It’s actually kind of weird how much of my appreciation for this country’s racial diversity came from Irish people.
Well, really, it’s mainly from two particular Irish people. Bono was first – the U2 album Unforgettable Fire came out when I was fourteen, and raised a few eyebrows when its track list contained not just one, but two songs about Martin Luther King, Jr. What was a lily-white Irish guy doing singing about an American Civil Rights activist?….How’d that happen?
But then if you listen to the words of Pride it makes sense –
They got it. It wasn’t that King was just working for one race – he was working for all races to have an equal footing. He was working for all people to have an equal footing – towards the end of his life, King was preparing for action that would have addressed poverty and economic classism that was affecting the impoverished of all races, because that was where a big part of our problems lay then (and still lie today).
Also, it’s not as if Ireland being all of one race has excused it from moments of segregation in its past. A series of laws in the 1700’s severely restricted Catholic people’s rights – Catholics weren’t allowed to hold public office, own guns, serve in the military, marry Protestants, own a horse, own more than a certain amount of land, or vote.
….Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The laws’ repeal even follow a familiar-sounding pattern – most of them were gradually dismantled over the course of the 1800’s, and were finally all repealed with the birth of the new Irish Republic in the 1920’s. But there was still a good deal of discrimination towards Catholics to the North; so much so that in the 1960’s, activists in Ulster noticed the strides Dr. King was making in this country, and were inspired to try similar tactics. The date most commonly given for the day “The Troubles” began was in October of 1968, when a team of activists tried to march through Derry, demonstrating for the right to vote, and the police tried to force them to stop and a riot broke out. A second march from Belfast to Derry met with similar results.
The march from Belfast to Derry was inspired by King’s march from Selma to Montgomery.
U2 reminds me that King wasn’t just fighting for one race – he had a vision for all of them.
But that’s more about an appreciation for the history. I said that I had an appreciation for this country’s diversity, in the present.
And that would be due to another Irish person – my friend Cliona. We’ve been pen pals since childhood, and have visited a couple times – and her eyes on this country always shake up my own. Cliona is one of those wonderful people you can take and plunk down into any situation, no matter how unusual, and she’ll look around her with interest and think “well, I’ve never been here before, let’s check out what this is like.” She demanded I take her to see a synagogue her first trip here, as she’d never been inside one in Ireland; she wanted to try every different kind of food, explore every last corner of the city. Even the subways were a source of fascination.
And on her most recent trip, we actually spent an hour and a half hunched over my computer on a research project. She’s a science teacher, and had a series of posters depicting notable scientists from history in the class – and she was telling me she’d recently been challenged by a student asking why there weren’t any posters of black scientists. She confessed to me she didn’t know of any.
I thought a moment. “I wonder – do you know who George Washington Carver is?”
I told her what little I knew – that he was a botanist who was researching ways to expand the uses of the peanut, to help create a cash crop for Southern sharecroppers – and her eyes lit up. We spent a good hour and a half delving into his story, and Cliona wasn’t just sold on putting his picture up, she actually developed a lesson plan right there, inspired by Carver’s drive to better others by developing more value for a cash crop. “That would absolutely work as a lesson!” she said. “Have some students try to think of new uses for an Irish crop the way Carver did for peanuts or cotton!” There is very likely a classroom of students in the south of Ireland to this day that regularly are told to use Carver as an example.
But even that is not the best story I have.
On her very first trip here, Cliona and I spent most of our days wandering around New York – and most of the time, she was in a wide-eyed state of awe. Every so often she’d see something that amazed her and just stop and stare at it, a huge grin on her face – the Empire State Building, Times Square, Washington Square Park, the Brooklyn Bridge. I was so used to my usual sidewalk pace that sometimes I’d get a half a block away before I noticed I’d lost her.
Towards the end of her visit, though, I noticed a couple times that she was stopping and staring not at buildings, but at people. After the third time I’d found her staring at the crowd around us, I finally asked what it was that was catching her attention.
“All the faces,” she said, grinning at me. “They’re all different colors. It’s just…Look. It’s beautiful.”
And she’s right.
….By the way, the title of this post is in Irish Gaelic – it’s a line from MLK, U2’s other song about King; “may your dream be realized.”