Constructing Whiteness at the Gates of Hell: Black 47's "Five Points"
By Lauren Onkey
In September of 1996, members of New York's Irish-American community sponsored a fundraising event called "Out of the Ashes: An Irish Evening to Re-Build Burned Black Churches" at the club Tramps. The evening featured speeches by Bernadette Devlin McAliskey and David Dinkins and a performance by the New York band Black 47. Promotional material for the event insisted that it was incumbent upon the Irish community to support African American civil rights struggles:
This rhetorical alliance between the Irish and African Americans assumes a shared history of oppression, yet the use of italics reveals that such an alliance is contested. Its audience may need reminding about how such a black/green alliance might work. And of course it does, because Irish American history is fraught with racism, from the 1863 "draft" riots in New York to the Boston busing riots of 1975.
Black 47's music embodies this ambivalence, because they attempt to forge links between Irish nationalist struggles, the fate of the Irish immigrant in the United States, and the civil rights of African Americans. Although their music confidently asserts connections, it also reveals the limitations of these leftist minstrels. Black 47 was formed in the Bronx in 1989 by Chris Byrne, an Irish American cop and musician, and Larry Kirwan, a musician and playwright from Wexford, who emigrated to New York in the 1970s. Their music is an eclectic mixture of a traditional Irish ceili band with rap, reggae, and New Orleans-style brass band horns. At their best, Black 47 draws on hip hop's energy and political cache to recast the Irish American experience. They seem to enjoy the discomfort their use of black music inspires in some Irish Americans, reporting in songs and interviews that their music was not met with enthusiasm in New York's Irish bars because it violated their audience's expectations for "Irish" music. In "Rockin' the Bronx" from their first CD Fire of Freedom (1993), they tell the story of the band's beginnings facing hostile audiences and confused club owners: "Then a flinstone from the Phoenix gave us a call/But when he heard the beat, he was quite appalled/D'yez not know nothin' by Christy Moore?" to which thge band replies, "The next thing you'll be wantin' is 'Danny Boy'." They proudly represent themselves as "black" outsiders to an establishment Irish American community: "we got a new noise/And it would please us greatly to come uptown/And show you Paddies how we get on down." Their beat and boasting disrupt the sense of racial privilege that many Irish Americans have come to take for granted.
Of course, it's not news when an Irish band evokes musical solidarity with African Americans - U2, Van Morrison, and Roddy Doyle's fictional band The Commitments have all acted out the role I call the "celtic soul brother." [ 1 ] These musicians most often forge an unproblematic link with African Americans: the Irish have been oppressed by the British, and therefore soul and rhythm & blues are appropriate vehicles for Irish musicians to express Irish identity. Playing African American music becomes a way for a band like U2 to define themselves as authentic, part of the "folk," against corporate rock. But such identifications reinscribe African Americans as noble savages, naturally more in tune with truth and soul than whites who have "progressed" into post-modernity.
Placed in the context of the history of the Irish in the United States, these Celtic soul brothers become even more suspect. In recent years the subject of Ireland's ambiguous "whiteness" has been traced by David Roediger, Theodore Allen, and Noel Ignatiev. Their work has established that the Irish ultimately constructed themselves as white in order to survive and later prosper in America, where they were more apt to be defined as a dark raceÛa definition adopted from English representations of the Irish, useful as a way to demonize a large group of new immigrants to the United States.[ 2 ] As David Roediger puts it, in antebellum America, "it was by no means clear that the Irish were white." (134)
In order to gain the privilege of whiteness, the Irish in America rejected any possible alliance with blacks. To define themselves as slaves was to put themselves too low on the food chain in the United States. Roediger reports that Irish Americans were "deeply offended" when James Buchanan suggested in the 1856 campaign that the Irish were not slaves of the British. But Roediger argues that "to compare Irish and African oppression forfeited any claims of Irish-Americans to be qualified for freedom by republican criteria." They instead "treasured their whiteness, as entitling them to both political rights and to jobs":
Studies such as Roediger's work as correctives to easy alliances between the Irish and African Americans or other colonized peoples.
If we follow the change in Irish America's racial status from not quite white to white to now self-consciously black we see a consistent trope of the Irish defining their racial character via blacks. Black 47 is the latest manifestation of this trope, embracing a self-conscious "blackness" to define a more radical Irish American identity. This use of blackness to redefine Irishness evokes in many ways the history of minstrelsy. In Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, Eric Lott asserts that minstrelsy functioned as a way to create whiteness:
Lott's book shows how new immigrants, especially but not only the Irish, created a white identity through their ability to put on and take off blackness. But minstrelsy also represents the possible transgressions of racial borders: "Underwritten by envy as well as repulsion, sympathetic identification as well as fear, the minstrel show continually transgressed the color line even as it made possible the formation of a self-consciously white working class."
I've come to see Black 47 as performing a kind of nationalist, leftist minstrelsy in their use of blackness. Evoking "blackness," reminding people that the Irish can "get on down," enables Black 47 to define a kind of nationalist Irish American by reconnecting the severed interests of the Irish republic, Northern Ireland, and Irish immigrants. They are the first rock band to make this link in America, the site where the Irish have historically asserted their whiteness. What does it mean, then, to be a "celtic soul brother" against the history of Irish America's chosen whiteness and racial oppression?
Musically, Black 47 tries to conjure the relationship between Irish Americans and African Americans by using hip-hop to tell the story of struggles of Irish immigrants and Irish nationalists. They define Irishness as an identity which naturally and historically works against racism and injustice. Black 47's nationalist songs are pretty traditional fare with a socialist strain. They include a tribute to Michael Collins, "The Big Fellah," "James Connolly" and even Constance Markiviecz. Their nationalism is not confined to the past; they've also recorded nationalist songs about the war in Northern Ireland like "Bobby Sands MP."
In "Time to Go" from Home of the Brave, they depict relations between Britain and the Irish in Northern Ireland in terms of race, using their most direct rapping style:
They talk about race here in specifically American terms by comparing British actions in Northern Ireland to the KKK, which suggests that the most viable image to use to represent racism is American.
By asserting a link with African Americans in overtly nationalist terms, Black 47 hearken back to the Northern Irish Civil Rights Movement's use of "We Shall Overcome" as a marching song in 1968. That alliance was effective in defining the war in Northern Ireland in colonial terms rather than the product of "unruly hooligans" or an "angry race." It is not surprising, then, that Black 47 have worked with Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, who spoke publicly about the connections between the NICRM and civil rights for blacks in the U.S., which brought her scorn from many in the Irish American community. As she told an American reporter in 1969: "Many [Irish Americans] do not want to make room for the guy on the lower rungÛin this case, the black man" ("The Maid of Bogside").[ 1 ] America plays a crucial role in definitions of both Ireland's rejection of its colonial status (i.e., the choice of whiteness) and the possibility of a more fluid, disruptive Irish identity (blackness). Black 47 reminds us that the famine is the root of both those possibilities.
The name Black 47 performs two functions: it memorializes the famine which devastated the Irish population, but it also celebrates the possibility of an Irish-black alliance, because 1847 brought the Irish to America in large numbers. Emigration ruptures Irish history and leaves an emptiness that needs a new narrative to account for the wound. Roediger, Ignatiev, and Lott suggest that the Irish created a white identity in the face of that emptiness. So by evoking solidarity with blacks at the moment of loss rather than asserting whiteness, the name Black 47 questions the whiteness of the Irish, and explores the creative and political possibilities of blackness. Of famine commemorations, Kirwan has said: "I think that the emphasis should be on the political as well as the memorial, because we can learn from what happened...How do we utilize what happened with Ireland, the lesson of the Famine? How can we solve problems that are ongoing?" (Roden)
It may seem strange to speak of the famine as producing possibilities for this relationship, but such is the nature of Black 47's hybrid Irish nationalism. Luke Gibbons argues for a notion of post-colonial hybridity which can break out of the model of colonial center vs. colonized margin, where the colonized mimic the ways of the colonizer to gain status: "Another way of negotiating identity through an exchange with the other is to make provision, not just for 'vertical' mobility from the periphery to the centre, but for 'lateral' journeys along the margins which short-circuit the colonial divide. ...Hybridity need not always take the high road: where there are borders to be crossed, unapproved roads might prove more beneficial in the long run than those patrolled by global powers." (180)
Daniel O'Connell and Frederick Douglass saw the possibilities of what Gibbons calls "unapproved roads." Douglass toured Ireland during 1845-46 to see the results of the famine and felt connections between Irish suffering and slavery. O'Connell was aggressively anti-slavery, and encouraged Irish Americans to join the abolition cause. In 1842, 70,000 Irish signed an antislavery petition "which called on Irish-Americans to 'cling by the abolitionists' in seeking not just the end of slavery but of racial discrimination as well. The address advised: 'Irishmen and Irishwomen! treat the colored people as your equals, as brethren.'" (Roediger 134)
The alliances Douglass and O'Connell were trying to forge had the potential to disrupt the oppressive definitions of both blacks and the Irish. Black 47 represent the famine as tragedy, but they also reveal emigration, and its resulting hybridity, as an asset which can explode notions of pure identity. Black 47 conjure the spirit of anti-slavery work by the Irish in Ireland and the musical mixing in New York neighborhoods like the Five Points. That positive aspect of relations between the Irish and African Americans in the U.S. needs to be recovered, and there have been very few voices on the Irish American side making such a case.
Black 47 make these connections by writing about Irish national history, current Irish immigrants and conditions in Northern Ireland using hip hop beats as a backdrop. By renewing this story over a contemporary beat, the band seeks to connect the fractured and displaced identity of the African American with the Irish. They also use the hip-hop beat to critique some Irish American immigrants. In "Danny Boy," from their second CD Home of the Brave (1994), they tell the story of a young gay immigrant who gets a job working construction and faces homophobic attacks from coworkers, reminding listeners of the intense anti-gay tactics of New York and Boston's Irish American community. The band's work suggests that unless traditional instruments and rhythms can accommodate both the rhythm of the Bronx and the stories of the Bronx, it will die. The immigrant must fight insularity and the drive towards whiteness.
Other than one song about Paul Robeson, however, there is little reciprocity in their work. Like their predecessors, Black 47 use African Americans as a way to redefine Irishness, without much interest in African Americans or relations between the groups. Therefore their "blackness" remains static, short-circuiting its radical possibilities.
The limitations of Black 47's approach are revealed on their latest record, Green Suede Shoes (1996) where the band pays tribute to the immigrants who were herded into deadly slums of New York, especially in the notorious Five Points neighborhood. For Black 47, the emigrant of the past is exempt from the prejudices exhibited by Irish Americans in the present. Their nineteenth century emigrants are always fighting for freedom and on the side of labor. The back cover of the CD, the inner booklet, and the CD itself feature a photo from Jacob Riis' classic study of New York slums, How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the tenements of New York. These crowded but proud figures in an alley figure as the band's spiritual ancestors.
Although the album, unlike their previous efforts, consists of songs almost entirely set in the present, the ubiquitous Irish photos make "The Five Points"Ûthe only song set in the distant past of Irish-American historyÛthe key to the album. The Five Points was one of the worst slums in lower New York, and the center of the Irish American enclave in the mid nineteenth-century. It was also the site of much musical mixing between Irish and blacks, as Lott reports. But it is not such mixing that the song celebratesÛfor one thing, the song exhibits none of the musical mixing so prevalent in some of the earlier songs; it's a sped-up, Pogues-like reel.
The narrator of the song is a "draft" rioter from 1863. For five days in July 1863 armed rioters disrupted enforcement of the first federal conscription act in New York City, largely in the Five Points area. The role of the Irish in the New York City Draft Riots is one horrific example of the Irish constructing themselves as white. Although the spark was conscription, the riot brought other urban tensions to the fore, as Iver Bernstein points out: "relations between the wealthy and the poor, between blacks and whites, and between the city and the nation"(8). Democrats predicted that emancipation would bring north low-wage black freemen to compete with white laborers for employment. After a few days of rioting, the Irish made up the majority of the rioters. Increasingly, the rioters focused their attacks on blacks: they burned the Colored Orphan Asylum, the Longshoreman's Association drove blacks away from the piers, and on Roosevelt Street, tenements that housed black families were burned. Bernstein describes such attacks as grotesque "street theater."
The narrator of Black 47's song is a unironic hero, resisting conscription and railing against the conditions of the slums. There is no suggestion in the song that the riot was about anything more than immigrants rising up against their living conditions, no sense that the war against slavery might be a worthy cause:
When the narrator of "The Five Points" sings, "Them soldier boys are runnin' wild/Down by the Gates of Hell," it cannot help but to evoke stories of the army coming into the Five Points to stop lynching. Iver Bernstein describes the event this way:
Bernstein suggests that these events ritually "purified" the Irish American community of blacks and established the sexual and political power of the white figure.
In their attempt to highlight Irish resistance to conscription and frustration with their living conditions, I think Black 47 want to suggest that this was a moment when the Irish feel "black." But it's just not that simple. "The Five Points" cannot help but to evoke stories of Irish men attacking blacks. By celebrating the arsonist, Black 47 elides an ugly part of the emigrant's history, but a necessary one if they want to speak from a position of shared oppression. The song ultimately reflects a "loss of memory" that limits the political possibilities of their attempted alliance. Certainly Black 47's political sympathies and their political work suggest that they recognize the racism of contemporary Irish Americans. But if Black 47 sees themselves, as I think they do, as representing a new kind of Irish American, then a new account of the past is in order, too.
3 Devlin repeated this message to reporters and to audiences of Irish Americans many times during her first U.S. fundraising tour in 1969, and it did not always go over well in a conservative Irish American community.
Allen, Theodore. The Invention of the White Race. Volume One: Racial Oppression and Social Control New York: Verso, 1994.
Bernstein, Iver The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War New York: Oxford UP, 1990
Black 47. Fire of Freedom. SBK Records,
Gibbons, Luke. "Unapproved Roads: Ireland and Post-Colonial Identity." Transformations in Irish Culture. South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996
Ignatiev, Noel. How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford UP, 1993
Out of the Ashes presents An Irish Evening to Re-Build Burned Black Churches. http://www.wbaifree.org/radiofreeireann/ashes.html
Roden, Christina. "Requiem for 1847: Three Irish Musicians Talk About the Great Famine." http://www.rootsworld.com/rw/feature/famine_Kirwan.html
Roediger, David The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class New York: Verso, 1991
"The Maid of Bogside: 'She's Here!'" Newsweek, September 8, 1969. 42- 43