Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Douglass in Belfast

Last weekend, I went on a long weekend to Belfast and points further north. Douglass spent a little time in Belfast during his tour of the British Isles between 1845 and 1847, and had a contingent of support from women in the city when he and the Garrisonians based in Boston had a parting of the ways.

Today, Douglass appears in the scarred Belfast landscape in a mural:

Twice, even, as you can see the younger Douglass up to the left of the older man.  The rest of the mural has interesting references to black history.

Here, on the left side of the mural, you can see slave ships, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Barack Obama (who, incidentally, is very popular in the Republic of Ireland) and Rosie the Riveter, who seems like she might be mixed race or light skinned:

On the right side of the mural, you see references to Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Nelson Mandela and South African apartheid, Muhammad Ali, and Bob Marley.

You can also see images of the Mothers of the Disappeared, Indian women, what appears to be one of the Grimke Sisters, and Daniel O'Connell. I don't instantly recognize the other figures, and you also can see images from recent Northern Irish history interspersed through the mural.

Daniel O'Connell is the key to understanding the connection between African American history and this mural in Belfast. This mural is one of a series of murals in both Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, which are separated by a tall wall. The murals on the Protestant side reinforced their connection to the British and participation in the two world wars in the 20th century. The murals on the Catholic side referenced various global freedom and human rights struggles, particularly those against racism. The Douglass mural is on the Catholic side.

Initially, I wondered what a mural featuring Frederick Douglass would be doing in Northern Ireland on the Catholic side. Douglass himself did not mix with many Catholics. His supporters in Ireland tended to be Protestant, usually Quakers. Also, his visit coincided with the beginning of the Great Famine and took place during the Repeal movement, led by O'Connell, which intended to end the Act of Union that made Ireland part of the United Kingdom. In other words, the Irish as a whole had more immediate concerns than ending slavery in the U.S.

During Douglass's visit, those involved with the Repeal movement drew direct connections between American slaves and Ireland under British rule and between African Americans and Irish Catholics. Their positions relative to their respective governments and societies were analogous, according to this argument.

In this mural, you see that argument expanded. Douglass is central but connected to a broader struggle for rights for oppressed people of color. The artists trace this history from the origins of the slave trade through resistance to slavery in the U.S., the U.S. Civil Rights movement, resistance to apartheid in South Africa, opposition to South American dictatorships, and even -- with Muhammad Ali -- resistance to wars of imperialism in Southeast Asia, and all the way to the election of the first black American president. I think the Indian women may have something to do with Indian independence (although, note the absence of Gandhi himself), and Rosie, despite her connection with World War II, may suggest women's rights.

This mural, then, had it appeared in the U.S., might seem like a tribute to great black figures in history, something for Black History Month. Here, in Belfast, among the Catholic murals, a few blocks from the offices of Sinn Fein, and right next to a former checkpoint between the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods -- Douglass himself looks toward the checkpoint -- it seems to be a statement of ongoing resistance.


  1. I am Professor Christine Kinealy, author of a book on Daniel O'Connell and Anti -Slavery (Pickering and Chatto, 2011).

    The woman you can not identify is Mary Ann McCracken.

    Good luck with your research.

    Professor Christine Kinealy

  2. I am a French teacher teaching English and my colleague and I have decided to include this mural in the pupils' exams . But we couldn't find neither the author of the mural nor its dimensions ???
    Your help would be highly appreciated since this mural will be included in their school curriculum.

  3. I am an artist and academic researcher who would love to reproduce one of these images in my paper. I have sent you an email but wanted to leave a comment just in case this is easier to reach you through. Please let me know if you'd be willing to allow reproduction for academic purposes.
    Thank you so much,