Last night, my wife and I wandered in and out of the shops on the part of The Royal Mile nearest Edinburgh Castle. The street was crowded and the crowd was alive with languages from all over the world. I heard Spanish, Korean, German, Arabic, French, Hebrew, Persian, Chinese, and one or two that were so unfamiliar I doubt I’d even be able to place them on the correct continent. We stopped to hear the last performance of the evening by a marvelous guitarist who’d designed a stand that allowed him to hold his instrument like an upright bass. He played first a love song he said he learned in Spain; then, a catchy melody with an unpronounceable name that had everyone in the circle around him dancing and clapping. When he was done, I dropped a couple of pound coins into his guitar case, and my wife and I started walking down a street we had not yet explored, where a very crowded pub called The Advocate beckoned. We walked in past another guitarist—he was playing “Hotel California”—and my wife took one look at the two- or three-person-deep pack lining the front of the bar and said, “You get the drinks. I’ll wait here.”
I gently pushed my way through the crowd, using my left hand to open up space between people who were standing too close together, and ordered two pints of the beer the bartender recommended. I don’t remember what it was called. As I walked with a mug in each hand over to where my wife was standing, I suddenly had one of those déjà vu moments I told you I was hoping for, and it felt briefly like 1985, and I was carrying those beers over to where my classmates were waiting. The feeling passed quickly, though, and I handed my wife her mug. Then we made our way over to the corner, where the entrance and the front window met, taking the two seats vacated just as we walked up by the young couple who’d been sitting there, almost as if they’d been saving them for us.
A documentary about Jesse Owens was playing on the huge flat screen TV mounted on the pub’s back wall—not surprising since the opening ceremony for the 2016 Rio Olympics was just last night. Still, it was hard to miss the contrast between the faces of the African American men speaking on screen, most of them former Olympic athletes, and the fact that, as far as I could tell, there was not a single Black face in the house. Edinburgh is a small city, with a population of under half a million, though the taxi driver who picked us up at the airport told me that this number swells to nearly 700,000 during the Festival. The 2011 census puts the percentage of white people in the city at almost 92%, with Blacks making up just under one-and-a-half of the other eight. Indeed, I think I could count on one-and-a-half hands the number of Black people I’ve seen since we’ve been here, including the one or two I saw out on the street as we entered the pub, though there was no way of knowing if they were here for the festival or if Edinburgh was their home.
Reading the documentary’s subtitles, I learned about something I hadn’t known before, that Jesse Owens had two Jewish teammates on the 1936 US Olympic team and that antisemitism played a not insignificant role in that team’s performance. My watching was so disjointed that I didn’t remember—and so I looked them up just now—the names of the Jewish athletes: Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller. I do remember, though, that the documentary singled out Avery Brundage, the man who at the time headed both the American Athletic Union and the US Olympic Committee, as a Nazi sympathizer. In order, the film asserted, not to offend his German hosts—especially Hitler, who was in the stands—Brundage sidelined Glickman and Stoller, giving the race they were supposed to run to Owens and another non-Jewish athlete. As my wife and I walked back to our apartment, I turned over in my mind the fact that I’d never even heard of these two Jewish athletes, and I thought for the first time in many years about a Holocaust education task force I was part of on my campus more than two decades ago.
The task force included faculty from several different departments, as well as members of the community. One of those community members, the minister of a local Black church, asked almost as soon as we’d made our introductions why we were going to focus exclusively on the Holocaust. Respected scholars, after all, had put the number of Black people killed in the slave trade at somewhere between 9,000,000 and 12,000,000. Surely, he argued, that level of atrocity also deserved our attention.
I remember the room going silent as people tried to figure out how to respond. Or, to be more precise, and more honest, since the minister was the only Black person in the room, as the white people—most, but not all of us Jews—tried to figure out how to respond without being accused of racism.
The only correct answer to the minister’s question, of course, is yes, slavery does also deserve our attention, our full attention, but the way the minister asked his question did an injustice to both the Jewish and African American experiences of oppression, and that’s what I told the group. Don’t get me wrong. Numbers are important. It matters that 6,000,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis, just as it matters that 9,000,000 or more Black people perished as a result of the slave trade. To treat those numbers almost as points on a scorecard, however, as the minister seemed to be doing, is to miss—or, perhaps more accurately, to render invisible—the distinction between what a Nazi success would have meant for the Jews and what the continued success of the slave trade would have meant for African Americans. To put it most starkly, if the Nazis had fully succeeded in implementing their Final Solution, the world right now would be empty of Jews. Neither you nor I nor the Jewish academic whose paper motivated you to write me would even exist. On the other hand, the continued success of slavery would by its very nature have required the continued existence of an enslaved Black people.
In drawing this contrast, I do not mean to imply that the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews was somehow worse than slavery. Rather, I want to suggest that the Nazi’s Final Solution and the African slave trade have left Jewish Americans and African Americans with very different relationships to the structures of oppression that continue to shape our society.
As a Jew whose skin color marks me as white, I do not know, I cannot know, what it’s like to have grandparents or great-grandparents who were legally defined as white people’s property, nor can I know what it means to live the socioeconomic, cultural, and political consequences of that definition, and I most especially cannot know what it feels like to have my skin be the signal for hatred and violence and murder that Black skin all too often is in the United States. To claim, as that Jewish academic did, that I can know this is to claim that the Jewish experience of suffering is so profound, so all pervasive, that it can stand in for the historical specificity of what African Americans have experienced.
As racist paternalism, that kind of thinking is bad enough, but the problem doesn’t end there—and this is the irony—because universalizing Jewish experience like that also robs it of its own historical specificity. After all, if I can not only know what Black people feel, but can feel it—as you suggest that Jewish academic claimed—“very blackly,” then that would suggest Black people can also feel my experience “Jewishly.” To put this another way, if I can feel your oppression and you can feel mine, what’s the point of dealing with history at all? We can bemoan the suffering, mourn the dead, promise ourselves we won’t let it happen again, and never have to deal honestly with the fact that atrocities like the Holocaust and slavery exist in historical contexts that implicate each of us, African Americans and Jewish Americans, very differently.
That reality is what that Jewish academic’s claim glossed over, just as it was glossed over by the “oppression Olympics” embodied in the question asked by that Black minister more than twenty years ago. Maybe telling stories like of how racism and antisemitism together shaped the United States’ participation in the 1936 Olympic games would be a way to start attending to that reality, I don’t know. What I do know is that this is a kind of attention far too few of us—Black, Jewish, or otherwise—seem willing or able to give.
And with that, I will have to leave you for now. My wife and I are off to meet a poet friend and his wife for a drink. I hope the summer days, despite the presidential campaign, are treating you as well as they have been treating me.
Richard Jeffrey Newman is a poet, essayist, and co-translator of classical Persian poetry. He has published two books of poetry, Words for What Those Men Have Done (Guernica Editions 2017) and The Silence of Men (CavanKerry Press 2006). He has published a chapbook of poetry, For My Son, A Kind of Prayer (Ghostbird Press 2016), and three books of translation from classical Persian poetry, most recently The Teller of Tales: Stories from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (Junction Press 2011). Newman is on the executive board of Newtown Literary, a Queens, NY-based literary non-profit and curates the First Tuesdays reading series in Jackson Heights, NY. He is Professor of English at Nassau Community College. www.richardjnewman.com