The “Rhetorical Oppositionality of ‘Black’ and ‘Jew,’” or The Complexities of Noncompetitive Memory

June 2018

Sarah Phillips Casteel, Calypso Jews: Jewishness in the Caribbean Literary Imagination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016); 336 pages; ISBN 978-0231174404 (hardcover)

Sarah Phillips Casteel’s Calypso Jews: Jewishness in the Caribbean Literary Imagination is a brilliant study that in its most broad gesture is as much about Jewishness as it is about the relationship between and among Africana and Jewish experiences in the black Atlantic. Casteel examines the representation of Jews in texts by writers who situate their literary oeuvre at some level in—or in relationship to—the Caribbean, such as Myriam Chancy, Michelle Cliff, Maryse Condé, Aurora Levins Morales, Caryl Phillips, and Derek Walcott. To understand Casteel’s significant and much needed contribution to fields such as Africana, Caribbean, Jewish, Latinx, and whiteness studies, it is important to take account of how her scholarship interfaces with Michael Rothberg’s deliberations on “competitive memory,” which he designates as an unproductive discursive space whereby historically oppressed groups pit themselves against each other.1 As an alternative, Rothberg proposes that writers such as Aimé Césaire and W. E. B. Du Bois nurture “multidirectional memory” as an ethical approach. He encourages societal actors (i.e., intellectuals, activists) to mindfully foster a conversation that resists creating a hierarchy between and among minority groups.

In addition to absolutely superb literary analysis, Casteel’s greatest accomplishment is her measure. Although Casteel puts Rothberg’s commendable aspiration for multidirectional memory to work, she is careful not to romanticize what in Rothberg’s work often appears—especially in a twenty-first-century context—as a quite utopian aspiration for the equal recognition among groups who have been victims of painful pasts of oppression and humiliation. Her analyses take note of the extreme complexity that renders multidirectional memory quite challenging to achieve. Casteel resists the urge to eulogize any given identity group, and as such she scrutinizes the novels, their writers, their protagonists, and their critics. Her feat is to map out the many convoluted ways the politics of whiteness have deployed—and continue to deploy—what she names the “rhetorical oppositionality of ‘Black’ and ‘Jew’” (15).  

Casteel focuses the book on two sites of memory. In “Part 1: 1492,” which is divided into four chapters, she looks at how the year 1492 “holds certain advantages over the Holocaust as a gateway into interdiasporic comparisons” (170). Casteel explains that the Holocaust as a site of memory inevitably leads to competition between the African and the Jewish diasporas in the Caribbean, since the Holocaust has received far more attention—and, notably, legitimization—in the general public sphere than have the experiences of the Middle Passage, slavery, and indigenous genocides. In part 1, the main authors Casteel examines are Myriam Chancy, Michelle Cliff, Maryse Condé, David Dabydeen, Cynthia McCleod, and Derek Walcott. In “Part 2: The Holocaust” Casteel offers subtle readings of how the Holocaust may represent a noncompetitive site of memory. She considers the work of Michelle Cliff, John Hearne, Jamaica Kincaid, Michèle Maillet, M. NourbeSe Philip, and Caryl Phillips.

Casteel proposes 1492 as a memory topos that might allow blacks and Jews to think of each other as part of a shared community. That is, 1492 serves as a point-of-contact that holds significance for both the Africana and Jewish diasporas in the Caribbean, since the year corresponds to the Spanish Inquisition’s expulsion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula as well as to Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, which in turn led to the horrors of colonial exploitation. In her analysis of Walcott’s Tiepolo’s Hound, Casteel argues that painter Camille Pissarro “serves as a double for the poet-narrator Walcott” (49), allowing for a triangulation among the Caribbean Sephardic Jew; the non-Jewish white European (an identity that Pissarro espoused in establishing himself as an artist in France); and Walcott’s black Caribbean identity. In seriously considering the double persecution of the Caribbean black and Caribbean Jew through a common memory topos, Walcott’s poem intentionally “stages a Black-Jewish dialogue, one that is informed by a strongly empathetic perspective as well as a poetics of reciprocity” (52). However, try as the poet-narrator may, “Pissarro’s privileged position within the colonial economy” short-circuits the potentiality of veritable reciprocity (61). Instead, as Casteel notes, what Walcott’s poem does is to reflect on how the artistic practices of both Walcott and Pissarro cultivate a comparative approach that is “self-reflexive and antihierarchical” rather than competitive (66). In this approach, the fact that Jews also participated in slavery is not eschewed. In the end, even if 1492 serves as a point through which to bring the painter and the poet together via a shared history of oppression, the social reality of whiteness unambiguously reveals the “limits of the Black-Jewish analogy” (48).

In the second part, Casteel turns her attention to how Caribbean writers have written the Holocaust into their work. Casteel demonstrates that the Holocaust may indeed provide a noncompetitive means to think through a writer’s own coming-to-consciousness of her or his particular experiences as black Caribbean or black European. In the most controversial conversations that think the black and the Jew alongside each other—the comparison between the Holocaust, on the one hand, and the Middle Passage and slavery, on the other—are put forth to emphasize the incompatibility of the two groups. Such horrific experiences of suffering are not necessarily comparable. Rather, the fact of comparing them leads to a politics that hierarchizes lived experiences of suffering, resulting in competition among victims. In contrast, the authors in this second part of Casteel’s book avoid comparisons, instead drawing on the experience of the Holocaust to articulate their own sufferings. Casteel focuses especially on how Michelle Cliff and Caryl Phillips access their own lived experience in part through their interaction with Anne Frank’s work, for Frank at once combined the unabashed aspiration to become an accomplished writer with a practice of writing trauma (206, 211). When so little Africana literature was available to Caribbean writers, the literary production of Jewish writers came to serve as a sort of “‘surrogate issue’ (in [M. NourbeSe] Philip’s phrase) through which they could gain access to a suppressed slavery past” (206).

Casteel’s tour-de-force is to carefully select and organize a corpus of literary texts that not only stages both black and Jewish protagonists but seriously considers (and interrogates) the possibilities (or lack thereof) of thinking Africana diasporas alongside—or at least in relation to—Jewish diasporas. The works in Casteel’s corpus consciously and conscientiously deploy Jewishness in their reflection of what it means to be part of community, think through histories and memories of trauma, and situate oneself so as to successfully make claims in Atlantic European and Atlantic American societies without simultaneously turning one’s back on one’s own community. What comes through, not explicitly but forcefully, is that in our present-day world, the mechanisms deployed by whiteness to maintain its power are ever more convoluted. While blackness and Jewishness must and should be thought in relation to each other, such rapprochement does not necessarily lead to experiences of reciprocity. To work through the black-Jewish relation is in fact to consider some of the most fraught ways whiteness encourages minority groups into competitive relations. Casteel’s work suggests that we must rethink especially Africana and Jewish studies, though not necessarily to join forces, for our experiences of oppression—and of privilege—are often too painfully diverse to create mutual benefit. Instead, in drawing on Édouard Glissant, Casteel encourages us to pay attention to the opacity of our Relation, so as to understand how the white order continues to conscript us into roles and behaviors with which we feel, at best, uncomfortable.


Alessandra Benedicty-Kokken is an associate professor at the City College of New York in the Division of Interdisciplinary Studies and the Graduate Center in French (CUNY) and is affiliated with Hogeschool Utrecht and Radboud Universiteit. She is the author of Spirit Possession in French, Haitian, and Vodou Thought: An Intellectual History (Lexington, 2015) and a coeditor of “Revisiting Marie Vieux Chauvet: Paradoxes of the Postcolonial Feminine,” a special issue of Yale French Studies (2016); and The Haiti Exception: Anthropology and the Predicament of Narrative (Liverpool University Press, 2016).


Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009).


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