chapter  5
37 Pages

Politic al Acti on: Kinship, Civil Rig hts, and Analog(ous) Troubles

It is late August 1969, and Bernadette Devlin has just flown from Ireland to the USA after a frenetic and hastily planned journey across the Atlantic. On 12 August, during the Protestant Apprentice Boys’ March in Derry, Northern Ireland, rioting broke out as the marchers passed through the Catholic Bogside ward. Bernadette and a host of other civil rights activists organized the Catholic rioters so that they could protect their homes. After three days and eight deaths (as the riots spread to Belfast), 22-year-old Devlin – the youngest woman ever elected to the British Parliament – found her way to Shannon Airport in the Republic of Ireland and flew to New York with her political companion, Loudon Seth. On this tour, they intend to raise US$1 million dollars to rebuild houses for

community members made homeless by the rioting in Derry. It’s Devlin’s first

time in the USA and she has finally arrived in New York. She’s wired, exhausted, and it is oppressively hot. When she gets to her hotel room, she turns on the television to unwind. A

program is just starting that looks vaguely interesting – the first one in the series, “On Being Black.” It is the premiere of Alice Childress’s play Wine in the Wilderness (1969) and is produced by Boston Public Television, WGBH. Devlin has never heard of Alice Childress, the playwright. She would be surprised to discover that Childress started dramatizing the relationships between the African American and Irish communities in New York as early as 1955, when her play Trouble in Mind won an Obie Award. This made Childress the first African American woman to receive the prize. As Devlin settles in to watch the television program, she is compelled by the

opening scene of Wine in the Wilderness, in which rioting is taking place outside an apartment complex in Harlem. As she continues to watch the teleplay, the Harlem neighborhood she has never visited before suddenly seems unnervingly familiar. She’s tired, she’s jetlagged, and she’s just left a riot at home. Perhaps that’s the connection. As the actors continue discussing the triptych being painted by Bill Jameson, a middle-class African American artist, Devlin begins to drift off to sleep. In Devlin’s sleepy mind, the discussion of the African Queen in the center of the triptych is replaced by that Irish Queen whose image also brought men to their knees: Cathleen Ni Houlihan. She laughs at the half-heard conversations on the television screen and

mumbles to herself, “Cathleen Ni Houlihan, your way’s a thorny way” (O’Casey [1923] 1998: 6). She sits bolt upright. Is this Sean O’Casey’s Shadow of a Gunman (1923) in Harlem? Impossible. Yet it is so familiar. She anticipates the action. Until, that is, Tomorrow Marie – the working-class African American character with a name like “a promise that can never happen” (Childress 1969: 23) – starts to talk back, and changes people’s minds. This is certainly not O’Casey’s Minnie Powell, whose romantic heroism and naivety get her killed by her own people. Bernadette likes Tomorrow Marie, understands her, and believes in the promise she seeks. In this call and response between O’Casey and Childress, Devlin feels as if

she is also a part of this vertiginous play – the center of a triptych that has not fully revealed itself. Will she be absorbed by the romantic poetics of violence that killed Minnie Powell, or will she follow Tomorrow Marie into a future that is embodied by collectivity and promise? Bernadette, now thinking of her own movements, is comforted by the idea that when Cathleen Ni Houlihan arrives in Harlem, masked in the guise of a mute African Queen, not only does she throw off her robes, take to the streets and talk back, but her revolution is telev ised. 1 As she drift s off to sleep again she be gins to feel that Minnie ’ s theatrical “conversion” from the Irish stage into Tomorrow Marie’s analog (ous) appearance on television screens across America will have dangerous consequen ces for her own political movements . 2

Alice Childress’s (1916-1994) Obie Award-winning play Trouble in Mind, which premiered at the Greenwich Mews Theater in New York City in 1955 (the year that the Montgomery bus boycott started), was co-directed by Childress and Clarice Taylor (who played the protagonist, Wiletta). It focuses on a group of actors rehearsing what is principally a parody of an antilynching play, Chaos in Belleville. Set on a plantation in the fictitious small town of Belleville, located in the Deep South, on the eve of the civil rights movement, the play-within-the-play is written by a “well-respected” white playwright and directed by the white “liberal” Mr. Manners. Wiletta is cast as a stereotypical Black mammy named “Ruby” (a role she has played in many different incarnations, each with the name of a gem – “Crystal, Pearl, Opal”; Childress [1955] 1994: 490). In Chaos in Belleville Ruby turns her son over to the authorities of the small Southern town when he receives death threats after exercising his legal right to vote. In doing so, she effectively gives up her son to the lynch mob and he is killed. Chaos in Belleville is, of course, one in a long line of plays, novels, and

films in which the plantation provides the backdrop for romance and domestic tragedy. The plantation functions as an allegory for the fascination and repulsion at the core of America’s conflicted “family” past. And sure enough, in the midst of any household tragedy at the plantation, mammy is there, witness to the trouble. Mammy cares for white children like they are her own, considers her white employers “family,” is married to a no-good Black man, and endures all kinds of hardship. Yet, she is only ever peripheral to the central agents of action and change. As Wiletta grows increasingly frustrated over the well-worn stereotypes

she is forced to reproduce on stage, she finally stops the rehearsal to confront the director and fight for the right to control her own image. She refuses to act as the ignorant, naive mammy, so trusting of white patriarchal authority, and defends her position by asserting, “I’m his mother and I’m sendin’ him [her son Job] to his death? This is a lie [ … ]. Writer wants the damn white man to be the hero and me the villain” (Childress [1955] 1994: 533). Her confrontation, however, only serves to make the cast (both Black and white) uncomfortable, and exacerbates Manners’s anger as he continually asserts that the play has an “important” and “subtle” point to make. Conversely, Childress is able to make her not so subtle point by using

meta-theater to elucidate two competing constructions of social realism. Trouble in Mind denaturalizes and demythologizes the construction of African American women as passive and immobile recipients of tragedies – a construction that has been a mainstay of theatrical representations of African American women since Aunt Jemima’s appearance on the nineteenth-century minstrel stages. 3 Chil dress thus open s a spa ce to explore the tragedy of the domestic tragedy that does not allow the personal to become an allegory for the political. By simultaneously presenting “mammy” and Wiletta on the stage, Childress “demonstrates that these abstract and generalized notions of

black and female identity exercise material power in the lives of individuals” (Lisker 2002: 82). This critique of how the “domestication” of Black women has served as an important political tool in Anglo-American mythology reveals the contingent relationship between the personal and the political spheres, and between theatrical and political representation. The reappraisal of domesticity in the play also becomes the vehicle by

which other kinds of transnational narratives are mobilized. Take, for instance, the epigraph that begins this chapter. At the close of the first act of Trouble in Mind, Wiletta befriends Henry, an elderly Irish doorman at the theater where she is rehearsing. A remarkable conversation ensues in which Wiletta analogizes the plight of the Irish fighting for home rule in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as lamented by Henry, to her own ambivalent position in the struggle to control her theatrical image (“they ain’t gonna do me the way they did the home rule”). For Henry, representation in the form of home rule is the desire for representative authority over one’s country in the political sphere and is tied to a deep commitment to national autonomy. In Henry’s account of the heroic colonial past in which men fought for home rule, Ireland is gendered male: he tells us that “they were great fightin’ men.” If the Irish land was “feminized” by being occupied by the British, the Irish populace was decidedly masculine. Wiletta’s desire to both identify with what Henry is saying but not become

identical to it demonstrates the uneasy relationship between race, gender, and class in narratives framed by nationalism. Of course, Henry’s own physical dislocation from this romanticized depiction of the Irish homeland at the turn of the century (he is, after all, an aged working-class Irish doorman at a theater in New York in 1955) is what allows for this unlikely alliance to take place. The simultaneous invocation of the scales on which colonialism operates that brought Wiletta and Henry to the ground on which they now stand (one that is circumscribed by neither the Southern plantation nor the romantic vision of Ireland) leaves allegorical conflations (home-nation, woman-ground) and analogous identification (Henry is to Wiletta what the Irish struggle is to the Black struggle) ungrounded. In this moment, space is activated – however fleetingly – by a dynamism unsubstantiated by the spatial logic of national conflict. This is space in which politically radical and compelling coalitions are formed. Significantly, Wiletta’s precarious analogy (one that tacitly links the pejora-

tive mammy stereotype to the colonization of Ireland) illustrates one of the most palpable and challenging blind spots in an examination of the American and Northern Irish civil rights movements (circa 1955-1972) that does not elide the category of gender. Typically, the two civil rights movements are compared in terms of emerging in and from “surrogate” forms of internal colonization based on a kind of geo-political “rhyming” that began in the early seventeenth century with the near-simultaneous colonization of Ulster

(Northern Ireland) and Virginia by the Briti sh. 4 For example, in the preface to Michael Hechter’s Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development, he makes explicit that he is studying the formation of internal colonialism in the British Isles (particularly Ireland) because it illuminates an analogous historical formation leading up to and contributing to the American civil rights movement (Hechter 1975: xiii-xviii). Likewise, Richard Rose remarks in Governing without Consensus that the “emergence of civil rights movements in the American South and in Northern Ireland has shown to the world that these regimes are governing without consensus” (Rose 1971: 468). In other words, “The [American] South with more than one-third of its population black, remained a white man’s land politically, just as Northern Ireland, with one-third of its population Catholic, became an exclusively Protestant regime” (Rose 1971: 464). Rose examines Northern Ireland and the US South in a comparative frame by thinking about proportional representation, the gerrymandering of electoral districts, and the legacy of (internal ) colo nialism in the mid-twentieth century. 5 In the US South this is most visibly marked by Jim Crow racial segregation, and in Northern Ireland by sectarian/religious segregation between Catholics and Protestants (labels that have less to do with religious practice than perceived ethnic identification). Brian Dooley’s Black and Green: The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern

Ireland and Black America (1998) is the most thorough comparative study of these intersecting political movements and the only one to acknowledge fully how central women were to the formation of the civil rights mass movements. Where the study is less clear, however, is in analyzing what this gendered omission means for comparative civil rights histories and the “liberation” narrative of transatlantic solidarity in the Black and Green Atlantic more generally. Wiletta’s comment to Henry illuminates a different kind of “surrogate”

trouble that makes manifest the challenges of thinking about comparative civil rights scholarship through the analytic of gender: in the guise of the African American mammy figure, “woman” stands in as the surrogate mother for the white (American) family. In addition, when Wiletta asserts that “they ain’t gonna do me the way they did the home rule,” she tacitly invokes the ways in which “woman” becomes the allegorical surrogate for the (Irish) nation. This tension between kinship and the (nation) state, where woman is used – in Hegel’s words – as the “eternal irony in the life of the community” is productive for approaching mid-twentieth-century relations in the Black and Green Atlantic from a supra-nationalist perspective. As I will discuss throughout this chapter, Wiletta’s dilemma (like African American female civil rights organizers, activists, actresses, and mothers, more generally, at this time) speaks to the American civil rights movement that began in 1955, the same year that Trouble in Mind was produced, and signals her ambivalent position both outside and inside the movement: a double marginalization

gesturing towards her oppression in white-dominated society and in a male-dominated one. Moreover, the allegorical conflation of Wiletta’s theatrical agency with the

Irish nation full of “great fighting men” has profound resonance for Irish women with regard to the theater and the “Mother Country” in the form of Cathleen Ni Houlihan. Cathleen was the definitive icon of Ireland in the Irish War for Independence in 1921, and her battle cry resounded in the six counties of Northern Ireland in the mid-twentieth century, when Irish Catholic nationalists fought to unite the British-controlled statelet with the Republic of Ireland. 6 Seemingly disp arate figures of “woman hood, ” the African American mammy figure, and Cathleen Ni Houlihan – as iconic matriarchs of the domestic and theatrical spheres – have gone a long way towards silencing the embodied voices of African American and Irish women in both the politi cal and cultural spheres. 7 It is certai nly th e oppressive invocation of Cathleen/Mother/Nation, in what became a fight for a United Ireland during the mid-twentieth-century Northern Irish Troubles, that Frieda is glibly responding to in Anne Devlin’s Ourselves Alone when she states that “Nationalism is always the last resort of people who’ve failed to achieve anything else” (Devlin 1986: 33). In this chapter I want to keep in mind the political efficacy of the African

American mammy figure and the figure of Cathleen Ni Houlihan/Mother Ireland as I consider women’s participation in the mid-twentieth-century civil rights movements in the US South and Northern Ireland. I investigate how domesticity (and performances of domesticity) can be mobilized to construct a historiography of African American and Irish Catholic civil rights relations from this period that does not elide the category of gender. The complex connections between gender, domesticity, and national space

are significant in putting the civil rights movements in Northern Ireland and the US South in dialectical relation. Instead of a straightforward comparison of two geo-political spaces, I begin with an analysis of women’s community activism in those spaces. I analyze the activities of the women who effectively started the civil rights movements on both sides of the Atlantic before examining the occlusion of women’s role in the movements through multiple registers of performance. I analyze Alice Childress’s Wine in the Wilderness (1969), a televised play that adapts Sean O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman ([1923] 1998) to explore race riots in America, alongside Bernadette Devlin’s flight from Northern Ireland to America to raise money for families who were victims of the riots during the Battle of the Bogside (1969), and her alliance with the Black Panther Party. Childress’s drama of social protest exposes the dangerous ways in which the Irish Cathleen Ni Houlihan shape-shifts in Harlem to become a symbol of “Mother Africa” and ejects “real” African American women from their place as agents of historical change. In turn, I explore how Devlin’s

transatlantic activism at this time is swiftly contained through her “domestic” dramaturgical depictions – in life, in the news media, and on the stage – as Northern Ireland’s reviled and revered Cathleen Ni Houlihan/Antigone. Childress’s deployment of and Devlin’s construction as allegory both demonstrate how aesthetic movements can never be separated from political movement. This investigation challenges the traditional frame of nationalist historio-

graphies and illuminates alternative ways in which space – and bodies moving in and through space – can be conceptualized. “Jumping Scales,” a concept taken from geographer Neil Smith, offers a way of understanding how women involved in political and cultural work during the civil rights movements “organized the production and reproduction of daily life [in order] to resist oppression and exploitation at a higher scale” (Smith 1992: 60). The contingency between domestic space and regional/national space often appears incommensurable precisely because the relationship between the two underscores a flawed – but politically efficacious – absolutist spatial concept. Absolute space is defined as “a field, a container, a co-ordinate system of

discrete and mutually exclusive locations,” and “is largely the space that is taken for granted in Western societies – our naively assumed sense of space as emptiness” (Smith and Katz 1993: 75). This spatial concept was “prefigured in Euclid’s geometry” and “was widely established as a dominant representation of space between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.” Thus, the “division of global space into mutually exclusive nation-states on the basis of some presumed internal homogeneity of culture” not only “marked the emerging space-economy of capitalism from the sixteenth century onwards,” it also “represented a powerful enactment of absolute space as the geographical basis for social intercourse” (Smith and Katz 1993: 75). This spatial concept is “quite literally the space of capitalist patriarchy and

racist imperialism” (Smith and Katz 1993: 79) that allows for the continual articulation of the false binary between homogenous patriarchal nationalism and women’s ostensibly essential ties to domesticity. In a comparative frame, defaulting to an absolutist spatial concept affects examinations of the American and Northern Irish civil rights movements because the “nation” is still used as the paradigm of analysis (and geography as the basis of social intercourse), where one national, anti-colonial struggle is compared to another. When this happens, there is a tendency (often unconscious) to use “manhood” as the “trope for citizenship” (Romero 1997: 8). As I discussed in Chapter 1, in this vast historic al traje ctory these comp arative relations are rehearsed as either solidarity or exploitation, and women are curiously absent. Like allegorical images, they become the place for meaning to occur without becoming meaningful themselves (see Teskey 1996: 19). In this way, “woman” becomes a placeholder (and keeps her place either in the domestic

sphere or as the transcendent representation of the nation itself) so that comparative historical relations can be worked out “man to man.” Thus, even as women are “integrated” within these accounts – tacked onto

an initial image or narrative – the framework precludes any understanding of how the very presence of women activists and organizers in the political and cultural spheres help to radically re-conceptualize the nation-space itself. In other words, without a critique of how absolute space functions as “‘real space’, the space of contemporary ‘commonsense’” (Smith and Katz 1993: 75-76), women will continue to appear to have agency only insofar as their struggles are identical to the dominant, patriarchal struggle (even when that struggle is figured as insurgent). In order to work through this concept, it is necessary to move on from a tacit

reliance on an absolutist spatial concept that takes for granted not only the homogeneity of national space but also geography as the basis of social intercourse. I work through the relationships between women, kinship, and civil rights in the Black and Green Atlantic by analyzing these relations not through (3-D Euclidian) absolute space, but through the concept of Riemannian space as articulated by Albert Lautman and deployed in critical theory by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Riemannian space helps to elucidate relations between continuity and connectivity. As Lautman explains, unlike absolute space, “Riemann spaces are devoid of any kind of homogeneity [ … ]. It follows that the two neighbouring observers in a Riemann space can locate the points in their immediate vicinity but cannot locate their spaces in relation to each other without a new convention” (Lautman cited in Deleuze and Guattari 2004: 535). Thus, without this “new convention,” Riemann space is similar to absolute space when it is described as “a co-ordinate system of discrete and mutually exclusive locations” (Smith and Katz 1993: 75). By examining the civil rights activities in the US South and Northern

Ireland through Riemannian space, we avoid the pitfalls of assuming geography to be the sole or primary basis of social intercourse, and thus avoid the well-rehearsed plot line of individual (male) social actors meeting each other and wedding their political movements. The “new convention” that elucidates the relations between kinship, domesticity, and activism on both sides of the Atlantic is the popular emergence of television beginning in the mid-1950s, and particularly in the early 1960s. This new media allowed a community on one side of the Atlantic (Northern Ireland) to locate itself in relation to a seemingly dissimilar community on the other side of the Atlan tic (US South ), with out this relation ship bein g clearly defined. 8

Returning to Lautman’s explanation of Riemannian space, he states: “Each vicinity is therefore like a shred of Euclidean space,” which, for the purposes of this chapter, signals the “actual” space of the US South and Northern Ireland. Most importantly, however, Lautman states that “the linkage between one vicinity and the next is not defined and can be effected in an infinite number of ways.” Here the linkage is being thought through

the medium of television in particular. In this regard, using the “new convention” of television to show “the linkage between one vicinity and the next” functions as a knowledge montage that “presents itself as an amorphous collection of pieces that are juxtaposed but not attached to each other” (Lautman cited in Deleuze and Guattari 2004: 535). As Deleuze and Guattari write (2004: 535-536), “if we follow Lautman’s fine description, Riemannian space is pure patchwork. It has connections, or tactile relations.” Exploring the relationship between social and aesthetic performances with

television’s analog technology provides a useful heuristic for considering how the analog, as “a continuously variable impulse or momentum that can cross from one qualitatively different medium into another,” instantiates theatrical characters’ and female social actors’ mobilization of each other (Massumi 2002: 135). Once different registers of social performance are in conversation, this will allow us to avoid inadvertently conceptualizing space (and women’s bodies moving through space) as inert. Women’s leadership of (and active participation in) political and cultural movements mobilizes domestic, national, and transnational spaces and helps to refigure them not once and for all, but again and again. Acknowledging television “as a visual medium and material object”

(Holdsworth 2011: 3) serves an important function in understanding how women on both sides of the Atlantic, who effectively started the civil rights movements, keep disappearing from historiographical view. Despite the abundance of scholarship (in local and national contexts) which has located, retrieved, indexed, imaged, and imagined the central role that women played in the civil rights movements (a sizeable amount of archival materials has been amassed), women still seem to disappear in grand narratives of the movements, in comparative scholarship of the movements, and as the central instigating forces behind and at the forefront of the movements. One of the reasons for this elision is the lack of attention paid to how

television – as a visual medium – was responsible for broadcasting US civil rights protests to national and international audiences. Moreover, it is the television set as material object, located in domestic dwellings throughout Northern Ireland, that moves comparative civil rights historiography and women’s mobilization of public space in different directions. As the protests on the streets of the US South crossed into the medium of television, the “continuously variable impulse or momentum” carried women and their children away from the television screen and onto the streets of Dungannon, Northern Ireland, to protest the Unionist ghetto-policies, with signs reading “Racial discrimination in Alabama hits Dungannon,” and “If our religion is against us, ship us to Little Rock” (Dungannon Observer 1963: 1). Just as the women’s political councils gave life to the civil rights move-

ments in the US South, the Northern Irish women in Dungannon – who formed the Homeless Citizens League – took to the streets to make explicit the relationship between family/kinship and the state. In fact, the manner in

which the analog technology of the televisual medium was employed at this time allows us to “question the logic that would define one direction [going to the streets – i.e. the state] as expansion, and the other [returning to the home – i.e. kinship] as retraction” (Jackson 2011: 95). Television’s analog technology makes literal the reciprocal encounters between domestic performance and street performance.