New York University: Finding Diversity in Irish America
NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House explores the real-life nuances of race and ethnicity for those who identify as both Black and Green through their ancestry.
If there’s one thing the recent vogue for genealogy research—explored by shows like Finding Your Roots and sites such as ancestry.com—makes clear, it’s that not all family trees are equally straight-forward. For many African Americans, exploring ancestry inevitably reveals a painful intersection with centuries of slavery. And for those of mixed-race heritage, the difficulty of reconciling multiple identities can sometimes result in feeling excluded from one’s own history.
Glucksman Ireland House’s project to capture the stories of one such community—amid the nation’s ongoing reckoning with contemporary racism and the legacy of slavery— is featured in a new report titled Black, Brown and Green Voices that examines “the extent to which Americans of African and Irish ancestry engage with sites of Irish and Irish-American connectivity.” The report is based on 15 in-depth interviews—which will also be featured in a November conference titled “Where Do We Go From Here?”— and draws on research used in building the Archives of Irish America / Glucksman Ireland House Oral History Collection. Helping students and scholars examine the Irish diaspora’s impact on America and the development of Irish-American identities, the Archives contains over 350 interviews with Irish Americans whose lives intersected with cultural and social developments in the U.S.
“[W]hat people don’t realize sometimes is that you’re just as much Caucasian as you are African American…”
– Jordan Carey
The voices of 15 people of mixed-race heritage was conducted by the report’s author, Miriam Nyhan Grey, an assistant professor of Irish studies at NYU and a collaborator on the Archives of Irish America. Grey’s co-organizer for the conference, NYU Gallatin sociologist Kimberly DaCosta, who is of African American and Irish American ancestry, was among those interviewed for the project. Supported by a grant from the Irish government’s Emigrant Support Program and other Ireland-based and U.S. organizations, the conference will feature scholars and a panel assembled by the New York City Tenement Museum, as well as a rare public interview with the Black-Irish actor Ruth Negga, whose critically praised films Loving and Passing deal with racial discrimination.
Grey contends that any appreciation of multiracial dimensions in the Irish experience should include a reckoning with evidence of the Irish diaspora’s historically anti-Black prejudice in the U.S. And as America moves toward a new identity as a “majority minority” nation, grappling with racism past and present, she notes that Ireland too is engaging in significant retrospection and discourse. Today, nearly 13 percent of the population of Ireland are foreign-born.
“Why do I have to fit in a box,” asked a project participant, noting the tendency of some, on both sides of the Atlantic, to dismiss his ethnic, racial, and national identity with simple labels and assumptions.
Below, in her own words, Grey offers some key takeaways from the recent interviews and from the extensive Archives of Irish America at NYU, which informed her new report.
Black and Brown Irish in America have rarely been the focus of a study of this type.
“Amazingly, given the history of peoples of African, mixed, and Irish descent living in the United States, this is the first such study of Americans of this background, and it comes at a critical juncture in terms of conversations around multi-ethnic identity and race, both in the United States and in Ireland.”
The fact that African Americans can also be Irish still surprises a lot of Americans.
“The interviews show how disruptive a force race can be in the way in which people of color are permitted to relate to being of Euro-American, especially Irish, descent in the United States. For example, we’re very used to Americans identifying as Italian-Irish American or German-Irish American or even Jewish-Irish American, but Americans of Irish and African ancestry are somehow less well-known and pique more questioning, for many. That the first American president of African ancestry was also of Irish lineage makes this whole phenomenon all the more intriguing.”
Lines of Black-Irish lineage can date to the eras of American and Afro-Caribbean slavery, but personal histories have contemporary points of origin as well.
“There are many ways, including connections to American and Afro-Caribbean slavery, in which people in the United States are connected to African and Irish ancestry, both generationally and ancestrally. The oral histories demonstrate how hard it can be to present generalizations about being Black or Brown and Irish in the United States today.”
Photo by Miriam Nyhan Grey
“[W]e knew that America in general, and our neighborhood in particular, had a stratification of Black that was not talked about…”
– Lenwood Sloan
Black and Brown Irish can sometimes feel isolated—from each other and from the Irish community at large, and often want to connect more with the broader Irish community.
“We’ve sensed significant interest in their becoming more connected with nodes of Irish activity. The project has elicited unanticipated expressions of goodwill toward NYU for conducting the interviews and programming. There is evidence that our interviewees also share a desire to become more connected with others of similar backgrounds. A recent phenomenon is the emergence of the African American Irish Diaspora Network, which works with Glucksman and represents a significant step forward.”
Do you happen to have a personal tie with the Black and Green intersection?
“I do. my biracial sons can now see, in the Archives of Irish America, that their experiences of being Black Irish New Yorkers matters.”
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