Uncle Sam’s underbelly

A Renegade History of the United States

IMAGINE this sentence rendered in 19th century Ireland. From our perspective it would come across as the Punchesque, top-o-the marnin’ yer lardship, fetlock-tuggin’ nonsense it is. It would portray us as a bunch of simian halfwits content to grovel around at their masters’ feet to get a half a tatie and a swig o’ porter to keep us happy.

So when the quote refers to a similarly downtrodden culture shouldn’t our hackles rise?

However, Thaddeus Russell tells us in his comprehensive new study of how outsiders shaped America that the slaves newly liberated following the American Civil War looked back with nostalgia to their days of indenture. Much of such testimonies were recorded at least 50 years later when, under Franklin D Roosevelt, the US instituted a project to record the memories of black slaves. He quotes copiously from the study and from others to declare that the slaves longed for slavery.

A bizarre enough theory and there are several others in this book. Surely uneducated, unorganised slaves, used to a lifetime of subjugation, couldn’t but utter such obsequiousness? But the recordings were made at a remove of 50 years and more. Rose-tinted spectacles?

Russell argues that the white man worked from noon to night and demonstrates that slaves “worked with less intensity than free Americans, they also worked much less often”. This is not a racist argument, but rather one in support of blacks and one of pity for whites who were controlled by government and churches.

The treatment of blacks in the developing United States was just one area which was indirectly responsible for the creation of liberal laws, he argues. And the lives of these slaves, as evidenced above, was most often carefree and not oppressed as popular history would have us believe.

The renegades in this polemic are not Billy the Kid or Jesse James, rather they are the blacks and other immigrants (Irish and Italians chiefly), whores, feminists and homosexuals who built the United States as we now know it. Theirs were lives lived on the edge, nearly always risky, sometimes dangerous, and theirs were the lifestyles which were reckoned by legislators to constitute a means to live and to which others should aspire.

And the Irish, as we have seen elsewhere, had a torrid time of it, not least in popular representation. We rose from a being “human chimpanzees” (clergyman Charles Kingsley on a visit to the ‘ould sod in 1860) to dominating social and civic life, not least in New York. Russell counters with a description of us as being “funky” and “wickedly good dancers”. That has a ring of RTÉ’s Dave Fanning’s nauseating assertion that Bono made Ireland “cool”.

The Italians were similarly treated on their arrival in the US and did all they could to assimilate. Constant racial battles with black culture followed a previous harmony where Italians and blacks lived side by side in New York, Chicago and New Orleans. Russell then quotes a black DJ in New York who said “Italians are niggaz with short memories” — meaning that Italian culture advanced while black didn’t?

This all gets a little too complex for its own good and Russell’s inversion of gangsta racism is too weak a crutch to support a thesis of unified rebellion by the cited subcultures.

Other chapters on shopping and America and especially the comparisons between, fascism and the New Deal are fascinating, but ill-fitting to the whole thesis.

Picture: NEW ARRIVALS: Immigrants waiting on New York’s Ellis Island, circa 1920. The woman and child in the foreground were from Italy, while the man in the bowler hat was Irish. Most of them lived lives on the edge but they built America. Picture: FPG / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

More in this section

Click and connect: 100 places in Munster to shop locally this Christmas