|A sixties portrait of William Melvin Kelley|
The current issue of Harper’s magazine features a memoir written by novelist William Melvin Kelley.
Kelley explores the complex ways skin color, language and bigotry have influenced his own life, as well as recent American history.
“I grew up in the Northeast Bronx with the children of Italian immigrants who mostly embraced me,” Kelley writes at one point.
Later, he adds, “My Italo friends much preferred me to most Irish kids.”
Then, Kelley recounts a particularly ugly incident.
“One day one of a group of Irish kids passing through our block called me a n****r. My Creole mother had armed me against this, without going into it very deeply -- anybody who called me a n****r had simultaneously demonstrated his ignorance and his inferiority.
“I should dismiss the comment as I would dismiss the utterance of a parrot. So, when the Irish kid called me n****r, I assumed an attitude of superiority and condescension.”
Kelley’s friends were not so kind. They doled out a beating to “the Irish kid, whom they’d caught while his companions ran away.”
Even when Kelley’s education took him to elite schools and prestigious museums, it seems there was always an Irish American around to remind him of the persistence of racism.
“In 1944 I started attending Fieldston, a Euro and predominately Jewish progressive private school,” Kelley writes. “Over the next 12 years I went wherever my class went, to the Met and MoMA, to Carnegie Hall, to see Scribner make pulp paper for special editions.
“I went through the front entrance when I went to visit my friends on Fifth or Park Avenues. Their parents had warned the Irish doormen not to turn me away.”
There is no reason to doubt Kelley’s recollections because, sadly, they are utterly plausible.
His memoir does, however, force us to confront a nasty little question -- have Irish Americans really been disproportionately racist?
Kelley’s own memoir alone proves nothing. It is the massive accumulation of memoirs, books, novels, movies and TV shows with narrow-minded Irish American characters that is more alarming.
As with redneck whites (usually Scots-Irish, incidentally), Irish Catholic Americans are often the immoral center of a given story, a stubborn obstacle to be overcome whether we are talking about real life or fiction.
From the New York City Draft Riots to the Boston bussing mess of the 1970s, some Irish Americans acted deplorably during tense racial times.
As for fiction, there’s Studs Lonigan and his band of brutes from the 1930s novels by (Irish Catholic) James T. Farrell. There’s the psychotic thug Artie West from the classic film Blackboard Jungle, who is finally conquered by his heroic teacher, who had earlier pointed out that West is “Irish American.”
There’s the “ferocious Irishmen” who assault Saul Bellow’s hero in the classic novel The Adventures of Augie March. There is the oppressive Dunn family from the book (and film) Looking for Mr. Goodbar.
And there is Amy Waldman’s recent novel The Submission, about a Muslim-American architect who is selected to design a memorial at ground zero. This is opposed by Sean Gallagher, whose brother, Patrick, was a firefighter killed that awful day. We see a not-so-subtle Islamophobia in Sean’s Irish American family.
Again, are Irish Americans truly worse in this area than other ethnic groups? Or are they simply convenient mouthpieces for ugly thoughts?
The most honest effort to answer this question was a book released last March entitled The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multi-Ethnic City.
Author James R. Barret argues that “nativist hostility toward the Irish created a defensiveness in their relations” with other groups.
Barrett makes a compelling case but it is far from definitive or satisfying.
And so, we rightly feel for the victims of bigotry, such as William Melvin Kelley.
And we are left to wonder if Irish Americans need to more forcefully confront a dark chapter of their past?
Or, instead, if writers and movie makers need to get a little more creative when it comes to creating their villains?
(Contact “Sidewalks” at [email protected] or visit tdeignan.blogspot.com)