Laying Claim to Sorrow Beyond Words
Walking amid the Million Man March in October 1995, the sociologist Jonathan Rieder caught the attention of a dozen black men on the Capitol Mall. ”You’re a Jew, right?” one called to him. ”What of it?” answered Mr. Rieder.
”Which is worse,” the man asked, ”what happened to six million Jews or what happened during slavery? Six million or 600 million?” Mr. Rieder replied that he could not rank such enormous suffering, which prompted the man, mindful of Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed Holocaust film ”Schindler’s List,” to cry: ”You got your recognition! You got your movie!”
Now, two years later, black Americans have indeed got an equivalent movie from the identical director: the historical drama ”Amistad,” based on the mutiny of African captives aboard a slave ship in 1839. The film’s release this week follows the world premiere of an Amistad opera created by Anthony Davis and Thulani Davis, the composer and librettist also responsible for a biographical opera about Malcolm X.
Not surprisingly, these two major openings have thrust renewed attention on slavery. Indeed, the artistic focus on the Middle Passage and the centuries of enslavement that followed has brought the very term ”black Holocaust” into heightened prominence. The increasing use by African-Americans of a proper noun so closely identified with the Nazi genocide that it does not require the modifying adjective ”Jewish” has raised the issue of who, if anyone, owns language, particularly language of rare moral urgency.
Within the last month, the historian Howard Jones, a specialist in the Amistad mutiny who served as a consultant to the film, said that Mr. Spielberg viewed the slave trade ”as the black Holocaust.” The same phrase has resounded through black culture in the last few years. The database Nexis, which compiles print and broadcast news reports, last week tallied 335 uses of the term ”black Holocaust,” 295 of them in the last four years.
Museums, conferences, lectures, books, poems, historical exhibits and Web sites all invoke those words. While groups as varied as Cambodians, Armenians, American Indians, AIDS activists, environmentalists and anti-abortion campaigners have also seized upon the noun ”Holocaust,” its appropriation by blacks is the most pervasive and arguably the most complicated of all.
Set against the backdrop of black-Jewish relations, which have veered from alliance in the civil rights era to more recent acrimony, ”black Holocaust” has appeared in contexts ranging from the philo-Semitic to the anti-Semitic. Some blacks employ the term in admiration of the Jewish achievement in preserving the memory of the Nazi genocide and thus deriving both communal identity and political power; others wield the phrase, precisely because of its usual association with Jews, as proof that blacks have suffered more.
”There’s a double-edged quality to blacks and Jews identifying with each other,” said Mr. Rieder, co-editor of Common Quest: The Magazine of Black-Jewish Relation. ”The comparison can be an act of empathy, of paying homage to the other in the community of the oppressed. But the opposite edge is one of accusation, rebuke. There is a pattern of black appropriation of Jewish terms — black Holocaust, black Diaspora, Day of Atonement — and part of the impulse is one-upsmanship.”
On the Power Of a Word
If one motive does unite all the uses and users of ”black Holocaust,” it is the desire to pierce the American conscience with a word of demonstrated impact.
”Many black people feel that whites don’t understand just how great an atrocity slavery was,” said Gerald Early, author and the director of African and African-American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. ”The use of the word ‘Holocaust’ brings the dimension of atrocity to slavery that black people feel is necessary for whites — and for themselves — to understand what slavery was, and what it means. We lost who we were as a people. If people can see behind even some of the crude anti-Semitism, they’ll see a profound sense of not having your tragedy understood.”
The noun ”holocaust” derives from Jewish antiquity. It arose from the Greek word ”holokauston,” which in turn was a translation of the Hebrew ”churban.” That term appears in the Old Testament (1 Samuel 7:9), meaning an offering to God that was entirely burnt.
Over the centuries, ”holocaust” lost its Jewish association, being invoked by Christians in both political and theological discourse. Even with the onset of Hitler’s ”Final Solution,” it did not readily enter common usage. Prof. James E. Young of the University of Massachusetts, the author of ”Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust,” said the earliest use of ”holocaust” as a synonym for the extermination of European Jewry comes in an editor’s footnote to a 1938 edition of Sigmund Freud’s collected works: ”Alas! As these pages are going to the printer we have been startled by the terrible news that the Nazi holocaust has circled Vienna.”