There is a scene in Colum McCann’s excellent, early novel This Side of Brightness that is heartbreaking. An Irish woman in New York City has earned the wrath of her neighbors by marrying a black man. This is the early 20th century, so the hatred this woman and her husband face is visceral.
Yet they proceed with their lives and they raise their children as best they can. One day, the woman’s child runs to see her at work after receiving an A on his report card. The woman is stunned to see her dark-skinned child suddenly show up at work.
As is her white boss. She is so stunned, in fact, she denies that this is her child. The moment will haunt her for the rest of her life.
This scene came to my mind as I was thinking about the racial slaughter that just unfolded in Charleston, South Carolina. Once again race and guns have collided in a bloody way. Once again we are forced to acknowledge that our nation’s terrible past isn’t really in the past at all.
Once again it appears that hate is winning.
That’s also one way to look at the scene McCann wrote in This Side of Brightness. But part of me didn’t view that Irish woman with shame. Part of me simply felt sorry for her.
Her son is clearly a victim of America’s terrible racial legacy. But so is she. What McCann’s character did was horrible. But it was merely a horrible moment.
Yet, it is not a moment that could have happened -- this Irish woman could not have had a son with a black man -- had she not made the monumentally brave decision to defy the strict racial codes of her time and fall in love with a black man in the first place.
Sadly, such brave decisions are rarely the stuff of headlines and history books. The simple truth, though, is that love often does conquer hate.
And if we don’t spend some time celebrating that, we are going to drown in the misery, horror and bloodshed wreaked by the pitiful likes of bigots such as 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, who somehow thought it made sense to walk into a church and slaughter nine people. Because “they” were taking over “his” country.
The Irish have contributed their fair of misery to this nation, and not simply on the issue of race. One can also (sadly) make the case for a distinctly Irish American Catholic strain of anti-Semitism that has led to violence and poisoned so many personal relationships.
But during a week like this, we must also recall something else. The Irish in America also have a sturdy and proud tradition of breaking down barriers that had kept people of different races, religions and national backgrounds separate for centuries.
It wasn’t always easy or pretty. But they leapt into the melting pot with reckless abandon. They put an exclamation point at the end of E Pluribus Unum.
William Derickson and his wife certainly understood this. She was Irish, he was black, and they lived on Worth Street in Manhattan at the time of the notorious New York City Draft Riots of 1863. The great novelist Kevin Baker based a character in his novel Paradise Alley on this trailblazing duo.
Again, while it is tempting -- even necessary -- to linger on the horrors of what unfolded during a hellish moment such as the Draft Riots, it must be added that, as some historians have noted, rates of intermarriage between blacks and whites were actually relatively high in the Five Points slum in the mid-19th century.
It is this kind of silent bravery, this love that will not be denied, that we must celebrate more. Writers like McCann and Baker have done it nobly. So did Chinese American writer Gish Jen in her story collection Who’s Irish? So did Mat Johnson in his recent novel -- lauded on the front cover of The New York Times Book Review -- Loving Day.
Does it mean we walk around pretending everything is fine? Does it mean we should hold each other’s hands and sing “Kumbaya”? Does it mean we should ignore those who inspire bigots like Dylann Storm Roof and allow him access to guns? Not at all.
What we should do is honor and remember those brave souls who refuse to let hate conquer love. Maybe that will inspire someone, anyone, to try and stop the next bigot with a gun.
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