Beyoncé, Shaquille O’Neal, Muhammad Ali, Barack Obama, Billie Holiday and Colin Powell, Alicia Keys share a common Irish heritage. In fact, you may be surprised to know that 38 percent of African Americans have an Irish heritage.
While the relationship between the two cultures has not always been a good one, there are some remarkable contributions that have been made to American culture as a result of the intersection between the two and we share much in common when it comes to our American experience.
In the mid-1800s, freed slaves and Irish indentured servants found themselves living side-by-side in New York City, largely due to their common poverty and the availability of tenement slums. During this period, there was cross-cultural engagement between the two castaways, particularly in music and dance. The Irish had clog dancing, and the Africans had juba. Today, the most American form of dance known as tap is the result of the intersection between freed slaves with juba and Irish indentured servants with clogging.
Sadly, as both groups struggled to climb the social ladder through hard work, they became competitors and often enemies. This was fueled by leaders like President Andrew Jackson, who gave the Irish permission to take the land of freed slaves. Nonetheless, there have always been those reflective Irish and African Americans who understood how they shared a common history of oppression and prejudice. It was no coincidence that one of the first Democrats to endorse Barack Obama for president was U.S. Senator Teddy Kennedy. Obama was also endorsed by Caroline, John Kennedy’s daughter. Both Kennedys became important allies to the Civil Rights Movement.
Michael Dalton, an 83-year-old St. Louis Catholic Irishman, initiated a 20-year long relationship between St. Monica Catholic Church in Creve Coeur with Blessed Sacrament Church, a predominantly African-American church in North City.
“My father was Irish, and he knew personally how bad prejudice could be, and he never wanted any of his children to be that way,” Dalton said. “And a black man named Harrison who stoked our furnace became quite a friend to me and my father, and I always wanted to honor our friendship by bringing our communities together. I loved that man!”
In 2000, Michael Dalton was the recipient of the “Extraordinary/Ordinary Person of the Year Award” at Powell Symphony Hall. He was too ill to come, but his wife and a young African-American boy of 10 who was mentored by Michael came to receive the award for him.
This year, I went to the annual Hibernian St. Patrick’s Day Parade for the first time and I carried a sign that said, “I love the 24% Irish in me and I love you! Free Hugs” I was quite touched when almost 40 Irish men, women and children came up to me for the free hugs. But I was blown away when one beautiful little girl with brown skin and green eyes had a sign that said, “Dr. Martin Luther King is part Irish!”
Cecilia Nadal is executive director of Gitana Productions, an arts and education company that provides global healing through music, dance and drama in the St. Louis community.