Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St. Patrick's Day Musings

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

In today's The Root, Henry Louis Gates Jr. meditates on an unknown Irish forebear, asking "Who's Your (Irish) Daddy?".  He, like me and quite a few African Americans, has Hibernian roots and branches in his family tree, and many of us know little about those Gaelic ancestors except apocryphally, though for many years historians, family archivists and genealogists, and in recent decades geneticists, have filled in the gaps.  In the piece the wise professor traces out his own family's Irish bloodline, paralleling the portrait he painted a few years back on his genealogical shows, African American Lives, which I've written about on here before.  As the programs devoted to his own family's stories demonstrated, there's probably more Ireland in him than West Africa, a bit of knowledge that he didn't originally appear ready for, though who living in this society could blame him? Gates's story, as I noted above, isn't uncommon, though his depth of knowledge about his family unfortunately remains so. While genetic ancestral testing raises many problematic issues, what I've taken away from Gates's work is the idea that in concert with genealogical research, it can really open long-hidden doors about our families' past, which is to say, our own.

My own familial links to the Emerald Isle are evident in part in my last name, which is often mistaken for two other common Irish (and English and Scottish) names, King and Keane.  All my life it's been misspelled, despite being only five letters long, and increasingly is mispronounced (have people forgotten that English has silent Es?) Years ago I wrote a poem on this very subject, noting how I'd heard differing stories about where a certain Keene, a white settler in western Illinois who went west to the Gold Rush, returned, and married an enslaved or free black Maryland-born woman, came from. It was titled "Origins." Thinking of it now, I'm also reminded of the story my late father used to tell of how his father would wear a green boutonnière in his lapel on St. Patrick's Day, and Irish Americans in St. Louis would sometimes hail him, and others curse him, but many were baffled by the display. He nevertheless knew why he wore the green carnation and where his name flowed from, and was quite proud of it. As to whether he attended the St. Patrick's Day parades, I do not know. We never attended any growing up, nor did I got any when I was old enough to drive to them. I do recall the excitement that arose among my classmates, though, when the holiday was approaching, and the possibilities for parties and drinking began to abound. Among the many parties I attended in high school I can't ever remember a St. Patrick's Day one--Halloween, birthdays, toga parties, parents-out-of-town yes, but a drinking fest to commemorate the Irish saint: no.

My grandfather's stories, which became my father's, became mine. And so, in sophomore year, back in the pre-Internet genealogy days, when I had to prepare a family tree for my Irish-born, Benedictine instructor, I placed those Irish (Scots-Irish) Keen(e)s where I was told they belonged, along with assorted African Americans, and some Native people from in and around Missouri. All of them had a story or two, including one ancestor named Plunket Spotser, who was not an Irishman but a full-blooded Indian from Audrain County. (He even appears online these days, on Missouri's death certificate registry.) My teacher, who, though still a part of the monastery that ran my high school, now serves as a parish priest for a rural district outside St. Louis, was somewhat bemused when he studied the links. Where did you get this information? he politely asked. From my parents, I said. He nodded and appeared to take it all in stride, though I wondered then whether he also did not wish that he could dial someone up, some record bureau, for a bit more verification. I was nevertheless proud that I had the most colorful and interesting family tree, and there were many branches that had not been touched.

I recalled this story some years back, when, in the early 1990s, C and I lived in Dorchester and I happened to be leaving the Boston T's Andrew Station, the subway station just at the edge of South Boston, or "Southie," which was racially aboi in the long aftermath of the city's busing crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, and periodic attempts at housing and educational integration.  I cannot for my life remember why I, knowing the potential for danger, decided to get off the train at Andrew and make the reasonable trek up Columbia Road to our apartment, but I can vividly hear the two or three drunken, screaming male revelers, far less civilized than St. Patrick himself--or any of the Irish saints, I imagine--ever might have been, yelling out choice epithets, of a racist sort, and running towards me, which led me to draw upon my prior experiences as a junior and high school sprinter, and get as far from South Boston and deep in Dorchester as my legs could bear. After the shock, I think I laughed it off, but I made sure I never went near Andrew Station on or around St. Patrick's Day after that, and viewed the subsequent St. Patrick's Day parades and celebrations, which in Boston date back to the 1700s, more than a little ironically, having succeeded not in surviving too much Guinness or boiled corned beef, but my brains nearly getting bashed in.

A certain psychologist I knew told me the story, however, of a very different sort of encounter in Ireland itself.  A light-skinned man of noticeable black ancestry--he wouldn't be mistaken for anything else, except latino, in this country--he traveled to Ireland with an Irish-American friend, in the 1970s. As they traveled through the country and countryside, then more bucolic than before the recent "Irish Tiger" era, he and his friend would encounter friendly locals who invited them for drinks, to chat, to have a home-cooked meal. At one point, one of the locals asked, utterly seriously, if the two were brothers. My friend said that he told the man they were just friends, and wondered to himself how on earth anyone could suppose a direct familial relationship, but then when he encountered the same question again, wondering if he, the black man, didn't have more "Black Irish" ancestry, he began to realize how strongly perceptions, truths in fact, are shaped by context. What these people were seeing was quite different from what Americans back home might; the difference in skin and hair was less visible than what united the then young duo, easy familiarity, mannerisms, speech, affect, their very being in the world.

Actually I've never been to a St. Patrick's Day parade in New York, or Chicago, or anywhere else, though I have sometimes worn green. (No carnations.) As an adult, the struggles of out gay Irish-American groups to gain admittance to the New York parade, which is ongoing, has been enough to keep me away. Once upon a time this merited a great deal of public commentary, but now it doesn't seem to garner more than rote reportage. It should given that the New York City Council Speaker since 2006, Irish-American lesbian Christine Quinn, has felt unwelcome enough that she's spent St. Patrick's Days celebrating with inclusive parades, in Washington, DC, and Dublin. The Ancient Order of Hibernians in NYC have yet to budge, but eventually they will get their act together, or younger, more gay-friendly folk will be running them down the road, and LGBTQ groups and officials will be welcomed and welcome, so it is predicted here. And then, perhaps, I'll attend one of their parades. Or at least raise a pint in recognition.

As the old Irish saying goes:

May you live as long as you want,
And never want as long as you live.

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