Before we reach the end of this month of celebrating African-American heritage in the US, I want to share an important historical anecdote that illustrates perfectly how complex identity and culture really are in lived experience. Scottish Gaelic surnames (“Mac-”anything, Campbell, Cameron, etc) are nearly as prevalent where I am currently residing in North Carolina as they are where I was residing previously (eastern Nova Scotia), except that the skin color here is far more varied. While this is to a large degree the legacy of slavery, it is not the entirety of the story. The false consciousness of race – of sorting people into artificial categories based on skin colors and aspirational assimilations – has created historical amnesia about the wide variety of cultures and identities that existed in immigrant communities in the past and the many exchanges and intersections between them.
The Cape Fear of the Carolinas was the largest settlement of Gaelic speakers outside of Scotland into the early 1800s and because of the dominance of the Gaelic language, everyone in the community spoke it, regardless of their skin color or social role. What’s clear from Gaelic tradition itself is that language was key to Gaelic identity, not skin color, and that participation in the song and story tradition validated a person’s membership in the community.
Highlanders were attached to very specific places in their homeland and they tended to remain in these local groupings as immigrants in America when they could. There were a lot of people from the island of Islay in Carolina and some of them served as crew on a barge on the Cape Fear River that took goods from Fayetteville to Wilmington. This was in the days before steamers. A man named James MacLachlan was the skipper of the Islay barge.
There was another barge that had the same duty but it was operated by an African-American crew. One of the men on the crew was named “Tom” and Tom didn’t feel that he belonged there. He spoke Gaelic better than English, and he knew all about the Highlands, and all of the people and places that the Gaels spoke about. Those were the people Tom preferred to spend his time with.
Tom would pretend to be sick when the “black boat” was supposed to depart, but whenever MacLachan’s barge was at the warehouse in Fayetteville, Tom would appear for work. The warehouse manager would ask him if he felt well enough to work with the Islaymen, and he said he’d try to do his best. He would join the Gaelic crew, and as soon as the barge turned the first curve in the river, he would begin to sing a particular Gaelic strathspey from Islay and dance to it.
“Sann ann am Baile ’n Àbaidh / A rugadh mi ’s a thogadh mi
’Sann ann am Baile ’n Àbaidh / Bha mi riamh.”
“It is in Ballinaby that I was born and raised
It is in Ballinaby that I always lived.”
This is an interesting variation of a popular Gaelic dance song that usually points to the island of Islay in general as homeland, but Tom choose to identify with an even more specific place, one that gave him a sense of belonging to Gaelic heritage. And that freedom to choose and to develop an identity based on language and culture is extremely important for us to remember and acknowledge as we celebrate Gaelic heritage and its import and impact in America.
Most people whose ancestors have been in North America for a few generations have highly diverse ethnic origins, and people should still enjoy the freedom to celebrate and participate in all of the traditions of their ancestors – and even of those which they feel drawn to, despite a lack of known ancestry. (See this video for a great example of Gaelic mouth music performed by Rhiannon Giddens of North Carolina, into which she draws African-American styles.)