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First person

A fly in the buttermilk: A Black woman with Irish roots

By August 22, 2020No Comments

Nafeesah Allen is an American writer and independent researcher with a particular interest in literature, gender identity and diaspora studies within the global South. In her personal essay, she traces her grandmother’s genealogy from 1927 Alabama to Ireland…


Despite her name, Mary Catherine Dixon is the last person you would ever think was Irish. There are many stories of how she came to be, exactly, but there are two versions that she and I have come to debate. The first version she told me in the mid 90s. We sat at her kitchen table in New Jersey, where she swatted away bugs and swept aside unidentified puzzle pieces. 

“Well, they say he raped her,” she reported of her father who lived on the neighbouring plantation. Word had it that the son of an otherwise agreeable Irish family took liberties with her mother, and Mary Catherine was less a love child than a very beautiful reminder of that sin. She was born in 1927 in Georgia, so this narrative is actually quite logical. But one very important event would cast doubt over the entire affair.

Her paternal family once knocked on her own grandmother’s door, asking if they could claim her – “My grandmother got her shotgun” – and a very politely worded threat to never come back was delivered and convincingly received. She would never hear from them again. For the rest of her days, she would wonder if what she had been told as a child was truth or trope, but she emphatically said then, “I don’t believe it. I think they loved each other.” 1927 was not a time for interracial love.

Just a few weeks ago, I sat down again with Mary Catherine, my 93-year-old paternal grandmother, to ask about her personal relationship with travel and identity. I asked because I – now a migration scholar – have struggled to situate myself as a rather fortunate nomad, who has been able to stay gainfully employed and geographically rootless. But, as an African-American woman, I continue to feel ostracised in my own field, never allowed to self-identify as a migrant, because my family history doesn’t adhere to accepted norms of American immigration. 

My grandmother would never learn the real details of her parents’ relationship. Her mother died when she was six, and her maternal grandmother died about a year later. She would hitch her wagon to an aunt who took her to Florida, then Alabama and then New Jersey. She would spend the rest of her childhood living like a drifter. After all, she was a Black child with red hair, an awfully attractive anomaly for her time. She would show up in the world as a Black woman, eventually marry two African-American men, have three children, and become a grandmother and great-grandmother to an ever-growing brood that lives without a whiff of Whiteness. Only, we would keep pestering her about her past. 

In a quest to better understand myself, I asked new questions about her experience migrating from the Jim Crow south to the industrialised north in the 1940s, during what is known in America as the Great Migration. This would be when she finally gave me names of people and places, where I could begin the journey of tracing our family’s genealogy and corroborating her DNA results. 53% European: 51% of her ancestry is Northwestern European, and her British and Irish ancestors, traced between 1840 and the 1900s, are just one to three generations away. “I was surprised by that 51%. I want to know where that extra 1% came from!” she joked as we discussed the confirmation that she was, genetically speaking, more White than Black.

I got it into my head that I would try to learn more about this lost lineage and figure out what life could have been like for an Irish Black woman raised as White, rather than Black. I started with her paternal last name, and tried to trace it through the border towns of Georgia, Alabama and Florida, where she said her maternal family regularly circulated. “Nobody would tell me much about him… Last I heard, they moved to North Carolina,” she recalled when I asked if she remembered what came of his family. Tying together loose threads from 85 years ago is no easy feat.

Since then, I have been on a more concrete academic search to find others of us out there who are direct and indirect descendants of Irish and African-American unions. Much has been written about our rivalries during the early 20th Century, when Black and Irishmen fought for scarce opportunities in the slums of northern cities. However, emerging research from NYU’s Glucksman Irish House has been uncovering more intimate relationships, including Lenwood Sloan’s conclusions that, in the American south, life expectancy was a significant driver of de facto interracial marriages or plaçage between Irish men and Black women living in peri-urban and rural settings. 

This is the arrangement my grandmother imagines was the case between her parents. Historical data certainly supports her hypothesis that the attraction was mutual, even if not completely consensual. In her words: “He was a spoiled little guy. My mother must have been fresh. I’m here. Both of them were fresh. They got a little red baby. Just imagine if they would have took me with them and I grew up looking like this. Oh my God, I would have been the fly in the buttermilk. They came, they wanted me, but my grandmother said ‘no way.’ I would have probably wound up being their servant or something. My grandmother had good sense.” 

It is hard to fathom what it was to be biracial before the term was even invented, but New Orleans’ literature on mulattos –  someone who was born to one African parent, and one European parent – is perhaps the closest history has come to understanding this dynamic in the American south. 

With so many other tragic losses early in life, it is no surprise that the absence of her father did not register in my grandmother’s consciousness until adulthood and, even then, she framed it as no loss at all. My cousins and I have chosen to believe that had she gone with her paternal family, her life may have actually been easier, perhaps better. She disagrees.

Given the Irish’s history of indentured labor, however, she may be right. In fact, Sloan found archival classified ads from Pennsylvania describing Irish men and women hiding  in the Appalachian mountain range to flee servitude. These stories of self-emancipation seem to parallel Black maroon narratives but – historically – they juxtapose anecdotes that Andrew Jackson sanctioned Irish seizures of freed Blacks’ land. So, it is hard to know if my White ancestors were victims or victimisers, or perhaps they fluidly oscillated between both. Similarly, we’ll never know if my maternal grandmother was a shield, or a fence.

For now, my search for my great grandfather’s family continues, and it is a wild goose chase of name variations and disappearing cities across the West coast and the deep south. Instead of facts, I cling to loose ends and hope from my dad’s evergreen mantra “I complained that I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet”. I recently learned that that saying is common in Ireland. Perhaps, he picked it up from some of his long, lost cousins and never even knew it. In my lifetime, I hope to find more answers, but my grandmother feels no urgency, despite her advanced age. 

As the saying goes, “You’ve got to do your own growing, no matter how tall your father was”. And she would say this is true, even when you have no idea who he is.

Photo by Vivek Sharma on Unsplash