This article focuses on the representation of history in African American author John A. Williams’s 1999 novel, Clifford’s Blues, a fictional account of a Black, queer American expatriate’s internment and enslavement in a Nazi concentration camp. Through a critical perspective that incorporates the imaginative recovery of (often silenced) history that Toni Morrison (1987) called “rememory,” along with what Holocaust scholar Michael Rothberg (2009) calls “multidirectional memory,” this article details Williams’s daring exploration of spaces of overlap between the histories of American slavery, Jim Crow, and the Nazi Holocaust. The article demonstrates how the novel’s unconventional and controversial emplotment allows Williams to create a distinctive historical critique not only of slavery and the Holocaust but, more broadly, of otherization, racialized violence, and modernity itself, while making a number of historiographic interventions. These include inscribing a largely absent history of the experience of Black people affected by the Holocaust and the mapping of theretofore underacknowledged resonances between American and German ideologies and practices. Through its transnational, transcultural “multidirectionality,” the novel opens up a broad, structural critique of apartheid everywhere; however, this article also argues that the novel also offers models for liberatory communities of resistance. The article demonstrates how Williams accomplishes this through his novel’s allegorical and literal use of the blues.
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. More specifically, it examines how, in its innovative form, the novel engages the processes both of what Toni Morrison (1987: 43) called “rememory” and of what Michael Rothberg (2009) has elaborated as “multidimensional memory,” and how in doing so, it performs what I will call “multidirectional rememory,” a process through which Clifford’s Blues achieves its political reframing of history. In doing this, I will argue, Williams blends a variety of literary and cultural forms, including the neo-slave narrative, the Holocaust memoir, the epistolary novel, the research paper, and the blues.
The “imaginative recovery of the historical past” (Mitchell 2002: 12) that, in Beloved, Morrison famously called “rememory” has since been more broadly associated with the genre Bernard W. Bell has named the “neo-slave narrative.”5 By retrieving and appropriating history, texts in this genre, suggests Angelyn Mitchell (2002: 6), “give witness to what has been historically unspeakable, and in some ways, unimaginable.” Importantly, the idea of rememory, which entails “both anamnesis and construction,” as Ashraf Rushdy (1990: 304) observes, “is never only personal but always interpersonal.” While scholars have conceptualized the neo-slave narrative in various ways, there is broad agreement with Rushdy’s (1997: 533) general outline:
Neo-slave narratives are modern or contemporary fictional works substantially concerned with depicting the experience or the effects of New World slavery. Having fictional slave characters as narrators, subjects, or ancestral presences, the neo-slave narratives’ major unifying feature is that they represent slavery as a historical phenomenon that has lasting cultural meaning and enduring social consequences.6
Notably, the insistent historicity of neo-slave narratives is often of even greater significance than particularities of form and content. As A. Timothy Spaulding (2005: 4) argues, it is through their acts of historical recovery that contemporary neo-slave narratives “intrude upon history as a means to re-form it, . . . revitalizing the historiography of slavery” in the process. With origins in the Black Power era and the controversy over William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), these texts enter into a long struggle over representation in history and historiography in general, and the representation of Black history in particular.7 In attempting thus to narrate what has long been unspoken, and perhaps narrating the unspeakable, neo-slave narratives disclose the “hidden transcripts” of history in ways that directly challenge, resist, question, revise, correct, or transform the received “public transcript” of “official” history’s master narratives.8 As Rushdy suggests, this includes the political project of transcribing the often hidden or repressed history of slavery and its aftereffects, to reveal how they have fundamentally shaped, and continue to shape, history and society. In this process of altering existing constructions and understandings of the past, as Mitchell and others have emphasized, the insurgent acts of rememory performed by neo-slave narratives also open up alternative perspectives on the historical present and, in turn, possibilities for alternative political imaginings of the future.
While it is not set in the antebellum South but in Germany during World War II, Clifford’s Blues nonetheless features a protagonist who is enslaved, and it explicitly invokes the history of American slavery and its historical repercussions. As critics have somewhat belatedly begun to turn attention to the novel, it has been observed that it “bears strong generic resemblance to slave and neo-slave narratives” (Oppel 2011: 190) as it offers a painstakingly researched, virtuoso performance of historical rememory.9 Beyond what it shares with neo-slave narratives, however, Williams’s novel incorporates a “matrix of testimonial traditions,” as Heidi Bollinger (2014: 270) notes, and “resists classification in any single genre category.” We might be tempted, in fact, to see it largely as a performance of literary blues, riffing on the neo-slave narrative in terms of form and content, time and space, genre and history, in ways that, Bollinger suggests, create “cross-cultural” and “cross-historical” connections.
Such crossings extend the novel beyond the North American context to which neo-slave narratives are typically confined. As its unorthodox layering of multiple, overlapping histories expands the geopolitical range of the neo-slave’s narrative reassessment of American history, its multidirectional approach revises bowdlerized public transcripts, illuminating the multiple histories Clifford’s Blues imaginatively recovers. By translocating the slave narrative to a new context and by both invoking and defying generic conventions,10Clifford’s Blues at once remembers repressed and even erased Black American history, reconstructs a more expansive hemispheric historiography, and resituates that history amid the broader practices of exclusionary oppression so fundamental to what Williams identified as the novel’s political target: “the whole western civilization as we know it” (quoted in Bollinger 2014: 293). It thereby confronts readers with a transnational, interconnected view of the systemic “otherizing” violence that has shaped modernity’s social architecture, and its history. By examining Nazi Germany from this systemic perspective, moreover, Clifford’s Blues adds new dimensions and directions to Holocaust memory—not the least of which is a re-membered history of the Nazis’ Black victims that, when Williams began the novel in the 1980s, had yet to be written. In ways that will be elaborated below, Williams thus works toward understanding American racism and the Nazi Holocaust in structural, historical, and epistemological relation to each other—and, indeed, to other modern manifestations of violent, exclusionary oppression. Ultimately, the text posits these interrelationships as conditions of possibility for coalitions of resistance among oppressed “others” everywhere, and even, perhaps, for the possibility of a radically different, more inclusive global community.
In Clifford’s Blues Williams adopts the first-person autobiography common to many slave narratives and much Holocaust literature—and to the blues music that gives the novel its title. The bulk of the novel is presented as the diary of a fictional Dachau prisoner named Clifford Pepperidge. Clifford’s testimony, which spans the years 1933 to 1945, is book-ended by two fictional letters, thus situating the autobiography in the middle of an epistolary dialogue. The letters, dating from 1986, are exchanged between two American Black men: Gerald Sanderson, who has discovered the diary half a century after its composition, and Jayson Jones, who Sanderson thinks can find someone to publish it and thus make it public. These letters perform several crucial functions. They mimic the authenticating documents found in early slave narratives, and they offer intradiegetic metacommentary on the diary’s contents, the text itself providing an initial reading of what is to be gained by setting two histories side by side. Most importantly, the letters draw the historical past represented in the “unhidden” transcript of the diary into the novel’s historical present, so that as with many neo-slave narratives, the text’s preoccupation with the past invites readers to examine the ways in which the historical legacy of racial slavery continues to inhabit the present.
Clifford’s diary begins with the words, “My name’s Clifford Pepperidge and I am in trouble” (CB 12). The reader learns that he is an expatriate gay “American Negro” jazz pianist, whom the Nazis have taken into “protective custody” for being a member of an “unpopular category.” Abducted in 1933, Clifford remains twelve years a slave. He is spared from the worst atrocities that take place in the concentration camp when a closeted gay SS officer named Dieter Lange, who is drawn to Clifford and his music, commandeers the musician as a personal “servant.” Clifford thus becomes a “house slave” in relation to the “field slaves” in the labor camp. Imprisoned in the Nazi’s home until 1945, Clifford is forced to work as a “houseboy,” house musician, and sex slave to both Dieter and his wife, Anna, and to work in the canteen that Dieter manages in the Dachau camp. Although he suffers terribly while working in the camp, he bears witness to, and documents, the even greater sufferings endured by internees there. Clifford is in some ways worldly and savvy, but he is also ingenuous, and his incredulous response to the inhumanity he witnesses defamiliarizes a now-familiar history, presenting it from a fresh perspective. Clifford registers this history from a standpoint of physical and emotional proximity but also slight intellectual distance, reflecting his status as a house slave. The text offers an emotionally engaged response to Dachau, while declining to sensationalize or fetishize the immeasurable agony there. Clifford documents the horrors at Dachau with deep empathy, generally circumventing spectacular sentimentalism in favor of a shocked, matter-of-fact objectivity.11
From within the Langes’ house and the Dachau camp, Clifford documents both his life and the historical arc of the Third Reich, from its rise to power to its descent into chaotic violence. He witnesses violence against multiple “unpopular categories” of people, including Blacks, gays, gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, criminals, political subversives, and, especially, Jews. He watches helplessly as those closest to him are killed, recording horrific sights like a box full of putrefying gold teeth, and gruesome events, such as, near the war’s end, when the Nazis “aren’t even trying to feed the prisoners” and “bodies are stacked up beside the moat, in the ’Platz, in the ’Strasse, along the outside walls of the crematorium, and just inside and outside the electric fence” (304). Clifford’s ability to think relatively clearly amid the escalating trauma helps him survive, as he uses Dieter even as Dieter uses him, and it also is a means by which Clifford’s Blues offers a cognitive response as well as an affective one. This is especially important in light of how the text discloses and cognitively maps unsettling, oft-hidden connections among the nightmare of Nazi Germany, American slavery and Jim Crow, and other nodes of world history. Contextualizing its inquiry in relation to the obliteration or suppression of such historical writings, the final entry in Clifford’s diary finds the Nazis frantically liquidating Dachau and burning its records as American forces approach. Clifford indicates that he and Anna are about to evacuate, but whatever future he may have beyond this point goes unrecorded.
Because it transgressed both generic and cultural boundaries, Williams met with difficulties in finding a publisher for Clifford’s Blues, and when it was published it was met with an unsympathetic response.12 Williams had completed a draft of the manuscript by 1988 (Horner 1993), but because of the difficulty he had in finding a publisher willing to handle its provocative contents, it didn’t appear in print until 1999. About the dozens of rejection letters he received, Williams commented, “The reaction I sense is that I, as a black man, have no business touching this topic. Well, World War II was very important to me; this was a war that I was in.”13 Once published, Clifford’s Blues also met with a chilly reception from some critics, scholars, and members of the reading public for the same reason.14
This response is related to what Rothberg (2009: 5) calls “competitive memory”—the very sociopolitical phenomenon Williams sought with his novel to overcome. According to Rothberg, competitive memory names a notion of collective memory for which “the boundaries of memory parallel the boundaries of group identity,” and the public sphere is conceived as a realm where “already-established groups” exist in a state of permanent, zero-sum competition with one another. At its worst, competitive memory leads to scenarios in which “the Holocaust is frequently set against global histories of racism, slavery, and colonialism in an ugly contest of comparative victimization” (7). Williams’s difficulty in getting Clifford’s Blues published suggests how competitive memory can get enacted in the policing of historiography, in the effort to control who gets to remember history and write about it. There are compelling historical reasons for privative approaches to Holocaust memory, but Rothberg’s concern is for what is foreclosed by exclusivist approaches to historiography.15 This is true not only of erased elements of the past, but also of possibilities for the future that are prevented by an incomplete apprehension of history.
Where competitive memory forecloses such multiple histories, Clifford’s Blues takes advantage of how they can be opened up by what Rothberg calls “multidirectional memory (3)” For Rothberg, multidirectional memory is a “making present” of the past that is “subject to ongoing negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing” among different cultures and their histories, a process that is “productive, not privative,” and generative of new understandings of the past and present. Here, the public sphere is conceived not as a fixed zone of zero-sum competition but as a “malleable discursive space in which groups do not simply articulate established positions but actually come into being through their dialogical interactions with others; both the subjects and spaces of the public are open to continual reconstruction” (5). Rothberg observes this process operating in W. E. B. Du Bois’s account of his trip to a ravaged Warsaw ghetto in 1949, describing how in the text “the color line lives on, as does the specificity of African American life, but the lines that connect the African diaspora from within and those that differentiate it from European American life without exist in a new relation to other histories of racism and violence” (116–17). Crucially, for Rothberg, Du Bois’s “multidirectional” encounter generates new insights without effacing the particularities of the different histories that converge in the pages of his text.
Lissa Skitolsky (2010) elaborates how Rothberg’s approach “provides a model of memory that allows us to understand how we can imagine different sites of violence together without reducing them to either the same type of suffering or to utterly separate events.” As he recognizes and explores modernity’s recurring patterns of racialized violence, such an imagining is precisely what Williams achieves in Clifford’s Blues. Without conflating memories of slavery with Holocaust memory, or simply comparing or contrasting them, he productively “implicates” them, to borrow Shoshana Felman’s (1977) term. The text “act[s] as a go-between” in order to “explore, bring to light and articulate the various (indirect) ways in which . . . domains do indeed implicate each other, each one finding itself enlightened, informed, but also affected, displaced, by the other[s]” (8–9). What results, I suggest, is an exercise in what we might call “multidirectional rememory”: by means of a fictional slave narrative, Clifford’s Blues remembers (recovers and honors) and re-members—imagines, reimagines, and revises—multiple histories at once.
Within the text of Clifford’s Blues, Gerald Sanderson’s “recovery” of Clifford’s narrative mimics the historiographic work of neo-slave narratives. Just as neo-slave narratives recover hidden histories, Clifford’s Blues inscribes a Black presence in the Holocaust, as Uzzie Cannon (2013) and Clarence Lusane (2001) have both noted, that had theretofore been largely invisible. Williams first conceived of Clifford’s Blues when, visiting Dachau with Lori Williams in the 1960s, he was surprised to see two Black men among the concentration camp’s identification photos. When he began writing his novel years later, he “wrote to Dachau, and they verified the existence of black prisoners” (Horner 1993). While his novel focuses on a few fictional Black characters, Clifford’s Blues is punctilious in its factual accuracy, even, like a research paper, including a bibliography to support its claims. It also references real historical figures such as jazz trumpeter Valaida Snow and the Black, Jewish artist Josef Nassy, both of whom were in fact interned by the Nazis (Lusane 2001). Clifford’s diary represents how Black people “were used as slave laborers in some of the camps” (Lusane 156), how they were labeled as “asocials” or potential “race defilers,” and how the practices of interning, sterilizing, experimenting upon, and even killing Black prisoners were connected to the Nazi dream of creating an Aryan racial utopia by eliminating all “otherness.” In some ways, then, Clifford’s Blues anticipates Lusane’s path-breaking study, Hitler’s Black Victims (2001), which postdates and references the novel. Indeed, Cannon (2013: 304) suggests that “this literary cultural memory of the Holocaust [had] not existed until Williams’s creation of it with Clifford’s Blues.” Together with Lusane’s Hitler’s Black Victims, it retrieves “a Black presence” that, as Lusane (2001: 4) puts it, has been “mystified . . . dismissed as inconsequential, and lost . . . in a reading of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust in which Blackness is excluded.” In doing this, both writers take a “multidirectional” approach, arguing not “that the Holocaust should be recast away from the Jewish experience, but rather that an expanded appraisal of the intentions, behavior, and perspectives of the Nazis toward Blacks should be included if a holistic view is to be obtained” (10). Clifford’s Blues thus re-members Nazi Germany by inscribing a Black experience of the Holocaust that had been expunged by official history and, to some extent, by competitive memory.
Doing this in advance of the first major work of scholarship on the subject constitutes a significant political contribution in and of itself, but that is only one of multiple revisions achieved by Williams’s multidirectional historiography. By remembering the Nazi genocide in tandem with Black history, Williams also excavates—and generates new, more holistic perspectives on—the interconnected structural racisms undergirding the social, political, and economic systems of Euro-American modernity writ large, up to and including the final years of the twentieth century.
In some important ways, Williams’s approach in Clifford’s Blues is analogous to Zygmunt Bauman’s in Modernity and the Holocaust (1989). An interrogation of “the way modernity operates,” Bauman’s work exhumes the past in order to structurally and culturally anatomize the present, work Williams also undertakes by means of adapting the neo-slave narrative. Both books look to the Holocaust as a “window” (viii) as Bauman puts it, through which to view “the way we live, . . . the institutions on which we rely” (xii), and “the patterns of interaction we accept and consider normal.” Bauman disputes both the notion that “the perpetrators of the Holocaust were a wound or a malady of our civilization—rather than its legitimate product” and the corresponding “moral comfort of self-exculpation” that arises from imagining “it all happened ‘out there’—in another time, another country.” Instead, he argues, “the Holocaust was an outcome of a unique encounter between factors by themselves quite ordinary and common”—factors including “racist form[s] of communal antagonism” (xiii), the consolidation of power and permissible violence in the hands of a select group, and an obsession with the exclusionist policing of boundaries. Although he takes Bauman to task for Eurocentrism, Gilroy examines the Holocaust in a similar way; in The Black Atlantic’s discussion of Beloved, he positions Morrison’s American story within a larger historical field of modern racial terrorism. In such historical rethinkings, the Holocaust indeed functions as a “window,” a heuristic through which “hidden” patterns assemble themselves and can be summoned into view. While in Clifford’s Blues the history of the Holocaust and the history of American slavery do retain their specificities, much of what the enslaved, segregated Clifford witnesses and experiences in Nazi Germany seems, he repeatedly suggests, “no different than back home” (CB 117).
Looking back to, and through, the Holocaust helps Williams to gesture toward the magnitude of America’s past atrocities against Black Americans in particular. But the novel’s critique also works in the other direction. Just as it narrates the Holocaust as a means to contemplate the horrors of racialized slavery, violence, and segregation in America, Clifford Pepperidge draws on his knowledge of slavery, and his personal experience of Jim Crow segregation, as an interpretive framework for helping him make sense of the Holocaust. As Clifford observes Hitler “going after the Jews, the unions, the Reds, the Catholics,” and Dachau fills with prisoners, things become “plain and simple: if you ain’t for the Nazis you’re against them, and you wind up here,” he writes. When the racial dimension of this dualistic antagonism and segregation is taken into account, it is equally clear why Clifford observes, “The South was like that. That’s why I left it” (33).
Early on, when Clifford is captured and, in the camp, reduced to a number and a badge—to marked, categorized objecthood—he quickly realizes he is “Major Lange’s Neger, like in the slavery days (and after, I suppose)” (38), implicating his experiences with a deep and uninterrupted column of Black history and framing his diary as a kind of slave-narrative. Accordingly, he continues to map correspondences between the American context that shaped his life and the German context in which he is trapped. Surveying the Dachau camp, he notes, “The Nazis have got a pretty good slave system here. By the time they finish, with the forced labor . . . Germany will be as big as America became with slavery, eh?” (106). The parallels Clifford observes go beyond slavery itself, however. Clifford repeatedly also reads the Nazi regime’s “stuff about blood and honor and Nuremberg laws” (125) in relation to the American Jim Crow laws he knows too well. Here, Williams gets at a suppressed historical truth confirmed by Holocaust researcher Ben Austin: “Hitler used the Jim Crow segregation statutes as his model for defining Jews in the Third Reich” (quoted in Lusane 2001: 105). When Clifford remarks how “the latrine signs” at Dachau that read “Nur für Polen might as well be For Whites Only like back home” (CB 240), to take one of many instances, the novel’s multidirectional rememory unearths the underacknowledged but crucial intertwining of these different strands of history. In Bauman’s (1989: 7) terms, it “uncover[s] another face of the same modern society whose other, more familiar face we so admire”—rejecting the notion that the Holocaust was an aberration in Western civilization’s dream of rationally programmed progress.
Clifford’s framing of the Nuremberg race laws in relation to American Jim Crow laws points to how, in re-membering the Holocaust through the lens of Black American memory, Williams depicts a relationship that is less comparative than it is genealogical. The Nazi legislation emerged from Jim Crow, which, in turn, had cultural origins in New World racial slavery—a foundational aspect of Euro-American modernity, as Williams sees it. Focusing specifically on its early-twentieth-century context, Clifford’s Blues exposes submerged ideological elements that Germany and the United States in fact shared. As Williams points out, some of what happened in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s evolved from existing elements of American (and colonialist European) society. In the letter that concludes the novel, Jayson Jones reminds readers that “one of the German defenses at [the] Nuremberg [trials] was that a lot of their crazy experiments were conducted here [in the United States] first” (CB 309).
Beyond the unsettling familiarity of German social and legal “experiments” Clifford observes, the novel also remembers how the Nazis performed ghastly scientific experiments on “undesirables” and implicates these with comparable events in other contexts. Clifford records how his adopted “son” Pierre is bombarded with deadly X-rays, and his friend Dr. Nyassa, whose wife is white, undergoes a number of mysterious “tests” and is forcibly sterilized to prevent him from “defiling the race.” Jayson Jones’s letter then cross-reads these incidents with the notorious Tuskegee syphilis experiments in Alabama that began in the 1930s, once again drawing multidirectional connections among American and German “scientific” experiments on dehumanized others. To underscore the veracity of such experiments in an American context, Jayson Jones’s (fictional) letter refers to James Howard Jones’s (real) book documenting those syphilis experiments.16
More comprehensive, however, is the way Clifford’s Blues retraces how such experiments are the product of a broader ideological genealogy, which, while multifaceted, was grounded in modern white supremacist racism. The novel’s focus on “asocials, like the blacks” as “meat for the Institute for Racial Hygiene and Population Biology” (CB 106), and on the Reich’s decree that its SS Übermenschen must each father four children, punctuates what Stefan Kühl and a growing number of scholars have recently reemphasized after decades of public silence: the strongest link binding Nazi Germany to the United States was eugenics, the pseudoscience of “race improvement” (Smith 1993: 2). Eugenicists’ purist notions of “improvement” took Euro-American assumptions of white supremacy “as a given” (English 2004: 145) and, although eugenics was an international phenomenon, the United States occupied its vanguard. It was American eugenicist Herbert Henry Goddard who coined the phrase “final solution” (English 2004: 10) and, as Kühl (1994: 15) reminds us, not only did “the German racial hygiene movement [follow] the development of the American eugenics movement closely” but, especially early on, “eugenicists in the United States were the strongest foreign supporters of Nazi race policies” (37). Beginning in the 1920s, laws adopted in over thirty American states led to the compulsory sterilization of approximately 60,000 so-called “dysgenic” Americans (Smith 1993: 7)—and it was these “sterilization statutes,” Daylanne English (2004: 10) explains, that “served as the model for the Nazi Sterilization Law of 1934,” a link Clifford’s Blues represents either through allusions or overt references to historical facts, as with the depiction of the sterilization of “undesirables.” In such ways, Williams inscribes a counterhistory that would, in Clifford’s words, “disturb the dream” of America “in the abstract,” with its “American army cowboys, [and] the Statue of Liberty,” and disclose what “America is really like” (CB 264) for many who have lived there.
Ultimately, the most important implication of Clifford’s Blues’ multidimensional remembering is that the Holocaust is not “unthinkable” but, rather, that it could not have been thought without the American history the novel unconceals. In addition to plantation slavery and Jim Crow, this history included, for example, the ideological conditions of possibility undergirding American eugenics enthusiast Margaret Sanger’s conception of her 1932 “Plan for Peace.” This included an injunction to her nation to inventory, sterilize, and quarantine those “whose condition is known to be detrimental to the stamina of the race,” and to “apportion farm lands and homesteads for these segregated persons where they would be taught to work under competent instructors for the period of their entire lives” (Sanger  2003). Sanger’s “Plan” for depuratory racial “hygiene” via the forcible encampment of a long list of “undesirables”—including compulsory labor—clearly both harks back to America’s plantation past and anticipates what would happen in Germany in a matter of months.17 And as it performs the work of multidimensional rememory in, for instance, its representation of eugenics, Clifford’s Blues foregrounds the family resemblances between Nazi ideology and the Anglo-American cultural logic that preceded and influenced it, logic predicated on a “scientific racism” that itself had still deeper roots in the modern Atlantic slave trade.18
Inherent in Clifford’s Blues’ multidirectional approach to rememory is also an impetus toward what we would now call intersectionality. That Clifford is Black but also gay and a foreigner frames the novel’s critique of “otherization” as inclusive and holistic, and guides its tracing of what Patricia Hill Collins (2000: 299) has called the broad “matrix of domination.” Insomuch as the novel is premised on “the critical insight that race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, ability, and age operate not as unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but as reciprocally constructing phenomena that in turn shape complex social inequalities” (Collins 2015), Williams advances an intersectional analysis written at the very time that the theory of intersectionality was being developed.19 It does so, however, without ever losing sight of Black experience, beginning with the ways in which Clifford’s Blackness and its consequences always occupy the surface of the narrative.
The interrelationships that emerge among the multiple histories remembered in Clifford’s Blues are carefully parsed. While Clifford frequently observes the ways in which “the Jews are the niggers of Dachau and in all the other camps where they are found” (CB 211), for example, different cultures and histories nonetheless retain their particularities, particularities reflected by the Nazis’ mania for categorical sorting, as evident in prisoners’ differently colored badges. Keeping in sight such distinctions, Clifford persistently registers commonalities across them. These begin with what his own situation at Dachau shares with the situation “back home,” but also with other places and periods. The Nazi concentration camps evoke for him, for example, those invented by the British during the Second Boer War, one way Williams’s historical analysis extends beyond parallels between American slavery and Nazi Germany to map other nodes of historical correspondence. At the same time the diverse population in Dachau adds numerous dimensions of “otherness” to the novel’s multidirectionality, highlighting the intersections of multiple “unpopular categories.”
Crucially here, for example, Clifford’s Blues breaks the contemporaneous “widespread silence” that Richard Plant (1986: 18) identified concerning the Nazis’ “systematic destruction” of gay people. (Williams also includes Plant’s book in the bibliography.) Clifford bonds with several of Dachau’s other gay prisoners, for whom particular cruelties are often reserved, and even the portrayal of the closeted Dieter Lange is complex enough to suggest how, in some ways, he too is a “prisoner” (CB 90) of the Reich—although the text hardly exonerates him for his crimes. In ways like this, the novel attends both to the discrete experiences of people affected by different vectors of bigotry as well as to what they all share, located on the wrong side of the single uncrossable “line” that Clifford observes segregating “the Nazis—that means everyone who isn’t in a camp” (65) from everyone who is, a line drawn and policed by the Nazis themselves.
In its multidirectionality, Clifford’s Blues locates versions of this line everywhere. On the one hand, remarking “wherever you are, if you’re colored it’s all the same,” Clifford absolutely refers to the “Fact of Blackness,” as Frantz Fanon (1967: 109) tersely put it; he laments that should he escape Dachau, color would make it impossible for him to hide. On the other hand, as Clifford hears in “Die Juden! Die Juden!” the “strange echo” of the Fanonesque exclamation, “The Negro! The Negro!” (CB 234), Williams expands the meaning of “colored.” Again, the prisoners’ colored badges and tattooed numbers differentiate them but also mark them as “others” collectively. In this fundamental respect, as Clifford suggests, those inside the camp share the same fate and status.
Williams’s rememory of Dachau thus figures in microcosm, and in extremis, a dystopian world defined by categorical exclusions, hierarchized oppressions, racisms, and regimes of systemic violence, all sharing certain structural, if not always cultural, similarities. In doing this, Clifford’s Blues depicts Nationalsozialismus in a way that also allegorizes what Alex Lubin (2014: 13), studying the “shared histories of exclusion, exile, and countermodern political imaginaries” among Black Americans, Jews, and Palestinians, refers to as the “limits of citizenship and the violent belongings and exclusions that constitute the modern nation state” (3).
At the same time, the novel promotes collective resistance against the violent exclusions those histories entail. Indeed, in articulating one of multidirectionality’s political strengths, Rothberg (2009: 11) writes that it “acknowledges how remembrance both cuts across and binds together diverse spatial, temporal, and cultural sites.” If “assertions of uniqueness” such as those regarding Holocaust memory “prompt further assertions of uniqueness,” he contends, they also “coexist with acts of solidarity in which historical memory serves as a medium for the creation of new communal and political identities.” Similarly, in his rendering of the variegated population of sequestered, enslaved “undesirables” in the Dachau camp, Williams elaborates what Ramon Saldivar calls a “community of shared fate” (quoted in Lubin 2008: 180–81n30), a possible basis for an empowering collective political imaginary. Transcending competitive memory, that is, Clifford’s Blues is informed by a coalitional vision that would combat modern apartheid on a totalizing scale. In this way, Clifford’s Blues offers a sweeping articulation of what Matthew Calihman (2009: 142) sees running through Williams’s entire oeuvre: “a cultural pluralist militancy” that “would fully exceed” nationalisms and other more confined movements.
In this respect, we might see Clifford’s Blues less as a “neo-slave narrative,” and more as what Mitchell (2002: 4) calls “liberatory narrative,” a term she prefers for the way it shifts focus away from portrayals of victimhood toward how texts negotiate problems of “affranchisement” and how to achieve it. Certainly, despite its depictions of victimhood under some of the most unspeakable conditions in modern history, Clifford’s Blues remains a novel deeply concerned with liberation—its multidirectional challenge to exclusionist master narratives and competitive historical memory prompting conceptions of belonging, community, and resistance that cut across cultural and historical differences.
The novel accomplishes this most conspicuously through music. It thematizes jazz and blues music but, as its title suggests, models itself as a work of the blues in form and content as well, especially in its intertwining of suffering and affirmation. As Ralph Ellison ( 2016: 491) famously puts it, “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy, but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of a personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.” A distinctly African American form of cultural signifying rooted in North American slavery, the blues offers a shared “matrix,” Houston Baker (1984: 7) argues, within which individual expressions can connect—a semiotic “crossroads” or a “codifying force, providing resonance for experience’s multiplicities” so that “discrete blues instances are always intertextually related by the blues code as a whole” (6). Each “instance” thus involves an interplay between individual improvisation and the preexisting intertextual code, what Amiri Baraka ( 1991) calls the “changing same,” analogous to the particular acts of historical memory that comprise the genre of the contemporary neo-slave narrative. By its very nature, then, the “changing same” of the blues also involves re-memory.20 Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1988: 124) elaborates how it is that the blues/jazz tradition involves a “trope of revision as well as figuration,” one that “functions to redress an imbalance of power” by rewriting “the received order” in a way that “alters fundamentally the way we read [a] tradition.” The blues autobiography thus has a ripple effect: it reiterates but also rewrites a history that is itself a counterhistory which, in turn, is a rewriting of the dominant public transcript of history from a marginal point of view.
Partly as a result, the blues can harbor liberatory potential even amid the harshest of circumstances. As it disrupts, by revising the public transcript, it can sustain, unite, and even empower those who share what Trudier Harris (1998: 68) calls the blues “condition,” the condition of those who “cannot control the circumstances of their existence or have an appreciable impact upon the forces that [prevent] them from becoming self-determining.” Clifford thus proclaims the Nazi Holocaust the “blues to end all blues” (CB 230)—the blues “condition” at its most extreme. At this extreme, as he transcribes an aspect of Black experience with no public history, it is by means of music, as Oppel (2011: 196) observes, that Clifford can survive and resist: his multidirectional rewriting of the existing “code,” partly by means of the blues, gestures toward a liberatory solidarity among the powerless.
Hinting at this, Clifford likens the “blues” to “what white folks called a ‘lament,’ because what you were lamenting or feeling blue about was what you knew but couldn’t do anything about. So you sang or played, and that helped to make things a little better” (CB 20). On one level, Clifford here points to what Harris (1998) posits as the blues’ cathartic value: “Considering the history of black people, it is a wonder we are not all crazy or dead, [and] I would maintain that the blues is one of the primary reasons for life and sanity.” During his twelve years in bondage, Clifford is sustained by his autobiographical journaling and by playing music, “blues instances” both, so that as he leaves Dachau he can affirm, “Living is everything. Death is shit” (CB 306). During those years there are times when he feels that playing music is “almost like being free” (86). Both Clifford’s “blues” and the narrative of Clifford’s Blues itself thus constitute acts of resistance and self-affirmation.
Beyond affirmation, the blues is central to the novel’s multidirectional challenge to categorical bounds and thus to the way it imagines the possibilities of liberation. Even as blues performances “speak of paralyzing absence and ineradicable desire,” Baker (1984: 196) writes, “their . . . rhythms [also] speak of change, movement,” and “possibility,” and Clifford similarly describes his music as “always changing” (CB 64) in response to the vicissitudes of personal and collective history. The novel’s particular rewriting of the blues code thus has distinctive emancipatory implications. While Williams does reiterate the material and cultural roots of the blues in the experience of enslaved Black Americans, Clifford’s particular blues emerges also from the unique, multilayered historical conditions that shape his experience as a Black, gay, expatriate American prisoner of the Third Reich. “There’s got to be a new kind of music to explain this shit I’m in, because music expresses every kind of experience one can imagine” (166), Clifford thinks in a moment of frustration, and indeed he eventually finds himself producing music he had never heard or imagined before. Just as Williams’s novel opens up new perspectives on Holocaust memory, that is, Clifford’s “blues to end all blues” eschews competitive memory for a multidimensional notion of blues as a form, a code, and a condition. In Clifford’s Blues, the transformations undergone by the “changing same” speak to, and speak of, the condition shared by all of Dachau’s prisoners. In expressing this shared fate, the blues reaches across boundaries, just the sort of exclusionary boundaries on which Nazi ideology is founded.
Clifford acknowledges this capacity on several occasions. About a group of Russian prisoners, he remarks, “On Sundays sometimes you hear them singing in Blocks 6, 20, and 22, where most of them are segregated. (It’s funny using that word with white people . . .) If you could sing blues in Russian, those jokers got it” (277). Earlier, describing a walk with Dieter Lange through the concentration camp on Christmas Eve, 1939, Clifford writes that “Gypsy singing drifted up the street in a sad, soft language I didn’t understand. But I understood the tone, you can’t hear blues and not know that there is sadness” (205). Here, in its supradiscursive reaching across cultures, the Gypsy singing that Clifford hears as “blues” elicits an empathetic response—Clifford even believes that the music brings a tear to Dieter’s eye—dramatizing Baker’s (1984: 5) argument that, despite its autobiographical nature, each improvisation on the collective blues code is an “invitation to energizing intersubjectivity.” And the way Clifford’s Blues expands the reach of that code extends the reach of that invitation to all who suffer under oppression, as well as those who can empathize with that suffering. Each individual blues “instance” thus contributes to how the novel gestures toward a “community of shared fate” among the ghettoized, otherized Arbeiter in the Dachau camp and, allegorically, in the world outside the novel.
Of the narrative’s many depictions of such musical instances, the most remarkable involve Clifford’s band. Although jazz and other “Neger Musik” (CB 78) are verboten in Nazi Germany, the Nazis in the novel love it, and Dieter compels Clifford to lead a band that supplies music—euphemized as “swing”—for an SS night club, a eugenicist “love nest.” Clifford elaborates how jazz requires individual musicians to improvise while listening and intimately responding to each other, and, in this way, through music, band members from drastically different backgrounds and walks of life “suddenly discovered each other” (89). A poignant episode involves Oberleutenant Eric Ulrich, a horn player who sits in with Clifford’s band. Although it “doesn’t seem right he was a Nazi,” Ulrich’s “feeling for the music” prompts Clifford to wonder if “maybe he felt what we were thinking” (105), a possibility that proves real when Ulrich forfeits his life in a foiled attempt to transport Clifford to freedom. In the context of how Clifford’s Blues sees in music the possibilities for transcultural intersubjective solidarity, the case of Ulrich suggests this intersubjectivity might reach across even the lines separating the “insiders” from the “others,” the oppressor from the oppressed— pointing to even broader potential coalitions as sites of resistance, even to what Calihman (2009: 155) sees as the “utopian pluralist possibility” inherent in Williams’s work.
In the last analysis, then, even as Williams’s multidirectional rememory opens new perspectives on history, his neo-slave narrative also gives rise to a liberatory political imaginary by which the continuing course of that history might be interrupted. In implicating in each other the multiple histories of American slavery, Jim Crow, and the Holocaust, Clifford’s Blues explores what Lubin (2014: 7) posits as the “sometimes overlapping politics of exclusion, statelessness, and exile” among multiple groups, unearthing transcultural, transnational commonalities within the “racial violence, exclusion, and expulsion that seem to animate the practices of modern nation states” and are “central to the project of modernity.” In this, as in its engagement with the problem of affranchisement, this historical novel looks to the present and the future as well.
Although in the age of globalization the nation-state and other trappings of modernity are changing rapidly—especially with regard to the way communities are imagined, lived, bounded, and policed—the emergent world order, as Samir Amin and others note, nonetheless evinces a “trend . . . toward greater polarization” (quoted in Schueller 2009: 11). While globalization is often associated with increased homogeneity, the increased movement of people across borders has led to new experiences of exile, apartheid, ethnonationalism, and political backlash. In such a context, Williams’s willingness to breach cultural and geographical barriers, to rethink the meanings of both otherness and inclusion, can help nourish the new ideations of community so necessary in an increasingly neoliberal world. Insistently historical, focused on discrete and ineradicable histories of structural, targeted, state-sanctioned exclusionist violence, his novel eschews facile or immaterial “multiculturalism,” proffering instead a structural, political, and strategic pluralism that asks readers to take a broad view of oppression and resistance. If the “unexpected acts of empathy and solidarity” that can arise from acts of multidirectional memory may, Rothberg (2009: 19) writes, be essential to “framing justice in a globalizing world,” we can see in Williams’s novel just such acts and something of their effect. Clifford’s Blues points the way toward coalitions that might confront the persistent effects of modern structural racisms. And, in this, it points as well to how these effects might be overcome by a united community of shared fate.
For a summary of the responses to and debates surrounding The Black Atlantic written with the benefit of fifteen years of hindsight, see Evans 2009. Rehearsing numerous takes on Gilroy’s work, Lucy Evans finally finds it “flawed and incomplete, but—and perhaps even for this reason—open to expansion and development. In each case, we are given the impression that the considerable worth and significance of Gilroy’s endeavour lies in its power to galvanize ideas and critical thinking” (257), particularly with regard to the importance of its transnationalist perspective in understandings of “the social and cultural impact of globalization” (266).
In The Price of the Ticket (1985), Baldwin wrote:
The Jew’s suffering is recognized as part of the moral history of the world and the Jew is recognized as a contributor to the world’s history: this is not true for blacks. Jewish history, whether or not one can say it is honoured, is certainly known: the black history has been blasted, maligned, despised. The Jew is a white man, and when white men rise up against oppression they are heroes; when black men rise they have reverted to their native savagery. The uprising in the Warsaw ghetto was not described as a riot, nor were the participants maligned as hoodlums: the boys and girls in Watts and Harlem are thoroughly aware of this.(quoted in Gilroy 1993: 216)
Matthew Calihman (2009) does see Williams as an important literary figure, linking the generation of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Chester Himes with the Black Arts generation, and working alongside members of both generations. Despite this, as Earl Cash (1975: 5) observed in 1975—during the most influential and productive period of Williams’s career—Williams, despite his many accomplishments, “received scant recognition,” a situation that hasn’t changed even as, since that time, Williams has received two American Book Awards and a Lifetime Achievement award from the Before Columbus Foundation. His book sales remain modest, and academic scholarship devoted to his work remains sparse. One reason for this may be that Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin continued to dominate a literary establishment that “for so long [had] seen to it that only one black writer be recognized at a time,” a problem Williams and Himes (2008) contemplate in their correspondence. Still, in the critical essays collected in 1969’s Black Expression, editor Addison Gayle, Jr. includes work on Williams among those more prominent figures of Wright, Baldwin, and Ellison. And Ishmael Reed (2003) has argued that Williams should be considered one of the most important Black American authors of the twentieth century.
These connections are drawn in part from Williams’s life, and are thematized in other work as well. See, for example, Bollinger 2014: 272–76; Gilbert Muller’s biography, John A. Williams (1984); or Williams’s own “The Boys from Syracuse: Blacks and Jews in the Old Neighborhood” (1977: 34–38). Williams’s ideas about the affinities between Black and Jewish experiences arise from, among other factors, his growing up in Syracuse’s multiethnic Fifteenth Ward, his marriage, his extensive travels, and his experiences in World War II.
Venetria Patton (2008: 878) summarizes the variance among several critics’ conceptualizations of the neo-slave narrative:
Bernard Bell is credited with the initial definition of the neoslave narrative as, “residually oral, modern narratives of escape from bondage to freedom” (3). However, [Ashraf] Rushdy offers a slightly different definition for his term, which refers to texts that “assume the form, adopt the conventions, and take on the first-person voice of the ante-bellum slave narrative.” Yet, [Elizabeth Ann] Beaulieu offers a broader definition: “contemporary fictional works which take slavery as their subject matter and usually feature enslaved protagonists” (xiii); while [Angelyn] Mitchell takes a very different approach with her term “liberatory narrative,” which she defines “as a contemporary novel that engages the historical period of chattel slavery in order to provide new models of liberation by problematizing the concept of freedom”(4).
The contemporary “neo-slave narrative” includes a now well-known catalog of works as various as Ernest Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), Gayl Jones’s Corregidora (1975), Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada (1976), Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale (1982) and Middle Passage (1990), Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose (1986), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), J. California Cooper’s Family (1992), Caryl Phillips’s Crossing the River (1994), Barbara Chase-Riboud’s The President’s Daughter (1994), and Lorene Cary’s The Price of a Child (1995).
For the origins of the contemporary neo-slave narrative in the mid-1960s, see chapters 1 and 3 of Rushdy’s Neo-Slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form (1999). See, also, the “Author’s Note” to Sherley Anne Williams’s novel Dessa Rose, in which Williams (1986: 5) alludes to Styron’s Confessions in noting that her own novel is a response to “a certain, critically acclaimed novel” that “travestied the as-told-to memoir of slave revolt leader Nat Turner.”
The concepts “public transcript” and “hidden transcript” are taken from James Scott’s widely known work, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (1990). For Scott, the “public transcript” denotes the discourse, as well as the performative social theatrics, of hegemonic normalcy. He argues that “imperatives that normally prevail in situations of domination produce a public transcript in close conformity with how the dominant group would wish to have things appear” (4), a process entailing a great deal of elision that, unsurprisingly, tends to involve nondominant groups. The “hidden transcript,” by contrast, is “discourse that takes place ‘offstage,’ beyond direct observation by powerholders,” and frequently deviates from the public transcript. When a hidden transcript is “openly declared in the face of power,” writes Scott, “we encounter one of those rare and dangerous moments in power relations” (6) as the public transcript— received social “reality” itself—is questioned or even destabilized.
See Bollinger 2014; Cannon 2013; Oppel 2011; and Reid 2011.
For a comprehensive discussion of genre in Clifford’s Blues, see Bollinger 2014.
Clifford’s Blues manages its subject matter without the kind of “ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion” for which James Baldwin (1955: 14) famously excoriated Richard Wright, by way of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Dealing with a situation already understood as extreme, Williams’s novel seems to demonstrate that such ostentatiousness might undermine the novel’s critical project, should its affective appeals overwhelm its cognitive ones.
For an account of the novel’s publication and reception, see the section in Bollinger entitled “Encounters with the Genre Police” (2014: 289–95). Williams has also discussed these issues in interviews.
For a brief history of the manuscript of Clifford’s Blues, see “Exhibit Case #17” in the online John A. Williams archive, hosted by the University of Rochester (www.lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?page=2996).
Bollinger (2014: 290) references, among others, noted scholar Eric Sundquist, who dismisses the central analogies made in Clifford’s Blues, as well as a letter Williams received from Glenda Kuneman, who writes that while the novel offered her a “totally different perspective” on the Holocaust, she would encourage readers interested in the subject matter to also read material about “more representative prisoners of Dachau.”
Rothberg (2009: 8) reminds readers that one of the most compelling reasons for the privative assertion of the Holocaust’s historical “uniqueness” was that it “served to counter the relative public silence about the specificity of the Nazi genocide of Jews in the early postwar period that many historians of memory and students of historiography have described.”
As the nonfictional Jones (1981: 2) informs readers, in 1972 it came to light that the US Public Health Service had been “studying” for the past forty years the effects of syphilis in 399 infected black men in an “experiment” that not only “had nothing to do with treatment” but was predicated on an “initial decision to withhold all treatment” (9).
Sanger herself has long been the subject of politicized debates related to reproductive rights. This essay is not intended to comment on these debates. Its intent is merely to read a selected text from among Sanger’s many writings as a manifest expression of a transatlantic ideology mapped in Clifford’s Blues.
Elazar Barkan (1993), for example, shows that although some resistance to scientific racism arose in the 1920s and 1930s, only after the scientific community fully understood the impact of Nazi Germany did a full-scale “retreat” commence.
The term “intersectionality” was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Brittany Cooper (2016) situates Crenshaw’s term within “a long history of black feminist theorizing about interlocking systems of power and oppression, arguing that intersectionality is not an account of personal identity but one of power.”
Of novels about slavery, Mitchell (2002: 13) argues that while their intertextuality is integral to how they disrupt slavery’s master narratives, it also means that in imaginative fiction “the narrative possibilities are infinite, as Hortense Spillers explains, because slavery involves ‘a repertoire of relationships of texts and among texts that is purely open to modes of improvisation and rearrangement.’”