Thursday, September 3, 2009

O’Brutha, where art thou from?

Even in this fractious, partisan and confrontational time, sometimes things happen that rattle the walls of our ethnic expectations, events we didn’t see coming or forgot about, but whose existence underscores the interconnectedness we say we believe in but can’t quite believe — until the unbelievable happens.

Reuters reported Tuesday that Muhammad Ali received a hero's welcome when he visited Ennis, his ancestral hometown in Ireland, 150 miles southwest of Dublin, and was made an honorary freeman at a reception observed by hundreds.

Reuters said Ennis’ merchants decorated their businesses with boxing gloves, American flags and pictures of the three-time heavyweight champion in his floating, stinging prime.

Ali’s great-grandfather, Abe O'Grady, emigrated from Ennis, County Clare, in the 1860s. The residents of Turnpike Road, where O’Grady's home stood and a plaque to his great-grandson will be unveiled, scrubbed their windows before Ali’s visit.



“I believe every citizen of Ennis was lining the streets to welcome Muhammad home, I've never seen anything like this before,” Ali's wife Lonnie said to national broadcaster RTE. “It was better than any medicine you could give him.”

"My father always spoke about Muhammad Ali, we always knew that there was a connection," Imelda O'Grady told RTE. "Thank God we have lived to see this day."

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Then there’s the tale of six degrees of Niall of the Nine Hostages: ABC News reported July 29 that Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley is believed to share Irish ancestry with scholar, author, documentarian and Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The two men met President Obama at the White House in July, after Crowley’s arrest of Gates for breaking and entering his own home sparked a loud and prolonged national debate over racial profiling.

Gates discussed his ancestry as the host of “African American Lives 2,” a 2008 PBS series that followed one in 2006; Gates went to Dublin to have his DNA analyzed at Trinity College. His genetic material indicated he was descended from or related to Niall of the Nine Hostages, an Irish king in the 4th and 5th centuries.

Crowley also shares “very close links” with Niall of the Nine Hostages, ABC reported.

Apparently, Niall shares very close links to a lot of folks. In a January 2006 study, geneticists at Trinity College, Dublin found that between 2 and 3 million males alive in the world are related, however distantly, to Niall, the Sunday Times of London reported.

And of course all of this follows in the wake of the news last year, during the presidential campaign, that President Obama has Irish forebears. In May 2007, The Washington Post reported that Stephen Neill, an Anglican rector in Ireland, said church documents, census information and immigration records vetted by U.S. genealogists show that Obama's great-great-great-grandfather, Fulmuth Kearney, was reared in Moneygall, near County Tipperary, before leaving for America in 1850 at the age of 19.

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It’s all fresh evidence of what we already know historically, anecdotally, experientially: the walls between us, our seemingly separate cultures and identities, are thin walls indeed, and you can always hear the neighbors in the next room. Often as not, they're in the same room, or they once were.

In the book “In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863,” author Leslie M. Harris recounts how Irish immigrants and black Americans jostled and competed and, often enough, found common ground as citizens, neighbors and lovers in New York City in the 1840’s and after.

Harris examines how the Five Points area of lower Manhattan — that part of the city made famous in Martin Scorsese’s fine film “Gangs of New York” — was a nexus of integration before the word “integration” even hit the lexicon:

“The Sixth Ward in lower Manhattan, and particularly the Five Points region of that ward, became the focus of accounts of black-white interracial sex. The Five Points … named for the intersection of five streets, was the geographic center for the first free black settlements in the city during the emancipation years. …

“After the mid-1840s, the Sixth Ward also became known as the “Irish ward” because of the large numbers of Irish immigrants who made the Five Points area their home. …

“Largely poor and confined to low-wage unskilled jobs, the Irish competed with blacks for positions as waiters, domestics and laborers. …

“Occupying the jobs that were formerly the domain of blacks, jobs to which associations of servility and dependence still clung, the Irish experienced a prejudice akin to that blacks had endured for so long. Indeed, some called the Irish “white niggers, and blacks, “smoked Irish.” Thus, Irish and blacks uneasily shared geographic, social, economic and cultural space in New York City in the 1840s and 1850s.”

It all runs deep. Deeper than intellect and pride and prejudice. Maybe there’s a reason the 1991 Alan Parker film “The Commitments” — a story of unemployed Dubliners forming a soul music group to perform the music of James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding — was voted the best Irish film of all time in a 2005 poll (sponsored by Jameson Irish Whiskey).



Maybe there’s a reason why Chad Johnson of the Cincinnati Bengals is so good at doing the Irish jig in the end zone.

Or why the music of the Chieftains or the Dubliners sounds … special to some African Americans without their quite knowing why.

It runs deep in the blood. In the bone. And what’s bred in the bone can’t fail.
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Image credits: Ali: Still from video, source unknown. Niall of the Nine Hostages: Republished under GNU Free Documentation License. Five Points map: Sarah Zingarelli. From the book “In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863,” by Leslie M. Harris.

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