A Hibernian in the woodpile

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

Published March 17, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

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.

By George Kelly

George Kelly is a copy editor at Salon.

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