So how do we get there if not by electing our nation’s first African-American president? The 2008 election made history, but did not change it.
Still, it signified a seismic shift in our culture, and, while the ground continues to move beneath us, we have an opportunity to reexamine our old assumptions, forge new connections, and create a new narrative, a new path.
Artists can lead this effort, some already are, and in a way that also sheds light on the path to Irish America’s future.
Percy Shelley called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” and “the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.” Like an activist who runs for office not to win, but to advance a cause not yet popular, artists can pave the way for a future we know is right and good, but from which history and habit sometimes holds us back.
The history of Irish American and African American relations is complicated and sometimes uncomfortable, and, as such, has not invited a lot of public conversation.
Nothing facilitates a conversation, of course, like good theater, which at its best uses drama and poetry to elevate history while simultaneously boiling it down to its essential paradoxes, as the Irish playwright Donal O’Kelly and African-American playwright Roger Guenveur Smith have done with “The Cambria” and “Frederick Douglass Now.”
Taken together, the two plays offer an illuminating view of the complicated relationship between the “black and the green,” and, hopefully, will nourish the broader dialogue on race that our country’s recent history has invited us to engage, the sustained commitment to which is the only likely path to post-racial society.
In 1845, after publishing his autobiography, “A Narrative of the Life of an American Slave,” Frederick Douglass, seeking refuge from bounty hunters and enraged slaveholders, traveled aboard the paddle steamer Cambria to England and eventually to Ireland.
There, he was greeted as a hero by the Irish people, and lauded by leaders like Daniel O’Connell, who found common cause with Douglass because of their own experiences of slavery and oppression. Writing to William Lloyd Garrison about the Irish people, he remarked that they “measure and esteem men according to their moral and intellectual worth, and not according to the color of their skin,” and that he was treated “not as a thing, but as a child of the common Father of us all.”
Less than twenty years later, of course, America was embroiled in a Civil War fought largely over the issue of slavery, and which contained one of Irish America’s ugliest moments: the Draft Riots of 1863. Earlier that year, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and the Conscription Act, neither of which was greeted warmly by many Irish (and German) immigrant workers at the time, who felt that newly liberated blacks, immune from the draft as non-citizens, would compete for jobs that had already become scarce during wartime.
Protests against institutions led to violence against people, and before order could be restored, mobs of laborers, mostly Irish and German, had brutally beaten and murdered scores of their fellow Americans, including many African-Americans.
O’Kelly’s and Smith’s plays, respectively, use the Cambria voyage and Douglass’s 19th century writings as clues from the past to illuminate the paradoxes of our complicated present. Today, it is Ireland that struggles with ethnic assimilation, as immigration into the country increases amid economic distress, while in America, more Irish voted for Barack Obama than John McCain, ostensibly one of their own.
The plays offer two perspectives on Douglass, and a simultaneously hopeful and challenging take on what the Douglass story means for us today.
Hopefully, the Douglass dialogue between these “black and green” playwrights will not only diversify theatre audiences, but also stimulate further dialogue among them. During a brief showcase of “The Cambria” last March, one of the most moving moments came not onstage but during a post-show talkback, when an eighteen year old woman, who was half African American and half Irish American, thanked the playwright for inviting her to connect to her Irish heritage for the first time.
Those of us who care about Irish culture stand on the shoulders of heroes who preserved the great songs and stories of Ireland as they came to American shores and stuck together, married each other, and hired each other when no one else would.
But like all good things in America, Irish America will flourish to the extent that it evolves and embraces change.
To remain relevant and vibrant as a culture, and as a people, we need to do more than simply preserve the great stories and traditions of the past, though preserve them we will.
To really keep them alive, we must redouble our efforts to share them with other cultures, embracing the unfamiliar, and build a new narrative for Irish America together.
Aidan Connolly is executive director of the Irish Arts Center, which presents Cambria/Douglass in rotating repertory through October 25th. For tickets, visit www.smarttix.com or call 212-868-4444.