Were our national heroes “racist”?

Thomas J. Clarke is the first name on the Proclamation of the Irish Republic and arguably the man most responsible for the 1916 Rising.

However, an awkward incident that should be addressed is his use of the N-word in a letter home while in New York in 1900.

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Many people will say that he was of his time, and that we shouldn’t judge too harshly the words of a man who lived over a hundred years ago. Yet according to the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) of America the word was already “regarded as pejorative in the early nineteenth century”. In relatively liberal, multicultural New York this would certainly have been the case, but even if the word was just fine and dandy, referring to a whole race of people as “absurd” surely wasn’t.

Arthur Griffith is another name familiar to all. He was President of Dáil Éireann and founder of Sinn Féin, a party that amongst other things today encourages the immigration of refugees to Ireland. Would Arthur Griffith today be pleased at that particular policy of his party? It’s an interesting question.

The vast majority of Irish socialists, not just Sinn Féin, support multiculturalism in the Irish republic. The proclamation phrase “cherishing all the children of the nation equally” has been interpreted by many as meaning “all children, not just Irish children”. But is this interpretation justifiable or a betrayal of Griffith’s vision?

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Again, the belief of the modern Irish person seems at odds with Arthur Griffith’s view, which was not a vision of a multicultural and diverse Ireland as propounded by today’s Sinn Féin, but a nationalist one of Irish men and women.

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No country’s past is clean as a whistle, and Ireland is no exception. But perhaps we do need to abandon our sense of victimhood and scrutinise our past a little more than we have done over the last hundred years.

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Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut of Irish soldiers in 1521

Albrecht Dürer was a great German painter and printmaker of the late medieval period and in 1521 he produced a wonderful woodcut of Irish mercenary soldiers on the European continent.

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Perhaps the most striking thing about the image is the Irishmen’s hair, which wouldn’t look out of place at a bar in Williamsburg.

The haircut was known as a “glib” and was disliked so much by the English that attempts were made at prohibiting it later in the 16th century. These didn’t work however, and the haircut became a symbol of rebellion in a country struggling for its freedom.

Pitchfork owes Irish hip-hop an apology

Love it or loathe it – and as many people loathe it as love it – Pitchfork is the millennial generation’s MTV. The hipster’s bible of all things musical, it reaches millions of fans every month and is so influential that its rating system has even been the subject of an hilarious hatchet-job by those masters of satire The Onion (“Pitchfork gives music 6.8“).

That’s why it was so troubling for me to read their article about up-and-coming Dublin hip-hop acts who just so happen to comprise young black men.

The headline read “Meet the African Immigrants Who Are Legitimizing Ireland’s Hip-Hop Scene”. Legitimizing Ireland’s hip-hop scene. Not “contributing to” or “improving”, both of which would have been fine and probably true. No, apparently they’re “legitimizing” it.

That’s the first problem. How exactly are Irish people of Nigerian (i.e. a country in Africa some five thousand miles from The Bronx) parentage “legitimizing” the Irish hip-hop scene? Hip-hop’s exact origins are the subject of some debate but everyone accepts that it is an American art form, just like jazz or the blues. And the vast majority will agree that it has been predominantly an African-American music. Not African. Not black. But African-American.

Pitchfork’s article was no doubt well-intentioned, but it betrays a troubling ignorance of black America in its failure to distinguish between black people in the United States and black people in Africa and elsewhere.

Believe it or not, this isn’t the first time someone has conflated “African-American” with “African”. The legendary drummer Art Blakey and many other jazz musicians had to regularly contend with this blunder too, when white critics sought an absurd and patronizing link between jazz and the “natural rhythm” of the dark continent’s noble savages. Blakey stated, “No America, no jazz. I’ve seen people try to connect it to other countries, for instance to Africa, but it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with Africa”. Sorry Pitchfork and sorry Dublin rappers, but it’s the same thing with hip-hop.

What is it that makes hip-hop “legitimate”? If it’s poverty then these guys are in the wrong place, because they left actual hardship back in Nigeria. Many will acknowledge that much of modern hip-hop is founded upon a sense of victimhood. If your mom was a crack-whore and your dad abandoned you as a toddler and your brother was shot by a racist cop and you grew up in the Baltimore projects it means you’re genuine. You’re street. But Ireland has a humane welfare state. The cops don’t shoot black people. Lame, I know, but cops in Ireland don’t even carry guns. When you’re poor in Ireland you get free healthcare and free education. So where’s the edge going to come from if you want to be the Irish Kendrick Lamar? You don’t sell records rapping about the injustice of water charges.

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Rejjie Snow, one of Ireland’s “most promising rappers”

The article goes on to talk about “entrenched racism” in Ireland and in the same breath mentions the country’s skyrocketing Nigerian population. As a white man I’m not going to say black people in Ireland don’t experience racism from time to time, but don’t insult my intelligence and the reputation of the Irish people by suggesting that Africans are immigrating to a country that treats them like garbage. That’s not how humans operate.

Forgive me also for finding rather dramatic Dah Jevu’s burning of a KKK-style mask, which they say is symbolic of their rejection of Irish racism. The average joe in the street may be forgiven for thinking the Klan were simply a bunch of assorted white racists who took pleasure in lynching black folk, but hip-hop heads can’t be given carte blanche, especially when they’re putting the KKK and Ireland in the same postcode. If they want to spit political venom they have a responsibility to read their history books, and if they did that they’d quickly learn that the Klan were no friends of the Catholic Irish. History is rarely as black and white as the narrative in people’s heads.

It seems that Pitchfork wants to define hip-hop not as a uniquely African-American music and an art-form born of the black experience in the United States, but as something centred on the melanin content of a person’s skin. Hip-hop’s origins are in 1970s New York, yet many of the “New Irish” – whose roots are in African countries like Nigeria and Zimbabwe – are being viewed as bona fide producers of hip-hop music because they happen to look like black people in America. This is ridiculous. It is also racist: it posits the existence of a single, global “black people” of uniform experience while totally ignoring the specifically African-American reasons for hip-hop’s efflorescence at a particular time and place.

This new generation of Irish hip-hop acts may be black, and they may be talented, but the truth is they have no more legitimacy than the white Irish rappers who came before them.