A Hibernian in the woodpile

On St. Patrick's Day, I'm black and green and not blue at all.

Topics: St. Patrick\'s Day,

Recently released U.S. Census data reveal telling demographic, or at least attitudinal, shifts afoot in the American population and how Americans identify themselves in terms of race. A New York Times story says 5 percent of African-Americans identified themselves as multiracial, or belonging to more than one race; that’s many more than government forecasters with the Office of Management and Budget were expecting.

But this is nothing new for me. In fact, this kind of self-reflection about my mixed heritage is something of an annual ritual. On past St. Patrick’s Days, close white friends have joked about my being “black Irish.” That’s been my cue to trot out a story about my great-great-grandfather, Albert Kelly, who got off a boat from Ireland in Philadelphia in 1868. The family griot, my uncle Douglas who lives in Washington state, says that Kelly married Hilda Cheatham, a Cherokee woman, and settled down on a farm in Mathews County, Va. The youngest of their four children, James Handy Kelly, was my great-grandfather and grew up to spawn my father’s side of the family.

The phrase “black Irish” trips off people’s tongues without much thought. In 20th-century mythology, a romantic cast of characters explains the term: Spanish sailors with generations of Moorish blood in their veins, shipwrecked on Irish shores after being separated from the Spanish Armada; Irishmen deported from Cromwell’s England, pressed into indentured servitude and eventually intermarrying with Africans and Indians on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, yielding descendants who still allegedly speak in a distinct brogue to this day. Others contend it’s an American term that bears no relationship to actual African or Hispanic heritage, while still others blarney further on a genealogical mailing list.

Calling a white person “black Irish” doesn’t seem exclusionary in the same way calling a light-skinned black person a “redbone” would, given the African-American community’s long-running issues with skin color. But I guess the issue isn’t what you call yourself or what you can get others to call you, but how comfortable you are in your own skin.

I’m not the only brother with a Hibernian in the woodpile, either. In “MultiAmerica: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace,” the African-American author Ishmael Reed writes of being invited to Irish cultural events because of his Irish heritage, and recalls attending an Irish-American writers conference at San Francisco’s New College in March 1995. And in an interview in “Solo,” a 1998 book on women singer-songwriters, the African-American jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson briefly riffed on her affinity for Irish culture. “We have to deal with the fact that a lot of us do have European ancestry. That’s something that we don’t readily talk about,” Wilson said. “Why am I so drawn to Irish culture and why do I feel so comfortable with the music? I often wonder if that feeling has something to do with Irish ancestry … There’s a lot happening in many of us. I think you have to celebrate every part. It’s what you are.”

And, of course, the Irish themselves weren’t always thought of as being altogether white. Anti-Irish sentiment after the great potato famine migration of the 1840s led to their being called “Irish niggers”; the two despised groups were often lumped together at the bottom of the American bucket. Two of the 19th century’s great African-Americans were well aware of the parallels.

“During my stay in Dublin, I took occasion to visit the huts of the poor in its vicinity and of all places to witness human misery, ignorance, degradation, filth and wretchedness, an Irish hut is pre-eminent,” Frederick Douglass wrote. “I see much here to remind me of my former condition … He who really and truly feels for the American slave cannot steel his heart to the woes of others.”

W.E.B. DuBois, who grew up in Great Barrington, Mass., in the 1870s, recalled that “the racial angle was more clearly defined against the Irish than against me.”

Still, “African-American” is how I identify myself. It’s how others seem to see me as well, and it’s not as personal a battle for me as it is for some mixed-race people. For some, not acknowledging both sides of their ancestry amounts to a fundamental betrayal of their family’s history. I’m not judging their decision, but it doesn’t feel that way to me personally. I also know that racial data translate into political power. So I’m not checking any other box on future census forms, regardless of my motley heritage. I love the idea that I’ve got some Irish in me, but I’m not ready to go so far as to define myself as Irish-American. Then again, I’m a guy who can’t say the word “Cablinasian” without laughing out loud. The joke will be on me someday soon when my Delhi-born wife and I decide to have kids and raise them as modest, unassuming superhuman golf ‘droids.

But maybe one-race-box-checking guys like me are destined to go the way of the dodo. On this census, not only did lots of black people identify themselves as belonging to more than one racial group, but millions of white people all over America acknowledged their Native American roots. This led to a huge leap in the American Indian population in the latest census, one not directly attributable to birth and death rates, outmarriage, mixed-ethnicity kids or even to the lust for a casino license.

I’m looking forward to my friend Adrienne’s prediction that America will “turn into Brazil.” It may confuse the hell out of the Census Bureau, but we’ll win a lot more beauty pageants and soccer games.

George Kelly is a copy editor at Salon.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>