Modernity, Freedom, and the African Diaspora: Dublin, New Orleans, Paris

Modernity, Freedom, and the African Diaspora: Dublin, New Orleans, Paris

by Elisa Joy White


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Elisa Joy White investigates the contemporary African Diaspora communities in Dublin, New Orleans, and Paris and their role in the interrogation of modernity and social progress. Beginning with an examination of Dublin’s emergent African immigrant community, White shows how the community’s negotiation of racism, immigration status, and xenophobia exemplifies the ways in which idealist representations of global societies are contradicted by the prevalence of racial, ethnic, and cultural conflicts within them. Through the consideration of three contemporaneous events—the deportations of Nigerians from Dublin, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and the uprisings in the Paris suburbs—White reveals a shared quest for social progress in the face of stark retrogressive conditions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253001252
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 06/11/2012
Series: Blacks in the Diaspora Series
Pages: 356
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Elisa Joy White is Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Hawaii, Mānoa, and holds a Ph.D. in African Diaspora Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. Her publications examine a range of areas, including the African Diaspora in Ireland, Black Europe, ethnicity and new media, human rights, and immigration policy.

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Modernity, Freedom, and the African Diaspora

Dublin, New Orleans, Paris

By Elisa Joy White

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2012 Elisa Joy White
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00128-3



The black presence in late eighteenth-century Ireland is often epitomized by the 1791 tour of Olaudah Equiano, the former slave turned abolitionist author and speaker. Equiano experienced Ireland positively and eventually published a fourth edition of his book, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, in Dublin (see Rodgers 1997). However, Equiano was not the only black person in Ireland; there was a small and little known population of blacks living in the country throughout the eighteenth century. Nini Rodgers, in her book Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery, 1612–1865, notes the documentation of 167 "sightings" of blacks in Ireland throughout the eighteenth century (Rodgers 2007: 127). William A. Hart, in his groundbreaking article "Africans in Eighteenth-Century Ireland," notes that there were "about 160 separate references to black people in Ireland" in the latter half of the eighteenth century (Hart 2002: 20) and 188 references during the entire century, primarily of blacks living in Dublin (Hart 2002: 22–23). Considering that the references are mostly in newspapers and memoirs, which would not mention less conspicuously noted blacks, Hart estimates a population of between one thousand and three thousand blacks (Hart 2002: 21) and suggests that such numbers would place Dublin second only to London in the size of the black population among European cities of the time (Hart 2002: 22). Most of these blacks were enslaved and free servants, seafarers, entertainers, and a plausibly more transient population, since "domestic servants [Africans] enjoyed a wide range of occupations and thus a varied social status" (Hart 2002: 27). Also notable, Hart suggests that slavery in Ireland "was nothing uniquely oppressive" in comparison to America and the Caribbean and describes the reaction in Ireland to "sexual relations between white and black," including matrimony, as "fairly relaxed" (Hart 2002: 27).

The black presence in nineteenth-century Ireland, particularly leading up to the American Civil War, is represented by the experiences of black American abolitionists. During a tour of the United Kingdom, Frederick Douglass visited Ireland in 1845. Writing to William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass observed that

I find no difficulty here in obtaining admission into any place of worship, instruction, or amusement on equal terms with people as white as any I ever saw in the United States. I meet nothing to remind me of my complexion. I find myself regarded and healed at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people. When I go to church, I am met by no upturned nose and scornful lip to tell me, "We don't allow niggers in here!" ... Thank heaven for the respite I now enjoy! I had been in Dublin but a few days when a gentleman of great respectability kindly offered to conduct me through all the public buildings of that beautiful city; and a little afterward, I found myself dining with the lord mayor of Dublin. What a pity there was not some American democratic Christian at the door of this splendid mansion, to bark out at my approach, "They don't allow niggers here!" The truth is, the people here know nothing of the republican Negro hate prevalent in our glorious land. They measure and esteem men according to their moral and intellectual worth, and not according to the color of their skin. (Douglass 1999: 19)

Predating Frederick Douglass's visit, black abolitionist Charles Lenox Remond lectured in Ireland in 1841. During a November 1841 speech before the Hibernian Anti-Slavery Society, Remond described the Irish nationalist Daniel O'Connell as "a good and mighty man, who has put himself forth the undaunted and fearless champion of liberty and the rights of man in every clime the sun adorns" (Remond 1841). Upon his return to the United States, Remond carried an address signed by O'Connell and "60,000 Irishmen" requesting Irish American support of the abolitionist cause and amicable relationships with blacks (Quarles 1991: 133). Remond's experience with Irish abolitionists such as O'Connell also highlights the distinction between Irish and Irish American relations with blacks during the period; the former seemed supportive and the latter more inclined to hostility. That praise of Irish abolitionists underscored the perception that anti-black racism was foreign to Ireland was aptly expressed by a quote attributed to black abolitionist William C. Nell: "The opposition of Irishmen in America to the colored man is not so much a Hibernianism as an Americanism" (North Star, Dec. 3, 1847, cited in Quarles 1991: 133).

Numerous other black abolitionists, including Nell, Henry Highland Garnet, William G. Allen, and C. L. Remond's sister, Sarah Parker Remond, made their way to the Emerald Isle. Allen lived in Dublin from 1850 to 1852 with his family, and Sarah Parker Remond, whose presence offered a representation of black womanhood in Ireland, was very well received during her speeches before prominent audiences (see Quarles 1991; also see Midgley 1995). An account of Parker Remond's March 1859 speech before the Dublin Ladies' Anti-Slavery Association published in The Liberator describes her as having an "appearance [that] is remarkably feminine and graceful, coupled with a quiet, dignified manner, a well-toned voice and pleasing style of enunciation" and also notes her "impressive eloquence" (Liberator 1859).

While black visitors from the United States such as Frederick Douglass were welcomed in Ireland, it is their communication of the horrors of slavery and lynching beyond the borders of Ireland that particularly inspired the Irish to endear themselves to them and, for blacks, this treatment represented a stark contrast to nineteenth-century Irish American anti-black and racist behavior outside of abolitionist circles (see Nelson 2007). Furthermore, the fact of a limited black presence in the nation suggests a form of celebrity and spectacle around the sight of an individual such as Douglass—a great orator, an attractive man, and black—and elicited more curiosity than loathing. However, whether black presence was represented by visits from African American abolitionists in the nineteenth century, the earlier eighteenth-century servants, seaman, and entertainers or, much later, continental Africans arriving in Ireland to pursue courses of study in the twentieth century, black individuals were mostly temporary phenomena, merely noticed as they were passing through Ireland rather than staying permanently. Even though blacks in twentieth-century Ireland described racist acts, such as fights, racial epithets, and bullying, and black children of single white mothers were often placed in orphanages (see Lynott 1996; Putterford 2002; McGrath 2006), throughout much of the last century, blackness and anti-black racism in Ireland were for the most part articulated through a sense of remoteness (see McVeigh 1998).

The increased black presence in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries effectively exposed racism in Ireland, making manifest a condition to which the Irish were, of course, never really immune. Yet, racism has coexisted with the Irish perception of immunity to it and, in some benign and not-so-benign ways, is inextricably linked to the national representation of humanitarianism and welcoming. This question of the Irish capacity for racism was brought forth by Robbie McVeigh as early as 1992. In his essay, "The Specificity of Irish Racism," he contends:

To some extent, the existence of a long and proud internationalist and anti-imperialist tradition in Ireland has disguised other contradictory and reactionary strands in Irish politics and identity.... More recently, "Irish racism" has been theorized out of existence by the disingenuous use of the "racism + prejudice + power" equation to argue that Irish people, like Black people, have no power to be racist ... I want to challenge the notion that Irish people cannot be racist. (McVeigh 1992: 31)

McVeigh launched this thoughtful challenge eight years prior to the significant migration examined in this volume and before the capacity for Irish racism would be truly tested. Equally prescient, McVeigh would later go on to consider the question of racism and proximity through his examination of Northern Ireland in the 1998 essay "There's No Racism Because There's No Black People Here." He explains:

[I]t is not a requirement of racism that there be minority ethnic people in a given society for racism to exist. There can be racist jokes, for example, in an environment in which there are no minority ethnic people. The notion that there needs to be minority ethnic people before there is racism is dangerous because it inevitably suggests that the presence of Black people in a given society causes racism. This kind of analysis feeds directly into racist—and in some cases genocidal—practice because it suggests that the way to get rid of racism is to remove existing minority ethnic people from a society and keep others out. (McVeigh 1998: 13–14; emphasis in original)

Significantly, the remoteness and rarity of the Irish engagement with blacks prevailed up until the twenty-first century and intersected quite neatly with renderings of Irish philanthropy and humanitarianism toward black people vis-à-vis Catholic and Protestant charities. For example, generations of Irish while growing up in the twentieth century placed money in their church's "Black Baby" boxes to be sent to the "Black Babies" of Africa. This Black Baby box charity became a normalized means of engaging with blackness in the form of a remote neediness that was not so removed from the concern expressed for the needy slaves by Irish abolitionists and their supporters. Such a representation of black people would become increasingly problematic when contemporary blacks in the nation starkly contrasted the predominant perception of Africans as vessels of Irish charity rather than, say, university-educated professionals from Lagos. As McVeigh has so neatly put it:

Irish Catholicism manifested elements of anti-Black racism in a specifically religious phenomenon. This is illustrated by the ubiquitous collections for "Black Babies" which, until recently, were a feature of Irish Church missionary appeals. These necessarily conditioned Irish Catholic people to regard Black people in a particular way—passive, helpless, to be saved by the proselytizing ambitions of the Church. (McVeigh 1998: 19)

Fundamentally, charitable outpourings and a shared experience of global ethnoracial and cultural oppression stood as proxies for a perceived Irish concern for blacks. Yet how were the Irish to reconcile the "Black Baby" monolithic—represented by the poster of a child with kwashi-orkor or the smiling face on the UNICEF envelope distributed on an Aer Lingus flight—with the reality of diverse black identities (e.g., a Nigerian journalist, the middle-class Congolese businessperson, an African Irish student with a North Dublin accent)?

While I was gathering interview data during the period of significant African migration to Ireland, white Irish often remarked upon growing up in Ireland when it was rare to see a black person, particularly outside of cities. Even though encountering a person of African descent was not unheard of, it was certainly remarkable. Furthermore, throughout the twentieth century the racist stigma experienced by the families and children of relationships between white Irish and African nationals (see Lynott 1996; Putterford 2002; McGrath 2006) indicates a hostile relationship with blackness, in spite of the historic negative racialization of the Irish by the English and the impact of anti-Irish racism on the Irish Diaspora (see Ignatiev 1995; Mac an Ghaill 2000; Hickman et al. 2005). Yet I also became aware of the intertwining of the mediation of socio-economic status with earlier objectifications of the "black baby" and the excitement about encountering the "black other" (like Frederick Douglass). There was a new socio-cultural capital emerging for working-class white Irish women among their peers via their partnering with black men and having black children (i.e., possessing "black babies" of their own, represented both in partner and offspring). So, while black presence in twentieth-century Ireland can best be regarded as mostly transient with the occasional interethnic Irish offspring and the ubiquitous, yet intangible, faces of charity recipients, it is the substantial migration of the twenty-first century that brought forth a major experiential shift in the Irish social landscape. Quite simply and significantly, black proximity supplanted black remoteness.


The Irish Free State (and later the Republic of Ireland) remained insular with limited immigration and became solidly defined as Catholic, white, and settled (the indigenous Traveller populations were seen as outside of what is considered Irish) (see Lentin 1998, 1999, 2000; Sinha 1998; Tracy 2000). The nation's first immigration policies, as presented in the 1935 Aliens Act and Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act, imposed restrictions on Jewish immigration while permitting free movement between Ireland and Britain, as well as the entrance of individuals from the Irish Diaspora (mainly from the United States, Australia, Britain, and Canada) (see Keogh 1998). Post–World War II Ireland, despite the Holocaust, was still not receptive to Jewish immigration and constructed policies that did not easily lend themselves to non-Catholic and/or non-white immigration. As Marshall Tracy explains in his study of racism and immigration in Ireland: "The debates surrounding the refugee crisis during the war years led to the Aliens (Amendment) Order of 1946 which created a hierarchy of immigrants. Nationals of: America, Belgium, Holland, France, Italy, Liechtenstein, Scandinavian countries, and applications for tourist visas were to have their applications considered favorably. Second preference was given to citizens of 'distant' European countries including Germany, Austria, and Greece, providing their 'business' was not contrary to Irish interests. The final group addressed were 'stateless persons', or refugees; this was reserved for Eastern Europeans" (Tracy 2000: 25). While Ireland accepted some "stateless persons," it did not join the United Nations until 1956 and was not required to follow UN guidelines concerning immigration. After joining the UN, according to the stipulations of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the nation accepted refugees from Hungary, Chile, and Vietnam, as well as members of the Baha'i faith. Tracy notes: "Ireland was reluctant to accept refugees and often had to be pressured by the UNHCR or by NGOS, and even then the numbers of refugees accepted were negligible.... However the 'pressure' applied to the Irish government by the UNHCR is a marked change and demonstrates Ireland's responsibilities in the larger global community. Interestingly, Ireland did not participate in UNHCR sponsored refugee programs from Africa in the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s although there were other immigrant groups entering the country during this time" (Tracy 2000: 28). The reluctance to accept African refugees, to which Tracy refers, betrays the reality that even as Ireland's Catholics showed a charitable interest in aiding Africans, the larger Irish objective was to discourage African presence in the nation.

Ireland filed an application to enter the European Economic Community (EEC, now European Union) in 1961 and joined in 1973. This was advantageous for the struggling nation, as it received funds through the Common Agricultural Policy and Structural Funds that helped boost the economy. It is the result of EEC aid and the country's subsequent economic success in the 1990s that this relatively new state was transformed into an immigrant destination, forestalling its ability to remain isolationist as it engaged in international labor recruitment, and testing the notion of a "pure" Irish identity linked to the nation at its inception.


The current pop-cultural usage of "retro" is an expression of "what's old is new" chic, meant to inspire consumption of the latest "back in the day" revision or corporate-generated nostalgia. My use of "retro" has a different emphasis. Certainly, encountering the social and political engagement with cultural difference and the daily negotiation of racism and discrimination experienced by the African Diaspora in Ireland makes a journey to the nation resemble a trip back in time. After all, until recently, Ireland was a place where seeing a person of color was still a spectacle for many. Black presence was somehow exotic and individuals racialized as "other than white" embodied the pain and joy of a changing nation. However, while the anachronistic elements of the technologically progressive yet socially regressive Irish society are conditions that inform my usage of "retro," they are not the totality of it. My use of the term "retro" is a means of articulating the impact of the Africans in Ireland in the context of global culture, postcolonialism, and the still incomplete decolonization of the Irish nation.


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Table of Contents

Part 1. The African Diaspora in Dublin
1. Decolonization, Racism, and the Retro-Global Society
2. Status, Numbers, and the "Retro" Revealed
3. Media Representation and Black Presence
4. Racism, Immigrant Status, and Black Life
5. A Community in the Making

Part 2. The Glitches of Modernity
6. Dublin: The Olukunle Elukanlo Case
7. New Orleans: Race Meets Antediluvian Modernity
8. Paris: The Liberating Quality of Race
9. Conclusion: Toward a Modern Future

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