chapter  1
29 Pages

Introductio n: Kinship, Perfor mance, and the Hist orical Real

The historical narrative – now well rehearsed, but no less compelling – tells us that in 1845, at the beginning of the Great Irish Famine, Frederick Douglass escaped from Boston as a fugitive slave on a ship called the Cambria. Headed for Liverpool, Douglass stayed there for one night before embarking for Ireland, where he spent nearly six months selling thousands of copies of his autobiography and lecturing against slavery to rapturous crowds of supporters. It was in Dublin that he also met Daniel O’Connell, the “Irish Liberator” and vehement anti-slavery activist, who introduced Douglass at a crowded Repeal meeting in September of that year as the “Black O’Connell of the United States” (Douglass 1886: 12). As the famine in Ireland continued to worsen, however, O’Connell’s con-

cerns about American slavery and his somewhat dubious relationship with the Whig Party meant that he was losing support among his Irish followers. Yet, while the Young Irelanders were quick to condemn him, his support among abolitionists in America did not wane. As historian Bruce Nelson points out, “it was in America, not Ireland, that the radical O’Connell survived. For the Garrisonians, O’Connell was Ireland” (Nelson 2007: 81; emphasis in original). If O’Connell’s radical anti-slavery stance survives in America, it can be

argued that Douglass’s radical internationalism – his cross-cultural and cross-political alliances – survives most visibly in Ireland. Indeed, Douglass’s first visit to Ireland holds an important place in his development as a thinker and speaker. In a letter to William Lloyd Garrison from Ireland in 1845, Douglass writes, “I can truly say I’ve spent some of the happiest moments of my life since landing in this country. I seem to have undergone a

transformation [ … ]. I breathe, and lo! the chattel becomes a man” (Douglass 1999: 18-19). In the second edition of his autobiography, published in Ireland during his visit, he says that in Ireland he was “not treated as a colour, but as a man – not as a thing, but as a child of the common Father of us all” (Douglass 1950: 120). Scores of journal articles, a scholarly monograph on Douglass’s Atlantic voyages, a play written by Donal O’Kelly and performed during the St Patrick’s Day Festival in Dublin in 2005 in whic h Douglass is fi gured as Ireland’s first asylum seeker (see Figu re 1.1), and a mural of Douglass on the Solidarity Wall in Northern Ireland (see Figure 1.2) all attest to his sur prising comeback in both sch olarly and popular media in the 2000s. 1 In an era of mass globali zation, increasing xenophobia and racism, Douglass, it seems, returns to the scene as a compelling and efficacious symbol of circum-Atlantic liberation. In studies of the Black and Green (Irish) Atlantic, Douglass is a key figure

in the highly complex and contested interactions between African American and Irish social and political culture. In the contemporary moment, Douglass’s return to Ireland can be seen as part of an anti-racist, politically progressive Irish past, even as his journey also tacitly marks the return of the socially regressive past of the famine. In this way, his reappearance demonstrates how culture recreates and reproduces itself by a process of

surrogation. As Joseph Roach explains, “In the life of a community, the process of surrogation does not begin or end but continues as actual or perceived vacancies occur in the network of relations that constitute the social fabric” (Roach 1996: 2). In Douglass’s case, it is the loss of Atlantic historical memory, and Irish anti-racism, that is revived by his appearance. However, as Roach notes, surrogation does not produce a perfect fit:

Because collective memory works selectively, imaginatively, and often perversely, surrogation rarely if ever succeeds. The process requires many trials and at least as many errors. The fit cannot be exact. The intended substitute either cannot fulfill expectations, creating a deficit, or actually exceeds them, creating a surplus.