Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children's Literature

Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children's Literature

Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children's Literature

Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children's Literature

Excerpt

Maurice Sendak, the renowned artist and author of children’s classics such as Where the Wild Things Are and Bumble-ardy, had a problem with the idea of Jewish chosenness. “We were the ‘chosen people,’ chosen to be killed?” he observed to a New York Times reporter in September 2008. Sendak, the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants whose families perished in the Holocaust, displayed a tense relationship to Jewish identity, yet echoes of the Holocaust and Jewish immigrant experiences stalked many of his interviews.

Chosen to be killed. This is one way to unpack chosenness, to question it in the modern world, and to link it with horrific suffering. Chosenness is a “wild thing” in its own right: once you let it out of the box, once you journey to its island of magical creatures, it’s not easy to set it aside, not easy to sail back home. Yet, like the monsters that cavort with Max in Where the Wild Things Are, chosenness also reveals new worlds to us, crystallizing shards of our identities before we head home for supper—if we reach home for supper at all.

This book contends that Jewish Americans, African Americans, and black Jews all claim American chosenness by structuring their children’s literature into redemptive, sacrificially driven narratives. These groups achieve their greatest acceptance as American citizens when their citizenship is sewn up with the commemoration of real and imagined lost children. Relating traumas religiously is a central way of identifying as a US citizen: notions of both suffering and nostalgia graft minority constituents onto ideals of liberal democracy and absorb them into communities that can be understood according to overarching white Protestant notions of properly contained religiosity and domestic respectability. Such narratives also evoke echoes of . . .

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