President Obama, the white Negroes and the smoked Irish

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In 1850, the very same year a young Offaly man named Falmouth Kearney sailed to America to seek his fortune, the United States Census carried a new classification for a group known as mulattos. Among other reasons, this category was introduced to accommodate the increasing number of children born of inter-racial marriages between African-Americans and Irish immigrants. More than a century and a half later, Kearney’s great-great-great grandson, President Barack Obama, somebody who can trace his bloodlines to exactly that type of relationship, will return to Ireland next week to be greeted with so much adulation it will give a whole new meaning to the term “Black Irish”.

 

Obama is merely the latest African-American icon to be belatedly claimed by Ireland and, by extension, Irish-America as one of our own. The list of the great and the good black legends with Irish connections is long and growing each year. Muhammad Ali’s maternal great-grandfather was Abe Grady from Ennis, Co. Clare. Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan and her link to Ireland was a grandfather. Jimi Hendrix’ mother Nora Moore’s lineage was even more direct, an Irish father. If these are all tangible, authentic ancestral connections (unlike, ahem, the ongoing debate about the veracity of Bill Clinton’s claim to have Fermanagh roots), the question is why it’s taken us so long to address this facet of our diaspora.

 

For generations and generations, the black branches of the Irish-American family tree went untouched and largely ignored outside the obscure provinces of academia. Whether or not this failure was the inevitable byproduct of decades of historic feuding between the two ethnic groups, this seemed, for far too long, to be the genealogy that dare not speak its name. Rosa Parks may well be able to lay claim to being one of the most influential African-American women of the 20thcentury but most people didn’t know until her death in 2005 that her great-grandfather was a Scots-Irishman named McCauley.

 

We learned in school in Cork about Parks’ heroic refusal to sit at the back of the bus and the way it sparked the civil rights’ movement in America but nobody told us she was of Irish stock. Why not? Well, the answer to that case in particular, and our refusal to engage this whole area in general can be best explained by the case of Billie Holiday. The chanteuse was one of 17 children born to a black Virginia slave and a white Irish plantation owner, a vivid tale of its time that highlights how not all relations between African-Americans and Irish were consensual or even formally acknowledged.

 

“My great-granddaddy who was Irish had a nice, pretty, little slave girl and one day he was out walking and visiting, and that’s how we all got mixed up like we are,” said Muhammad Ali with a smile when questioned about his Irish heritage during a 1978 interview on American television. As he always did back then, Ali asserted any white blood in his family could only have come as a result of some slave-owner taking advantage of his chattel. Whatever euphemism Ali used to describe this carry-on, he usually drew uncomfortable laughter from his audience and everybody moved quickly on.

 

Of course, this version of events was untrue and did a grave disservice to Abe Grady who married a freed slave in the 1870s in Kentucky and begat Ali’s maternal line. But the fighter, then in his radical Nation of Islam, anti-whitey phase of his career, regularly told reporters the claim he had white ancestors was a typical attempt by the establishment to try to denigrate blacks who achieve greatness by asserting their white blood had something to do with that success. One can imagine at least some Africa-Americans watching the footage of Obama in Moneygall on CNN next week thinking along similar lines.

 

Having first come to light during his trip to Dublin to fight Al “Blue” Lewis in 1972, Ali’s Irishness was (deliberately or conveniently) forgotten about for nearly three decades. Given the Irish-American propensity to try to establish even the most tenuous linkage to any high-achiever, this seems very odd. Was it his colour that explains this delay? Or was it anything to do with the fact that by the time Abe Grady’s story came to prominence again in the early 2000s, the fighter had made the journey from polarising racial polemicist to respectable grand old man of world sport?

 

That would seem a fair reading after you look at the photographs of Enda Kenny and others joshing with the former champ when he was guest of honour at the American-Ireland fund-raising dinner in Manhattan the other week. By our estimates it took the doyennes of Irish-America nearly forty years to come to terms with, accept, embrace, and, some would now say, try to exploit Ali’s Irishness. Nobody talks about the slave origin myth he used to peddle back in the day. And nobody in his camp asks why he was the curiously forgotten Irishman for so long?

 

The pity in all this is the Irish and the African-Americans once had much more in common than marriages and relationships. For a long time in the 19th century, they shared a space at the bottom of society’s ladder. The ghettoes in which both groups were shoehorned in the big cities across America often overlapped. Hence the love affairs that sprung up. Indeed, their stations were so similar that the Irish were alternatively known as “white Negroes” and “Negroes turned inside out” while their black counterparts were described as “smoked Irish”. No more graphic demonstration of their equality than that.

 

“Those terms reflected the scorn and disdain with which both were regarded by the better-situated, by the leading elements of American society,” said Noel Ignatiev, author of “How the Irish Became White”. “There was speculation that there would be some “amalgamation,” that is, that Irish and black would blend into each other and become one common people. That didn’t happen; in fact, the opposite happened.”

 

As the 19thcentury wore on, the Irish in America moved up the ladder and, as they did so, developed a reputation for racism that they’ve struggled to shake off ever since. This is the elephant in room when it comes to Obama’s trip to Ireland. When the two ethnicities were competing for the worst-paid jobs, they fought violently. Once the Irish got a stranglehold on industries, they did everything they could to keep out their former peers. That they’d been the victims of institutionalized prejudice themselves back home didn’t matter a jot. They gained some semblance of power and they often abused it.

 

If the troubled history between the two explains why Irish-America has been traditionally so reluctant to claim African-Americans with traceable Irish antecedents, all that has changed now. Not long after the news of Obama’s plans to retrace the journey of Falmouth Kearney broke back in March, the first reports appeared in New York’s Irish papers that his wife Michelle also had a connection to the old country through an ancestor by the name of Shields. Well, she’s the First Lady now. She’s ascended high enough to be claimed as one of our own.

 

(first published in the Daily Mail in 2011)
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