Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race

By Bruce Nelson | Go to book overview

Prologue: Arguing about (the Irish) Race

All is race; there is no other truth.

—Benjamin Disraeli, 1845

The truth is that there are no races.

—Kwame Anthony Appiah, 1992

THIS BOOK is ABOUT RACE.1 Therefore it must begin with the acknowledgment that few subjects have proven more contentious in the last several decades.2 It was not so long ago—certainly in my “growing up” years, the 1950s—that race appeared to be not only a social phenomenon of major importance but also a fixed and immutable category. Then you were either white or black—or perhaps red, yellow, or brown. But mostly the poles were black and white, and there was little room in that binary for “in-between” people whose objective reality and subjective identity could not be captured by one designation or the other. I can’t remember when I first learned about Walter White, the long-time executive secretary of the NAACP, who actually looked white but chose to be black. “I am a Negro,” White declared in his autobiography. “My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me.” Then how could he be a Negro? I would have asked myself in those days. I would have found Cyril V. Briggs equally anomalous. Briggs, who features prominently in these pages, was born in the British Leeward Islands in 1888; he immigrated to the United States in 1905 and soon became a leading figure in the New Negro Manhood Movement that developed among African Americans in the early twentieth century. Like Walter White, Cyril Briggs looked white and chose to be black; indeed, one black newspaper editor characterized him as an “angry blond Negro.”3

It is significant that White and Briggs chose blackness. It is also significant that they did not choose—and could not have chosen—an “in-between” status, or racial hybridity.4 There were mulattoes in the United States and in the islands of the Anglophone Caribbean, to be sure; but especially in the United States, lightness of skin was not a ticket to in-between status for “colored” people. A few mulattoes passed for white; some chose to be black; most recognized that they had no choice because others had chosen for them. They resided in a world where the lines between whiteness and blackness were sharply drawn and where to be black was to be a second-class citizen, subject to all-encompassing discrimination, humiliation, and, all too often, violence.

-3-

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