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  • Port and Plantation Jews in Contemporary Slavery Fiction of the Americas
  • Sarah Phillips Casteel (bio)

When Toni Morrison dedicated her landmark work of slavery fiction Beloved (1987) to “Sixty Million and more,” her apparent reference to the Nazi genocide sparked a debate that has larger implications for the literary representation of Blacks and Jews. Beloved’s dedication and the surrounding controversy are underpinned by a logic that Michael Rothberg terms “competitive memory” in which “the interaction of different collective memories … takes the form of a zero-sum struggle for preeminence” (3).1 This logic of competition, which pervades discussions of Black-Jewish relations in the United States, contrasts strikingly with the stress placed on correspondences and mutualities between Black and Jewish histories by Black British intellectuals such as Paul Gilroy and Caryl Phillips. Gilroy, for example, vigorously defends Morrison against the accusation that Beloved is “a blackface Holocaust novel” (Crouch 67) on the grounds that this view fails to consider “the possibility that there might be something useful to be gained from setting these histories [of slavery and the Holocaust] closer to each other not so as to compare them, but as precious resources from which we might learn something valuable about the way that modernity operates” (217). One contributor to the debate suggests that in advancing this defense of Morrison, “Gilroy may not be fully taking into account either the actual language of Morrison’s novel or the [American] cultural context in which this fiction is being written” (Budick 165). Looked at from a different angle, however, what Gilroy’s comments reveal is not an insensitivity to the American context but rather an alternative mode of drawing Black and Jewish histories into relation that becomes available when we widen our lens to encompass a broader African diaspora cultural landscape.2

In this essay, I show how adopting a transnational and hemispheric approach to Black-Jewish literary dynamics brings to light a recurring script about the figure of the Jew that appears in contemporary slavery fiction from the Caribbean and Canada. I argue that this script of the Jew in the slave narrative cannot be adequately interpreted through the competitive memory paradigm. Instead, it requires alternative frameworks such as those proposed by Gilroy and Rothberg in which memory is understood not as competitive but as “multidirectional: as subject to ongoing negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing; as productive and not privative” (Rothberg 3). A case in point is a less well-known work of slavery fiction that was published in the same year as Beloved, Surinamese author Cynthia McLeod’s The Cost of Sugar (Hoe duur was de suiker?). Rather than comparing rival experiences of victimization, McLeod’s novel explores the complex relationships of dependency, exploitation, and affection that developed between Sephardic Jews and their slaves in eighteenth-century Suriname. The Cost of Sugar is one of a series of contemporary [End Page 112] Caribbean and Canadian slavery novels in which the figure of the Jew makes a striking and sustained appearance. Instead of pursuing the more standard Holocaust analogies invoked by Morrison and other African American writers, these novels recall an earlier traumatic moment in Jewish history in which Sephardic Jews sought opportunities in the New World in the aftermath of the 1492 expulsion from Spain.3

In his study of slavery fiction, Tim A. Ryan remarks that the challenge for the contemporary novelist “is to engage with slavery’s historical actuality and its discursive traditions without becoming dependent upon conventional literary formulas for representing the institution and its subjects” (191). Accordingly, the vocabulary established in the classic slave narratives of Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince, Frederick Douglass, and others is continually being reconfigured by contemporary writers, who have increasingly eschewed a protest literature mode in favor of a more theoretical approach that explores the nature of slave subjectivity, treats history as a discursive field, and problematizes the idea of resistance. Ryan singles out as an example of such innovation Edward P. Jones’s The Known World (2003), which “uses the anomalous figure of the black slaveholder to dismantle such conventional binaries of slavery discourse as ‘black’ and ‘white’” (Ryan 199). By recovering a lost episode of Sephardic Jewish history in...


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pp. 112-129
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