Transfiguring Black and Jewish Relations: From Ignatius Sancho's Letters and Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative to David Dabydeen's a Harlot's Progress

By Schamp, Jutta | ARIEL, October 2009 | Go to article overview

Transfiguring Black and Jewish Relations: From Ignatius Sancho's Letters and Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative to David Dabydeen's a Harlot's Progress


Schamp, Jutta, ARIEL


I. Introduction (1)

Featuring poetry, lectures, and music, the culture jams called "The Art of Resistance" (Los Angeles, 2007 and 2008) were the result of a fruitful collaboration between the Sephardic American writer Jordan Elgrably and African American author Michael Datcher. "The Art of Resistance" fostered mutual understanding and created cross-cultural alliances not only between Jews and blacks but among Jews, blacks, and Arabs (The Levantine Center). Grassroots events like this beautifully reflect the application of Stuart Hall's concept of the "act of imaginative rediscovery" (Mirzoeff 22-23) in the sense that neither black nor Jewish identities are perceived as essentialist, static, monolithic, and separate, but are subject to a sensitive unveiling of the past, "re-imagination" (Mirzoeff 22-23), and "(re)production" (Mirzoeff 22).

While there is already considerable research on such famous eighteenth-century writers of African descent in Britain as Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano, the investigation of black and Jewish relations, as well as (shared) memories, in the eighteenth century and contemporary literature is still in its incipient stage. Keith Sandiford, Paul Edwards, James Walvin, Gretchen Gerzina, David Dabydeen, Vincent Carretta, and, more recently, Sukdhev Sandhu, as well as Lyn Innes, have extensively and insightfully commented on the complexity and polyphony of Ignatius Sancho's and Olaudah Equiano's subject positions. (2)

Whereas Paul Edwards correctly conjectures that Sancho is "both attached to, and detached from" eighteenth-century values ("Black Writers," 53), Innes compares the different perspectives Sancho writes from to role-playing (History 33-35), and Sandiford aptly calls Sancho's shape-shifting "self-fashioning" (77). Edwards and Walvin touch to some degree on the representation of interethnic relationships, such as Equiano's representation of Indians (84-86), but none of the these critics discuss Sancho's and Equiano's comments on Jews in great detail. I will argue that Sancho's views on Jews reflect to a large extent complicity with the religious, political, cultural anti-Semitism percolating in eighteenth-century white British culture. Equiano, on the other hand, emphasizes similarities between Jews and blacks; however, as Vincent Carretta has pointed out, those analogies are positioned in the larger context of a Eurocentric-Christian world picture ("Introduction" xxvi-xxvii), that is, Equiano sees Judaic and African traditions as precursors to superior Christianity and Western/British civilization, which he at the same time implicitly criticizes in many parts of the book. Thus, Equiano's Interesting Narrative is to some extent marked by ambiguity and polyphony. Although there has already been considerable research on the reconfiguration of Africans from Hogarth's series of paintings to the representation of Mungo, the African protagonist of Harlot's Progress, only very few critics, such as Lars Eckstein, Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace, and Christine Pagnoulle, have commented on Jewish-black relations in Dabydeen's novel. Eckstein especially not only incisively elaborates on Dabydeen's aesthetic principle of "imaginative transformation" when analyzing the reconfiguration of the Jewish merchant Sampson Gideon in Hogarth's paintings in Dabydeen's Harlot's Progress (Re-Membering 139-41) but also insightfully investigates Dabydeen's "aestheticizing of suffering" (156).

Expanding on Eckstein's, Kowaleski-Wallace's, and Pagnoulle's findings, I will show the extent to which Dabydeen's novel can be read as a prism which captures, probes, and dismantles the intricate and multilayered psychological construction and manifestation of eighteenth-century anti-Semitism and racism in Britain, in particular in white, black, and visual cultures. Equally important, Harlot's Progress also refracts and transfigures anti-Semitism and racism by subverting static and unified subject positions and exploring the complexity and paradoxes of white-Jewish relations, and of black-Jewish, Jewish-black, as well as of white-black alliances.

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