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'Irish / Harlem Renaissance' Course Delves Into Cultural Affinities


irish - harlemAn innovative course at Loyola Marymount University brings together two cultural traditions that aren’t often linked: African-Americans and the Irish. But a trove of literature that illuminates the parallel movements for freedom, dignity and autonomy gives students much to dig into.

“Irish / Harlem Renaissance” is team taught by John Menaghan and John Reilly, professors in the English Department. They have offered the class twice before. “It’s about making connections,” Menaghan said.  “We work to make the students see how the issues at stake are linked in a larger human way. Both movements embody a struggle for liberation.”

The literary, cultural and political movements during the late 19th and early 20th century in Ireland and the 1920s and ’30s in America demonstrate the like-minded goals of the two groups. The students read works by William Butler Yeats, the 1916 poets, Lady Gregory, J. M. Synge and James Joyce to gain a better understanding of Irish cultural nationalism and the desire for political independence.  They examine as well the work of Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, and Theodore Ward to gain a deeper knowledge of the African-American experience in America and the struggle to be treated as free and equal members of society.

The class is organized in a student-centered manner: lively discussions of the readings culminate in structured debates that precede and help students prepare for their midterm and final.

Appropriately enough, in the spring semester African-American History Month in February is followed by Irish-American History Month in March.  And there is a historical marker: in the 19th century Frederick Douglass, the American journalist, publisher and former slave, traveled to Ireland to meet Daniel O’Connell, the Irish politician and fighter for Catholic emancipation and Irish nationhood who was also a strong supporter of the abolition movement.

In an earlier version of the course, the cross-cultural exchange emerged with striking clarity in the classroom itself: Menaghan told of one class session where he was on one side of the room talking about Hughes, and Reilly was on the other side talking about Joyce. The students noticed that the Irish-American professor was analyzing the work of the African-American writer, and the African-American professor was analyzing the work of the Irish writer. The students were momentarily surprised. But it was the moment when the true spirit of the course was most fully on display.