Friday, November 18, 2005

Afro-Celts and other cultural cross-currents

"Celtic heritage is not reserved exclusively for 'white' people," argued Michael Newton in a fascinating lecture yesterday sponsored by the Center for the Study of the American South: "it is an important element in the history of our nation and belongs to people of all colors."

Newton's interest is in the Highland Scots, many of whom ended up settling along the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. Having come here as a result of the Highland clearances--harsh forced migrations as their lands were claimed by the British crown--they settled into lives that looked a lot like that of other white European southerners, including, sometimes, ownership of slaves. But white culture had its hierarchies too, and so the Highland Scots, like the Irish, were often considered by the Anglo-Saxon establishment (including lowland Scots) as no better than blacks or Indians.

Newton's talk focused on the broad cultural exchange that he calls the "Afro-Celt" experience, which includes the common use (historically, anyway) of the Gaelic language. For Newton, culture is highly bound up in language--and that was a claim that led to fascinating discussion after the talk. Does culture not have to do with who your ancestors were? asked one man. Not necessarily, said Newton; witness the contemporary Gaelic language revival. People are attracted to the Gaelic language/culture for multiple reasons, not always their ancestry.

The notion of African American Celts today was one interesting topic, raised for example by an African American woman who teaches at NCCU; she has a Scottish name, she doesn't speak like a typical African American, and she's from the South Carolina side of the Cape Fear basin. The issue of cultural identity she cited involves her students, who are reluctant to break out of their native African American dialect for fear of seeming "white." An African American sociolinguist who claimed also Scottish and Catawba identities talked about how we all engage in dialectical "code-switching." A woman of proudly indeterminate ethnicity, Rhiannon Giddens (who sang a beautiful duet with Newton), echoed Newton's belief that all categories of race reflect a failure of imagination. And yet, as a blind anthropologist pointed out ("I could never pass as a sighted person"), sometimes ignoring the labels is not possible.

Newton's understanding of Gaelic as more of an adopted than an inherited cultural identity is elaborated in an essay about the Gaelic language revival movement. The virtual community that he discovered through surveying language learners is one that is diverse, generally open to multiculturalism and alternative religions (if they care about religion, which many do not), and fluid. The reasons for their attraction may include family heritage but do not seem to be dependent on it:

A few see Gaelic language and tradition as essential ingredients of their spiritual life, wishing to bypass the later accretions of Protestantism, Catholicism, or Christianity itself to connect to more primal wellsprings. This is one of a number of indications that the Gaelic learners' movement in North America is a post-modern phenomenon. By "post-modern" I mean in this case the conscious recognition that all traditions are ultimately socially constructed and valid from some perspective, and that, to a considerable extent, an individual can choose which group to identify with and which traditions to adapt, adopt, or follow.

The rise of interest in Scots Gaelic is surely realted to the whole post-1960s interest in diversity and cultural roots. What's just as interesting--though it wasn't talked about directly--is that this same "multicultural" impetus is used in support of white supremacy in the new American South. A recent issue of Cultural Geographies (April 2005) includes an essay on "Whiteness, multiculturalism and nationalist appropriation of Celtic culture." The case studies include the League of the South: out of dubious claims to Celtic identity (a claim no self-respecting southerner would have made a generation ago), the League works to create a distinctive and racially exclusive "Anglo-Celtic" southernness--a move that rests, ultimately, upon the strength of multiculturalism itself.

But it seems that ironies abound. "Frederick Douglass" was not his real name. Out of slavery he took "Douglas(s)" from "The Lady of the Lake," by a great lowland Scott. In Rochester in 1849 (.pdf) he said,

Though I'm not a Scotchman, and have colored skin, I am proud to be among you this evening. And if any think me out of my place on this occasion (pointing to [a] picture of Burns), I beg that the blame may be laid at the door of him who taught me that 'a man's a man for a' that.'"

Douglass, who pointed out that "Genealogical trees do not flourish among slaves," in freedom took liberty with his own lineage, doing pretty much what Michael Newton celebrates in his study of the new Gaelic speakers: among those not of his kin(d), he improvises an identity well calculated to get them to acknowledge him as, fundamentally, one of their own.

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