The intelligence of the men is a great surprise to me. They learn all the details of guard duty and Camp service, infinitely more readily than the Irish I have had under my command.
-- Col. Robert Gould Shaw, letter to his mother, March 25, 1863*
It came as a “surprise” to this white commander of black troops that they would make “as good a regiment, as any that has marched.” With abolitionist condescension, he said his troops were “like children;” but in due time these men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry convinced him of their manhood. The irredeemable troops of that army, according to Shaw, were not the black ones but the Irish ones. “The Irishmen,” he wrote (May 25 1861), “seem sometimes utterly unable to learn or understand anything.”*
I grew up among institutions of the Mayflower, in Connecticut River towns with village greens, Greek Revival civic halls, and white frame meeting-houses with green shutters, clear windows and pointed spires. I lived in parsonages of Victorian or English colonial origin, one of them from the time of the French and Indian War. I attended a prep school of Anglo-Saxon nomenclature where, though neither I nor my parents were native to New England, our British name and pink complexions earned us trust. In those towns the suspect peoples were the ones whose families had arrived on other boats. They were Italian, Portuguese, Slavic or Irish, or Jewish.
In those days it was rumored that in the cities there were black people, but “Negroes” didn’t come so close to us in daily life that we would fear them. If we were liberals, we might declare ourselves “on their side” without knowing any of them, but if we did so the Italians and the Portuguese, the Slavs and the Irish took offence.
In Shaw’s day the Irish were less reputable than free Africans. But when the Kennedy boys went to schools like mine and one of them became president, the Irish forgot eight centuries of warfare with the English and became New England’s newest white people.
So what is this “white” identity of mine? The community called white at any given time is a conglomerate of tribes. A generation or so ago these tribes were killing each other. Their common story is of mutual hatred and murder, and they suppress it as the price of admission to whiteness. They make each other powerful by forgetting their history, and by closing ranks against the ones left out, who remember history.
The critical theories of the latest fin-de-siècle tell us that race is socially constructed, and the composition of whiteness is therefore a convention like “king’s English.” Science provides no genetic definition of race, nor will it countenance the notion of subspecies. “Race” enters history only because human beings think it is important. Yet friends of African ancestry tell me that they and their children cannot “pass” for white in the way that Slavs and Mediterraneans have done: Danny Glover in a three-piece suit still can’t get a taxi. Their testimony implies that racial classification – and reclassification – has perceptual if not genetic limits. As long as the first fact noted about my brother or sister is their pigmentation, then some will be excluded to define the inclusion of others. If a time is coming when, on meeting my African brother, I don’t think off the top of my head “Oh, there’s a black man!” – that will be a good thing, will it not, my friend?
What do I get for being white? Though I didn’t choose my place in history and can’t unchoose it, the places we are thrown into at birth aren’t equal – just ask those thrown into the valleys. Here on my modest hill I received an extra portion, not so much of assets as of aspiration, and in my hand was placed the key to a prestigious culture. That I have not mastered the universe – well, perhaps that’s my fault, and mere survival therefore is my fortune. What I lack for being white is an identity.
Why did my people – whoever they were, German, English or Celtic – come to what they called a New World (though they stole it from those who had owned it of Old)? What persecution or privation drove them from their native continent? It’s all under wraps. To acknowledge the story of those olden days is to break solidarity with our new-found friends, those other whites whose ancestors made us leave the Old World, but who now enjoy with us the fruits of theft, the robbery of labor or of land. We do not talk about our losses. We’re here now, where hard work gets you what you want. That’s our whitebread culture, in whose scripture nothing but valiant effort and deserved success are written.
When I go to hear Delta Blues, the audience is surprisingly white, which makes me think the mythology of valiant effort and deserved success has failed us. It fails us first because it’s false: life is not fair, even to white people. It fails us second because, even when it’s not disproved, it’s boring even unto death: there is no mode for our fear and suffering. And so we envy those outside our circle. And we go slumming.
O to be Irish! Or Hungarian, or Czech, or Sicilian, or Polish, or Basque, or Catalan, or any ancestor of whiteness who still recalls his song. Or to be black.
And that’s another reason why I can’t destroy my white identity – because I don’t have one. White is no identity.
*Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Robert Gould Shaw, ed. Russell Duncan (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 1992)