“Somewhere in the flesh mirror I saw myself”: Black-Jewish Poetic Encounters vis-à-vis the Holocaust
thesisposted on 28.11.2018, 00:00 by Christina Mekonen
Scholars have long emphasized the uniqueness of the Holocaust. As a result, any kinds of comparisons with other crimes were often deemed inappropriate. However, according to Michael Rothberg’s concept of “multidirectional memory,” comparison does not necessarily mean equation. On the contrary, putting the histories of marginalized groups in dialogue with one another can potentially encourage solidarity and create a better understanding of the mechanisms enabling their oppression. Working from this assumption, this dissertation offers a comparative approach to the imagined (hi)stories of Blacks and Jews in poetry using the Holocaust as a frame of reference: How do Black and Jewish poets imagine each other vis-à-vis the Holocaust? As a transatlantic project, this dissertation contributes new insights into Black-Jewish literary relations within a transnational und multidirectional context. In the American context, this thesis explores the works of Yiddish poets such as Berish Weinstein, who upon fleeing pogroms and antisemitism in Eastern Europe, identified with the African American experience of being a persecuted people and focused on Black subjects in their poetry. Poets of the Black Arts Movement such as Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka, on the other hand, considered Jews to be members of the oppressing white class and therefore rejected identification with the Jewish experience. In the German context, the dissertation examines how Afro-German poets such as May Ayim and more recently Chantal-Fleur Sandjon were not only inspired by African American poets and activists such as Audre Lorde but also drew parallels to the German-Jewish experience in their poetry. Although direct references to the Black experience in poetry by German-speaking Jewish authors are rare (an exception is Alfred Margul-Sperber’s poem about Jesse Owens), recurring tropes such as the loss of homeland and the feeling of being Other are as evident in Afro-German poetry as they are in poetry by Gertrud Kolmar, Ilse Blumenthal-Weiss, and Mascha Kaléko. This dissertation argues that, in order to inscribe themselves into the long-standing literary canon of German literature, Afro-German poets combined stylistic devices and intertextual references not only to non-Jewish German authors such as Bertolt Brecht but also to Jewish authors such as Paul Celan, while also honoring traditions of their African heritage, thus contributing to German cultural productions in their own unique way. The dissertation shows that the Holocaust has indeed served as a useful point of reference for comparing and remembering Jewish and Black histories of victimization and could potentially facilitate dialogue about other histories of marginalization that need to be told in order to contest existing forms of hegemonic power relations. This is essential at a time when Western countries face an increasing number of refugees and other migrants and it will continue to be an important conversation in increasingly diverse national and transnational contexts.