ulster, since they could see no visible difference between the Catholic and Protestant students in the “integrated” Ulster prep school. The Irish kids were likewise amazed that in America those who called themselves Catholic or Protestant would reject a co-religionist of a different complexion.

     One of the school administrators sat down next to me on camera, and said that he was also of Cherokee ancestry. He began speaking about the upcoming New Year celebration, and his mother’s recipe for Ceremony Stew. Few non-Cherokee would have known any of these details, so I had to accept him as legitimate. I then pointed out to both audiences that they now saw a man who appeared black and a man who appeared white, and that’s the way the greater society would always see us. But we were also Cherokee, and although we had just met, we regarded each other as cousins, would address each other in Cherokee as “cousin”, and would be welcome in each others’ home.  

     (The Irish knew the story of how the Choctaw, decimated and impoverished by their forced removal to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), had been so distressed by news of the Potato Famine starvation and death that they organized a collection drive and sent money to Ireland to help. That story is well-known in Ireland, but little-known in America.)

     I was there to share Cherokee teaching stories. To explain the breadth of Native American diversity, I joked that in America, we already knew everything about Irish culture. After all, on St. Patrick’s Day, the cable channels showed both “The Quiet Man” and “The Commitments.” That brought a laugh from Ireland!

Say It Loud, They're Black and Proud.

     “The Commitments” is Alan Parker’s 1991 film about a group of 20-something poor Dubliners who decide that since the world already treats them like n*gg*rs, the best thing to do is form an R&B group. 

     “The Irish are the blacks of Europe,” says would-be band leader Jimmy Rabbitte. “Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. North Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it loud, I am Black and I am proud.”

     But none of the characters are Black, none of them has ever met a Black American. They know Black America only from media. One band member tells stories about all the soul and rhythm & blues stars he’s played with… B.B. King, Martha and the Vandellas, and for all we know, he could be making it all up. None of his new followers has any way to check it out, because they don’t even know any Black Americans.

     The old Southern bluesmen and gospel singers said of the situation, “you gotta be laughin' to keep from cryin', gotta be singin' to keep from weepin'.” In Africa, the most desperately poor villages are full of the happiest music. In Native America, the music bubble up the surface almost without warning. In poetry, Ireland is called “The Land of Song”, perhaps for the same reasons.   

     Yet, by the end of the film the band has accomplished an important mission. They have given North Dublin a positive sense of identity, something to take pride in, and a sense that they may be able to endure their lives of struggle by learning from a distant people who have overcome. The Dubliners still don’t know and Black Americans, they aren’t organizing clothing drives or heating assistants for elderly blacks in America, and they aren’t claiming to be from a hidden tribe of Zulus stranded in Connacht. From the beginning, it was never about connecting with or helping Black America, and never pretended to be. 

     I think of it every time I see people who have just learned something about NDN history becoming strident, despite having few facts and little experience. The band's initial experiments are awful, as are those of many pick-up neo-NDN groups. These often seem like child-with-a-violin screech to the rest of us (like that ridiculously-large ‘medicine drum’ touring the world and other cultural abuses), but they are often born of a sincere desire to improve some aspect of life. We have to be adults and realize that they aren’t doing it to offend us, and probably aren’t doing it to please or pander to us. In fact, they probably don’t know us or even want to. But we can at least offer violin lessons to reduce the screech.  

      Unless that screech can drive the snakes out!

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig ar gach duine! 
May the Blessings of St. Patrick's Day be on each of you!

For my American friends: rent "The Commitments"
For my European friends: rent "Smoke Signals"

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