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Modernism/modernity 12.3 (2005) 369-384

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The Colors of Zion:

Black, Jewish, and Irish Nationalisms At the Turn of the Century

The above title may provoke curiosity, perhaps skepticism, even incredulity. At the turn of our own century, we fail to recognize what these three movements—persistently culturally defined as separate products of separate groups facing different historical contingencies—might have had in common at the turn of the previous one. When our present historical memory includes contact between them at all, it usually stresses conflict rather than cooperation, whether in the Black-Irish tension of the movie "The Gangs of New York"; the poetry of Amiri Baraka libeling Jews as absent from the World Trade Center on September 11; or the tendency of the Irish Republican Army to align itself with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Prevalent historical, cultural, and aesthetic images of the recent past overwhelmingly feature antagonism between these separate groups. Yet as the novelist L. P. Hartley famously remarked in the prologue to his novel The Go-Between (1953), "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."1 The past, of course, pertains not only to an actual past, but to a knowable past, which is to say our constructions of the past. And the way we now construct the past of group relations differs so markedly from the way that the groups themselves previously constructed such relations that it calls into question the adequacy of what we think we know as a basis for present understanding and future action. I recognize the very real tensions that have existed among these groups, but maintain here that the antagonistic part of the story has been so stressed and even overstressed recently that it is time to recuperate the network of lost intergroup connections. [End Page 369]

This essay is part of a broader project called The Colors of Zion: Blacks, Jews, and Irish at the Turn of the Century that seeks to recover such lost linkages in a Geertzian "thick description" which allows their members to speak for themselves. In brief, the three groups and their outside supporters regularly associated themselves with each other in a positive sense to a much larger degree than we now suppose, even as their external critics associated the groups with each other in a negative sense. For example, racist pseudo-scientists of the day regularly viewed Blacks, Jews, and Irish as inferior races and would jump from one to the other often on the same page or even in the same paragraph. More sympathetically, Black Nationalist thinkers often invoked the Zionist movement as a positive model for Africans or African Americans, and leading Zionists paid tribute to the leaders and strategists of Irish nationalism. My larger project begins with notions of races and diasporas and then proceeds to issues of nationalisms on the one hand and melting pots on the other before looking in turn at literature and images of the Irish Renaissance, Harlem Renaissance, and Jewish American Renaissance. Here, I focus on the evolution and interaction of various nationalisms, first from the mid-nineteenth century until the first decade of the twentieth, and then more briefly on the period immediately after World War I. After a framing of syncretic sympathies in Frederick Douglass and George Eliot, I invoke particularly W. B. Yeats, Douglas Hyde, and the more ambivalent James Joyce among Irish nationalists; Theodore Herzl and Israel Zangwill among Zionist leaders; and Edward Blyden, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey among Pan-African advocates.

One road into the forgotten past begins with Douglass's tour of famine Ireland. This episode has been so thoroughly erased from current consciousness that after several years of lectures and discussions I have met almost no one in North America (and only a few more in Ireland) who knew that Douglass made a tour of famine Ireland. It is absent from such now canonical sources as The Norton Anthology of American Literature or The Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature, the first of...


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