Civil Rights: Northern Ireland and Black America

This essay on the reciprocity and interrelations of civil rights movements in Northern Ireland and Black American was published on the Frieze magazine blog, February, 2015

 

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Oakland Tribute building, 4 September, 1964. Photographer unknown.

 

At a number of recent public talks in London exploring aspects of the past, present and future of feminist discourse and action, a recurring question has been asked from the floor.1 Tentative and anxious not to cause offence, a male audience member has, on each occasion, asked his own variation on a single theme: how can I – that is, how can men – contribute to feminism?

Although the heyday of radical separatist feminism is behind us, there was something else in the air exerting an inhibitory pressure on cautious males, keen to contribute without restaging the oppressive interpersonal dynamics of patriarchy. It was the same boundary that might cause a white audience member at an anti-racism meeting to feel unqualified to comment on black issues; and it exists between heterosexuals and homosexuals, the able-bodied and the disabled, the middle class and the working class, and all other such simplified and commonly evoked societal dichotomies. Rather than an actual physical barrier or law it is an idea that acts as this invisible obstacle, the idea, which is often misunderstood, is called intersectionality.

A way of thinking crystallized by African American critical race and law theorist Kimberle Crenshaw, in her cogent, evocative and seminal essay Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex (1989), intersectionality can be broadly defined as the belief that certain complex subject positions exist at the intersection between different identity markers (race, gender, sexuality) and that specific combinations of these markers (trans Israeli, white male, black lesbian etc.) lead to unique and particular socio-cultural, economic and juridical experiences. Intersectionality is about recognizing this difference and, according to journalist Laurie Penny, understanding that ‘you cannot talk in any meaningful way about class without also talking about race, gender and sexuality, and vice-versa’.2

But, in the participatory and reductive comment culture age of Web 2.0, an incarnation of intersectionality, misunderstood and badly defined by partial, third-hand misreadings, is increasingly misused as an aide to online pedantry. It is an effect that is steadily trickling offline and into public forums and its catchphrase is ‘check your privilege’, a command for whomever is speaking to examine their own subject position before speaking for others. At such times solidarity seems a utopic dream, but it wasn’t always so. The Civil Rights era of the 1960s – though its egalitarianism was, of course, imperfect – saw diverse groups working towards a common goal to secure equal rights for all. Recent attention to this period in contemporary art and cinema suggests a renewed desire to look into this important chapter of the recent past for answers to the divisions of the present and possible future. Perhaps history offers a way to exhume the memory of cross-cultural fraternity and enable the conditions for solidarity today.

 

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‘Civil Rights’ at Void Gallery, Derry~Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Installation view of Black Panther documentation and images, a private collection loaned to Void by Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

 

‘Civil Rights’ at Void Gallery, Derry~Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Installation view of Black Panther documentation and images, a private collection loaned to Void by Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
In the closing months of 2014, Void Gallery in Derry~Londonderry, Northern Ireland, staged ‘Civil Rights: We Have it in Our Power to Begin the World Over Again’. It was an ambitious group exhibition examining the mutual influence of coeval Civil Rights movements during the 1960s in the US (characterized by pushes for an end to segregation and racial discrimination) and Northern Ireland (characterized by pushes for an end to the marginalization, disenfranchisement and destitution of Catholics). Conceived and co-curated by Void director Maolíosa Boyle and London-based painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, the show sought to highlight the seldom told story of the two countries’ shared histories by presenting artists’ responses to it. Their initial desire was to include work by Irish and black American artists but, due to what they perceived as a scarcity of Northern Irish artists covering the period, the duo instead focused on the work of artists across the Atlantic.3 In contrast to their Northern Irish counterparts, successive generations of African American contemporary artists have returned to the images, iconographies and key events of the Civil Rights movement in their work. Across pieces by heavy hitters such as Ellen Gallagher, Glen Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Lorna Simpson and Kara Walker, different aspects of the Civil Rights movement – boycotts, protests, revolutionary Black Power movements, antebellum history – were filtered through a collection of text-based works (Ligon and Adam Pendleton), portraiture (Marshall and Simpson) animation (Walker), sculpture and an archival collection of Black Panther newspapers (loaned by New York-based artist Rashid Johnson).

 

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Duncan Campbell, Bernadette, 2008, 16mm film still. Courtesy the artist and Rodeo, Istanbul/London.

 

 

Duncan Campbell, Bernadette, 2008, 16mm film still. Courtesy the artist and Rodeo, Istanbul/London.
Although not formally represented, the spirit of one figure pervaded the entire project: Bernadette Devlin McAliskey. Described by Brian Dooley, author of Black and Green: The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland and Black America (1998), as ‘the best known civil rights activist in Northern Ireland [and the] key figure in relations with black America’ , Devlin McAliskey’s energy, vitality and preternatural abilities as a public speaker were widely respected on both national and international stages.4 She rose quickly through the ranks of the student-organized People’s Democracy party (PD) – a group that, Dooley writes, consciously modeled itself ‘on the US student-based civil rights organization the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)’5 – and in 1969 she was elected to parliament in Westminster. Over two early trips to the US – in 1969 and ’71, as a representative of the Irish Civil Rights movement – she visited Angela Davies in jail and became firm friends with members of the Black Panther Party (BPP). The two sides came together in recognition of their similar struggles and a desire to aid and support each other’s cause. It was a desire backed by action. In 1969 when Devlin McAliskey was given the keys to New York City by its mayor, in a gesture of solidarity she handed them over (via fellow PD member Eamon McCann) to the Black Panthers through their representative Robert Bay.

 

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The organizers and speakers at ‘Black Panthers – Spirit of ’68 Derry’, 4 November, 2008. Left to Right: Eileen Webster, Eamonn McCann, Gabrielle Tierney, Emory Douglas, Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, Billy “X” Jennings. Photograph courtesy: George Row.

The organizers and speakers at ‘Black Panthers – Spirit of ’68 Derry’, 4 November, 2008. Left to Right: Eileen Webster, Eamonn McCann, Gabrielle Tierney, Emory Douglas, Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, Billy “X” Jennings. Photograph courtesy: George Row.
But this relationship of collaboration and influence between Northern Ireland and black America goes back much further than the 1960s. In the 19th century, Irish politician Daniel O’Connell and African American writer, abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass lobbied in support of each – for the abolition of slavery in the US and Catholic Emancipation in pre-partition Ireland. Both men frequently drew evocative parity between their conditions in strident letters and public speeches: ‘may my right hand forget its cunning […] if to save Ireland, even Ireland, I forget the negro one single hour!’6 wrote O’Connell, while Douglass declared himself ‘an out and out Home Ruler for Ireland’.7 The 19th-century Irish Catholic experience not only echoed that of black Americans, it also had historical parallels with the plight of African nations colonized by the British. Noel Ignatiev writing in How the Irish Became White (1995) states that in Ireland, ‘the transfer of the land from native cultivators to foreign conquerors took place on as large a scale as in any African colony’.8 British imperialism didn’t stop at the pillage of land – it also extended to the debasing practice of human zoos.9 And, of course, there was the famous exclusionary mantra stuck up in countless British bay windows in the post- WWII era: ‘No blacks, no Irish, no dogs’.

Despite confluences such as the above, official accounts and popular narratives tend to depict the Civil Rights movement shorn of its many collaborative forms, histories and sympathetic coeval uprisings – within the US itself, these included the Chicano movement, the American Indian movement, the Latino civil rights movement, gay rights and feminism. It is continually cast as a discrete black phenomenon, a rousing, church driven and male dominated tale of successful access to the heteronormative American Dream. The same fate befalls Selma (2015), the partial biopic of Martin Luther King Jr, directed by Ava DuVernay and starring British actor David Oyelowo (in a confidently executed turn as King). Framed by activities leading up to the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, it offers a sentimental, sepia-tinted view of a complex phase in America’s history. Essentially the depiction of one man’s godly struggle with his fate as the leader of an oppressed people, Selma is less an in depth, naturalistic biopic than a showreel composite of Oyelowo as King, worrying about marching, delivering rousing speeches, evading confessions of adultery and generally acting in a vacuum. Supporting characters fall into one-dimensional archetypes (racist Southern lawman, paranoid housewife, earnest protestors, gum chewing cops on horseback), while the film’s direction has an odd made-for-TV feel, an effect heightened by DuVernay’s penchant for overusing emotionally manipulative commercial techniques – highly stylized riot scenes overlaid with spiritually uplifting, melismatic music for example. Twenty-five years ago such an approach would have been timely, innovative even. Today it seems a dated, surface retelling of a story we know by heart.

Selma styles itself as a pertinent reminder of the US’s racist past, carrying valuable lessons for its present and future. However the message of conformity and conservatism that it conveys is at odds with the contemporary US’s disorienting and irrational world of metropolitan racism – including integration anxiety, geographic segregation, police brutality etc. – exacerbated by the socio-economic effects of government policies and civic procedures directly influenced by theories of neoliberal capitalism. The crucial central failing of Selma’s simplistic and conventional depiction of the Civil Rights era, in which contemporary revolutionary factions (the BPP and others) are marginalized in favour of messages uncritical of America’s capitalist disciplinary regimes, is that it seeks to resurrect the emancipatory spirit of the time without its one crucial ideological example: solidarity. Perhaps the lesson here is that the culture industry is the culture industry, even when it is an African American production. Fortunately, a counterpoint to this reductive style of Hollywood dramatization can be found in films such as St Clair Bourne’s The Black and the Green (1983) (https://vimeo.com/29081887), a documentary in which six African American civil rights activists visit Belfast in the wake of the hunger strikes of IRA prisoners and the deaths of Bobby Sands and nine other men. In it the delegation spend time in the Maze Prison, meet with relatives of the dead strikers and talk with Republicans about reaffirming the links between black America and Northern Ireland. This instance of post-Civil Rights support and interaction was not isolated: according to Dooley, ‘young Republicans in nationalist Coalisland painted “justice for Rodney King” on the town’s walls’ after the African American construction worker was beaten in 1991 by Los Angeles County police officers (a videotape of the incident was included in the 1993 Whitney Biennial)10; on Gerry Adams’s visit to the US in 1994 he met with Rosa Parks and late last year the Derry Journal reported that ‘an impassioned gathering attended a vigil for Michael Brown’s family and the people of Ferguson, Missouri at Free Derry wall on November 30. Key speakers were Bloody Sunday family member, Kate Nash and veteran Civil Rights campaigner Eamon McCann’.11

But to return to Crenshaw’s theory, ‘intersectionality’ has now become a key term in ongoing Western debates centred on establishing a more egalitarian society capable of recognizing the complex compound identities her text posits, and others that have been described since. But when it is invoked by angry online commentators to enforce contrition (as was the case in the Twitter furore following Penny’s Spectator article, ‘Why patriarchy fears the scissors – for women short hair is a political statement’) an important element of Crenshaw’s thinking – the possibility that compound marginal subject positions might also be able to speak for the other identities with which they intersect – is overlooked.12 Instead of solidarity, such partial readings encourage factionalism and the erosion of political commonalities.

In spite of this, recent actions and movements within the US, including Occupy and the nationwide ‘die-in’ protests for Eric Garner last December, are indications of a growing sense of solidarity, in which diverse communities are unifying in order to combat increasing economic disparity, climate change denial, oppressive government policies, and to put an end to police brutality and institutional racism. This is all vital activity while governments, corporations and individuals propel the forward march of neoliberal capitalism and elements of the Western mainstream mediascape seemingly aim to divide and influence communities using fear as a propaganda tool. In the UK capital, grass roots organizations like the London Black Revolutionaries and Brick Lane Debates have adopted multi-issue approaches to activism and discussion respectively, while Tariq Ali has identified a burgeoning movement of European socialism that includes links between the Radical Independence Campaign in Scotland, Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece.13 It is as a contribution to this climate that ‘Civil Rights: We Have it in Our Power to Begin the World Over Again’ was important. Boyle and Yiadom Boakye’s project indicated how exhibition making can play a key role in supporting this new spirit of solidarity, by using curatorial work to show the power of political alliances and to uncover shared pasts. While the culture industry steamrollers history and its complexities to give us normalized narratives that subtly reinforce community divisions, and while, in the sphere of contemporary art, large-scale biennials can often seem too vast for coherent messages, relatively small-scale group exhibitions can function as powerful and legible conduits for progressive ideas. They can – through the presentation of works that explicitly reference, or else gesture more obliquely towards, forgotten socio-political histories – use the archive to galvanize and, yes, activate the spectator. In the final analysis, this is not just important for exhibitions, it is also important for the world.

1. Being Visible: Feminism Art and the Internet, London: ICA, 10 January, 2014; Feminism Then and Now, London School of Economics, 21 January 2014; No Man’s Land Symposium, London: Hood at Limewharf, 20 September 2014; We Should All Be Feminists, London: Brick Lane Debates at the Rag Factory, 20 November 2014

2. Laurie Penny, ‘Louise Mensch, take a lesson on privilege from the internet’, The Guardian, 31 May, 2013, last visited 26 February, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/31/louise-mensch-privilege-internet

3. A more accurate assessment might be that artworks by Irish artists covering this period (there are many) were unavailable, or else too metaphysical (Willie Doherty, Duncan Campbell) to fit with the direct, iconographic style of Ligon et al.

4. Brian Dooley, Black and Green (London: Pluto Press, 1998), p.50.

5. ibid, p.52.

6. Noel Ignatiev How the Irish Became White (London: Routledge, 1995), p.7.

7. Dooley, p.16.

8. Ignatiev, p.35.

9. At the 1908 Franco-British exhibition in London’s White City, three native exhibits were presented, a Senegalese village, an Indian village, and a mythical Irish village named Ballymaclinton.

10. Dooley, p.122.

11. Greg Sharkey, ‘American Civil Rights campaigner to be main speaker at Bloody Sunday rally’, The Derry Journal, 23 January, 2015, last visited 26 February, 2015, http://www.derryjournal.com/news/american-civil-rights-campaigner-to-be-main-speaker-at-bloody-sunday-rally-1-6540455

12. In Crenshaw’s examination of ‘Moore V Hughes Helicopters, Inc.’ – the second of three Title VII legal case studies she draws on in Demarginalizing the Intersection – she uses the example of black female workers to highlight that the law’s ‘refusal to allow a multiply-disadvantaged [black and female] class to represent others who may be singularly-disadvantaged [either black or female, but not both] defeats efforts to restructure the distribution of opportunity and limits remedial relief to minor adjustments within an established hierarchy.’ The inference is that if this state of affairs were reversed and intersectionality observed, it would allow for the creation of a compound subject position capable of speaking for and representing the interest of both white women and black men.

13. Tariq Ali, The Extreme Centre, (London: Verso, 2015), p.18 & 83.

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