Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Mary M. Burke's "Race, Politics, and Irish America"

Mary Burke, Professor of English at UConn, is the author of Race, Politics, and Irish America: A Gothic History (UK 2022/US 2023) as well as a cultural history of Irish Travellers. She collaborated with Tramp Press on the 2022 reissue of Traveller-Romany Juanita Casey’s cult novel, The Horse of Selene. Her public-facing work has placed with NPR, the Irish Times, Irish national broadcaster RTÉ, and Faber. A former University of Notre Dame NEH Irish Fellow, she was a 2022 LRH Fellow at her alma mater, Trinity College Dublin.

Burke applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, Race, Politics, and Irish America: A Gothic History, and reported the following:
The words and lives of Black and white American and Irish-American writers, performers, and politicians that my book examines illuminate centuries of Irish presence in the Americas, from transportees to the seventeenth-century Caribbean, to eighteenth-century Ulster Presbyterians (Scots-Irish), and on to post-1845 Famine Catholics. All were initially racialized before “whitening”. Moreover, in their dealings with Indigenous and African Americans, successive waves of the Irish often – but not always – replicated the colonial-settler mindset that had caused their flight.

This baggage from the disordered motherland erupts in narratives by or about their descendants. Page 99 is in my chapter, “How the Irish Became Red,” which considers near-contemporary Irish-American writers, Eugene O’Neill and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The latter over-identified with the one non-Irish family branch that exemplified “Saxon” whiteness, and his oeuvre processes anxiety regarding interwar Irish class and racial status. (My book unpacks Fitzgerald’s self-deprecating identification as “black Irish”.) By contrast, the drama of O’Neill, the son of a famine refugee, critiques an Irish failure to maintain any initial solidarity with the marginalized in the Americas. In dermatologic classification, the white Irish have skin tones so light as to be “flawed.” Thus, a tendency to burn had been a racial liability in seventeenth-century Caribbean islands on which easily-sunburned transportees were racialized as “Redleg” (as O’Neill’s sea plays evoke), as well as on fashionable 1920s Riviera beaches in which an even tan conversely signaled “whiteness” (as Fitzgerald both instigates and depicts).

Page 99, a good snapshot of overall themes, discusses the arc of Dick Diver, the protagonist of Fitzgerald’s Riviera-set Tender is the Night (1934), an initially elite, arrogant, suntan-obsessed Irish American. Diver’s social decline is a sequence of clashes with racialized people, whose self-assurance threatens his “whiteness”:
The pivot…begins in Rome when…[Diver] ends up in a jail cell, from which he shouts that the police are “‘dirty Wops!’” Significantly, after this episode, Dick defines himself explicitly as white (a “mature Aryan”), and…“humiliate[ed]”: Dick’s identity as uncontestably white has begun to unravel, and the remaining action audits his ensuing rampages of anger, drunkenness, and racism.
O’Neill counterpoints this kind of failure of solidarity, as does page 99’s facing photograph of Josephine Baker greeting life-long friend, Princess Grace of Monaco, the subject of my chapter, “White Wedding: Grace Kelly and Irish Assimilation.” In 1951, Grace staged a walk-out with Baker because the performer and Civil Rights activist had been demeaned by staff at Manhattan’s Stork Club.
Follow Mary Burke on Twitter and listen to her podcast. Learn more about Race, Politics, and Irish America at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue