Years ago, I spent Saint Patrick's Day in an Irish pub singing ditties with a restaurant full of my newest friends -- and left feeling a little green with envy. The Irish-American traditions and fare were in full swing and exposed me to a culture I'd never really considered while growing up in a sleepy North Carolina suburb. This year I find myself brewing a homemade dark beer and casually searching the Internet for "Kiss me, I'm 1/16 Irish" buttons. As an African-American, this feels a bit weird.
I'm pretty sure my Irish great-great grandfather would not be thrilled about this. A discreet encounter -- either an isolated incident or part of an ongoing relationship, the family lore is unclear -- led to the hazel-eyed and blonde-haired African-Americans present at my family cookouts today. It's in moments like these that I wonder about the utility of what President Theodore Roosevelt once called "hyphenated Americanism."
The plights of the Irish and blacks in America are extremely different, but share some similarities. In the 19th century, particularly after slavery, both were considered to be the lowest rungs of society. Irish were sometimes thought of as black people "turned inside out," and blacks as "smoked Irish." Historians have written that the indigent, chattel state of the two groups led to such a high number of interracial marriages that the term "mulatto's" first official use was to record this phenomenon in the 1850 Census. In the earliest 20th century, the Irish and blacks all along the eastern seaboard continued to compete for work and live in close proximity, until the race divide became the chasm that even class could not bridge.
The Irish slowly became more accepted in American society while African-Americans were left relegated to third-class citizenship. While Irish-Americans held on to the cultures and practices they brought with them from Ireland, blacks were forced to evolve their disparate African origins into a unique culture that led to African-Americanism. These sorts of hyphenations brought out the bull moose in President Roosevelt.
The practice of appending one's culture or ethnicity to their American citizenship is still a hotly contested issue. Those who are for hyphenation believe it adds to the richness of the American experience by recognizing our diverse paths that all sought the promise of our nation. Those against the practice often cite President Roosevelt's famous proclamation that "There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else."
Roosevelt, however, was specifically taking issue with Americans of divided national loyalties. It wasn't that he wanted the Irish, for example, to renounce their culture, only to proclaim their allegiance to America, and no other nation. Roosevelt, of course, made no mention of blacks in his railing against European hyphenations. That is primarily because "colored" and "negro" were the terms of choice then. But also because blacks by any name, including African-American, never had the option of divided nationalities. We are intrinsically American, simply of African origin.
In fact, hyphenation is a symbol that is, itself, quite American. Aside from the Native Americans, we all arrived from elsewhere and chose, immediately or eventually, America and her principles for ourselves. Even blacks, when presented with the option of being shipped back to Africa for their own nation, vehemently refused. We are part of America, hyphen or not, and there is no question where our loyalties lie. The same can be said for the many Europeans, Asians, Hispanics, and Africans who left their country for our shores and were adopted by America.
Like most Americans, my existence is more hyphenated than any bubble on a census form or application could ever capture. Aside from my Irish and African origins, my family has Native American and Caribbean blood as well -- and that's just the branches of the tree we've uncovered. And because I'm American, I am all of those things together, and each of them separately, with freedom to express them in a nation that appreciates its cultural diversity and national loyalty. The military uniform I proudly put on every morning leaves no question as to my allegiance, and it also protects my right to hyphen as I so choose.
That said, without question, I am African-American. Identifying as such does not deny or denigrate the Irish, Native American or Caribbean roots; it only speaks to the name that best captures my American experience.
On this Saint Patrick's Day, though, I feel like recognizing my Irish-American heritage for the day. While I don't have plans to sing at a pub all night or even append a shamrock to my clothes, I will drink a pint of my home-brewed porter and better educate myself on the Irish experience. As it turns out, porter was first brewed in Ireland in 1776, the same year the Declaration of Independence was signed. That's American enough for me; no buttons necessary.