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Waltzing with Hitler: Black Writers, the Third Reich, and Demonic Grounds of Comparison, 1936-1940

  • Author(s): Ratskoff, Ben
  • Advisor(s): Rothberg, Michael
  • et al.
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Abstract

This dissertation analyzes the idiosyncratic and ambivalent ways Black writers in the United States and French Empire perceived Nazism, up close and at a distance, from 1936 to 1940. This period reveals the pervasive sense among Black writers, artists, and militants that German fascism was entangled with the colonialism and racialization experienced in the liberal empires. While significant scholarship, primarily in the fields of memory studies, French studies and German studies, has uncovered seminal intersections and continuities linking the Holocaust and colonialism—both in the terms of empirical historical research and collective memory—this dissertation expands the comparative archive to include Black writers who elaborated comparisons in real-time and without rear-view knowledge of the Holocaust as a bounded historical atrocity. In doing so, it excavates comparative schemas that are outside dominant frameworks and require a nondeterministic approach, which I term “demonic grounds of comparison.” If the conventional ground of comparison classifies and organizes white supremacy and Nazism, Blacks and Jews, into neat comparative taxonomies of measure and equivalence, demonic grounds of comparison blaspheme against such comparative pieties by destabilizing commensurability and “providing avenues for the conjuring of alternate possibilities” indifferent to the governing alignments of victims, perpetrators, and their attendant ‘racisms.’

The first chapter focuses on the columns written by Du Bois for the Pittsburgh Courier while spending four months in the Third Reich in 1936. This correspondence, in its form as serialized columns, produced neither a definitive nor discrete analysis but offered an ambivalent and mercurial elaboration of comparison across time, marked by unsettlement, incoherence, and contingency. By reading serial columns, this chapter moves away from unearthing a delimited comparative perspective that ostensibly coheres and toward a structure of comparison that is disintegrated and contradictory, assembling and disassembling different vantage points across space and time and retreating from the comforts of analogical orthodoxies. Du Bois’s unsettlement of comparison is an inventive mode, generating multiple, relational strategies for conceptualizing the roles of economics and race in fascism’s rise—and thus relating multiples regimes of race—while at the same time marking that which exceeds generalized analogies between anti-Blackness and antisemitism.

The next chapter shifts from an analysis of an unfolding series of texts to one discrete text: the “the manifesto of the negritude movement,” L�on-Gontran Damas’s 1938 poetry collection Pigments. With close readings of two of the poems in the collection—“Save Our Souls” and “Nuit Blanche”—alongside contemporaneous writing from Suzanne C�saire, C. L. R. James, and, especially, Hannah Arendt, I argue that Pigments’ negritude critique of Black assimilation isolates precise historical resemblances and adjacencies between francophone Blacks and germanophone Jews, and between the Third Republic and the Third Reich. These in turn evince analogous breakdowns of imperial inclusion and expose the filiative ground of race-making on which the supposedly adversarial Third Republic and Third Reich are correlated. Both poems mobilized the overlapping, synchronic context of the Third Reich and its persecution of German Jews, tracing the adjacencies linking negritude strategies of class betrayal and European Jewish politics of assimilation.

The final two chapters unearth a method of periscopic comparison, an approach that activates a novel’s paratexts in order to represent its synchronic, international relationalities. It does so, however, without smoothening the novelistic and paratextual viewpoints into a coherent whole or plane of equivalence—on which the US and the Third Reich, and Blacks and Jews, would relate to each other as discrete, given unities. Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) was a naturalist proletarian novel that magnified the environmental formation and psychic tension of Bigger Thomas, a young Black man in Depression-era Chicago’s Black Belt. However, in private correspondence, lectures, pamphlets, and public responses, Wright chased the novel’s interpretation, curving away from the novel’s claustrophobic focalization by asserting the international framework of the novel’s relevance. The first chapter of this section focuses primarily on the slanted, paratextual lines of connection Wright traced from Bigger to German fascists, which maneuver around the novel’s focalization to coordinate multiple scales and registers of material and psychic dispossession across what Wright described as a vast “commodity-profit machine.” The coordination of these scales and registers circuited the Communist Party’s blindness to the Black lumpenproletariat in the interwar United States through its synchronic failure to prevent the rise of fascism in Germany.

The final chapter asks what periscopic comparisons Wright’s paratexts make to oppressed Jews. Jewishness appears submerged and peripheral in the novel, and sometimes it is present in the absence of Jews themselves. And manuscript drafts of the novel alongside archived writing notes reveal a curious textual process in which the Jewishness of characters was effaced. However, what is submerged and peripheral in the novel’s microscopic focalization becomes visible and suggestive in the paratexts, producing a critical tension between Bigger’s local relations with white Jewish Chicagoans and his international identification with Jewish Biggers. The novel’s acutely local focalization thus submerges Jewishness in whiteness while its paratexts pivot to uncover particular Jewish Biggers in the field of international multiplication. In doing so, Wright exposed the scalar imbrication of white/Black and Aryan/Jew axes of racialization. The territorialization of race occurred simultaneously across local and international scales, coding anti-Black and anti-Jewish racializing assemblages in overlapping and contradictory schemes that constantly organized and reorganized whiteness, Aryanness, Blackness, and Jewishness according to the shifting scale of relation or comparison.

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This item is under embargo until May 25, 2023.