Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America

Article excerpt

Eric J. Sundquist. Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 2005. 645 pp. $35.00.

While the often tense relationship between African Americans and Jews has received much attention during the past decade in books such as Michael Lerner and Cornel West's Jews and Blacks and Paul Berman's Blacks and Jews: Alliances and Arguments, the conflict has not been simultaneously discussed in historical depth in both literary and sociocultural terms. Eric J. Sundquist's Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America thus follows in the padi of Adam Zachary Newton and Timothy Brennan's Facing Black and Jew: Literature as Public Space in Twentieth Century America in its analysis of the relationship between African Americans and Jews via works of literature. However, Sundquist's impressive scholarship also reaches beyond literature, encompassing sources from disciplines such as history, sociology, politics, and religion. The resulting text achieves an incredibly complex and comprehensive account of the alliances and enmities that have marked the exchanges between African Americans and Jewish Americans throughout the twentieth century.

Sundquist carefully traces the intertwined histories of the two groups, particularly post-World War II, categorizing their relationship as "a once vibrant interlocution between two peoples [that] had more or less ceased" by the end of the twentieth century (1). He documents the development of this relationship to discover its roots and the reasons for its failure, frequently using literary texts by James Baldwin, Philip Roth, William Melvin Kelley, and Saul Bellow, among others, to do so. Through these explorations, he hopes to reveal "the ground for shared spiritual, political, and cultural practices, even those governed by resentment and recrimination" (9). Sundquist's analysis moves largely in chronological fashion, although he frequently deviates from this formula to draw connections between disparate authors and events, adding depth and nuance to his argument.

Against the backdrop of a dizzying amount of published material on African Americans and Jews, Sundquist wisely begins his book with a chapter that serves to initiate the reader into the occasionally cooperative, often fraught relationship between the two communities. Titled "America's Jews," this chapter makes use of numerous texts and speeches from figures such as Booker T. Washington, Norman Podhoretz, Allen Ginsberg, and Louis Farrakhan to illustrate Jewish-African American interaction over the course of the twentieth century. Sundquist painstakingly synthesizes a copious amount of sources to establish for his readers the basic similarities and differences between African Americans and Jews. He claims that both groups "have shared perspectives on the rewards and dangers of assimilation, the vicissitudes of intermarriage and passing, and the meaning of citizenship in the face of discrimination" (18). However, he notes that despite these similarities, "whiteness" has in many cases allowed Jewish Americans to avoid the levels of discrimination faced by African Americans, who have in Sundquist's estimation become "America's Jews," occupying a space comparable to that of Jews in Europe.

After laying this foundation for his larger project, Sundquist moves on to more specific analyses of the ways in which the two groups have engaged in a sort of reluctant racioethnic mimesis-at times using their similarities to create solidarity or attempting to deny those similarities. Sundquist follows the course of various tropes that emerge repeatedly in each community's sense of identity, including Exodus and the search for Zion, Holocaust and genocide, as well as nationalistic movements such as Black Power and Zionism, the latter two of which he views as chiming the ultimate death knell for an alliance between the two groups. …

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