Belfast Telegraph

Gerry Adams' Rosa Parks hissy fit over White House wait an insult to African-America

Gerry Adams
Gerry Adams

By Eamonn McCann

Gerry Adams has been subject to mirth and worse for comparing his experience of having to wait outside the White House for 80 minutes with the experience of African-Americans banished to the back of the bus.

The incident in Washington DC was sparked when security officers couldn't find the Sinn Fein president's name on the guest list for the March 17 White House hooley and asked him to stand to the side. Apparently, he wasn't even down as Mary Lou McDonald's 'plus one'.

As to why he'd been left off the list, nobody really knows. But there are some who really care. None more so than Mr Adams himself. The way he'd been treated, he sternly complained, was "unacceptable... Sinn Fein will not sit at the back of the bus".

It was the implicit reference to Rosa Parks that prompted mirth. She is one of the most iconic figures in the history of the US civil rights movement.

In December 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, she refused to obey a bus driver and give up her seat to a white man. The incident was to become a significant plot-point in the narrative of the African-American fight for equality.

Ms Parks' experience was emblematic of the second-class citizenship and worse of generations of black people stretching back to the days of slavery.

Adams' experience was emblematic of the distress of all who have ever stood outside a gig begging the bouncers to believe that Mr Springsteen himself had promised to put the name on the list and there must be some terrible mix-up.

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Asked whether he didn't consider the parallel drawn between his Washington experience and that of an African-American woman in Alabama in the 1950s somewhat fanciful, Adams replied: "Not at all."

One of the reasons his plaintive protests were taken more seriously in Irish America than in Ireland itself may have to do with a growing belief among a particular cohort of Irish-Americans that Irish slaves were shipped to America from the 17th to the 19th centuries and treated in the same brutal manner as African slaves. Indeed, it is claimed that the Irish were treated more harshly.

In November last the mainstream New York-based Irish Central website invited readers to believe: "The Irish were a more desirable 'slave stock' than Africans, who had to be 'caught', because they could be obtained for free and sold for a profit. Because they were 'cheaper', the Irish would often suffer harsher punishments from their plantation masters."

This is ahistorical nonsense such as would make the majority of Irish people squirm with embarrassment. But it serves a certain purpose.

The Irish slave myth is assiduously promoted in the US by white racists. A Tea Party meme proclaims: "White Irish slaves were treated worse than any other race in the US. When is the last time you heard an Irishman bitching and moaning about how the world owes them a living?"

The most influential book advocating the myth - reverently quoted in a hundred social media sites - is Michael Hoffman's They Were White And They Were Slaves. Hoffman is a Holocaust-denier and blames the Atlantic slave trade on "the Jews".

The Irish-American historian Liam Hogan has observed: "Those that push this (Irish slave) narrative... use it as a rhetorical attack dog, which aims to shut down all debate about the legacy of black slavery in the United States."

Social media conversations on the killing of black youths by US police officers now more or less automatically draw responses with an 'Irish Lives matter' meme tagged 'Irish Power' and 'Irish were the first slaves'.

Huge numbers of Irish people were forcibly displaced - "ethnically cleansed" we'd say today - and shipped to America and the Carribbean as indentured labour and treated abominably.

This was the fate of thousands of English poor as well, swept up from the streets and carried off against their will.

James I once ordered the transportation of 100 Newbury youths whose late night roistering had disturbed his sleep.

These were not slaves, not the legal property of their masters, and had the right - not that the right was always vindicated - to buy out their "contract" after their allotted time.

Aidan McQuade, the director of Anti-Slavery International, puts it straight: "The Irish, because of the colour of their skin, had preferential treatment and pathways out unavailable to black slaves."

To deny this, to equate Irish-Americans with African-Americans is insulting to history and to African experience.

Adams may well have been unaware of the resonance his remark would have with a particular section of his audience. But he knows now and should take it back.

Belfast Telegraph


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