Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Multidirectional Rememory: Slavery and the Holocaust in John A. Williams's Clifford's Blues

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Multidirectional Rememory: Slavery and the Holocaust in John A. Williams's Clifford's Blues

Article excerpt

Paul Gilroy's critique of modernity, The Black Atlantic (1993), is widely noted for positing a transnational framework for understanding the history of modern Western civilization and its complicity with racial slavery, as well as for theorizing a counterculture of resistance. In many ways a work of its historical moment of accelerated globalization after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gilroy's argument against cultural nationalisms risks asking a number of difficult yet productive questions. (1) Perhaps the most provocative of these arises in Gilroy's discussion of Toni Morrison's neo-slave narrative, Beloved (1987). In response to Stanley Crouch's vulgar criticism of Morrison's work as "above all else, a blackface holocaust novel ... written in order to enter American slavery in the big-time martyr ratings contest" (quoted in Gilroy 1993: 217), Gilroy poses, in his words, this "restrained counter-question": "What would be the consequences if the book had tried to set the Holocaust of European Jews in a provocative relationship with the modern history of racial slavery and terror in the western hemisphere?" (emphasis added). In advancing this question, Gilroy conscientiously observes of the Holocaust that he "accept[s] arguments for its uniqueness" (213). Moreover, he also acknowledges positions such as the one articulated by James Baldwin, who strongly resists any discussion of slavery in relation to the Holocaust because of the ineradicable racial dimension that differentiates Black history and Jewish history. (2) While Gilroy is careful to take into account the racial differences between these two histories, he nevertheless suggests that there might still "be something useful to be gained from setting these histories closer to each other not so as to compare them, but as precious resources from which we might learn something valuable about the way modernity operates" (217). For Gilroy, such an inquiry might help illuminate elements of modernity that are very much still in operation, such as "the scope and status of rational human conduct, ... the claims of science, and perhaps most importantly ... the ideologies of humanism with which these brutal histories can be shown to have been complicit." In addition, Gilroy imagines that such inquiry might, like The Black Atlantic's critique of nationalisms in general, help formulate "a global coalitional politics in which anti-imperialism and anti-racism might be seen to interact if not to fuse" (4).

Where Gilroy's remarks about Morrison's Beloved are hypothetical, one writer whose work did examine the very question Gilroy poses was the late John A. Williams. Williams has received a good deal of acclaim in some circles, but despite his many achievements his work has garnered little attention from scholars. (3) During a career that spanned half a century, his fiction chronicled in rich detail the history of the Black American experience. At the same time, as a World War II veteran whose wife, Lori, is Jewish, Williams also invokes in multiple novels the memory of the Holocaust. In his most well-known work, The Man Who Cried I Am (1967), for example, the Nazi genocide serves as a template for the US government's secret contingency strategy for quelling a potential racial "Emergency" (2004: 372) during the political upheavals of the 1960s. Allusions to the Holocaust also appear in Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light (1969), which in one subplot traces relationships between the Black and Jewish diasporas. (4) In his final novel, however, Williams takes the Holocaust as his primary subject matter for the first time, examining it in tandem with the Black American history that was his career-long focal point. The result is a novelistic engagement with the very "provocative relationship" about which Gilroy speculates, a work that examines modernity from the sort of transnational perspective for which he calls.

This essay considers the ways in which, by setting the histories of American slavery and the Holocaust in proximity with one another, Clifford's Blues (1999) at once offers a powerful political critique of racialized oppression and suggests possibilities for liberatory coalitional politics in a globalizing world. …

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