Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Identity Question

The Identity Question: Blacks and Jews in Europe and America

Robert Philipson
Copyright Date: 2000
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Identity Question
    Book Description:

    A diasporic study of the striking similarities between Jewish consciousness and black consciousness in Europe and America

    Download Plain Text version

    Despite the Enlightenment's promise of utopian belonging among all citizens, blacks and Jews were excluded from the life of their host countries. In their diasporic exile both groups were marginalized as slaves, aliens, unbelievers, and frequently not fully human.The Identity Question: Blacks and Jews in Europe and Americaexplores the effects of diaspora upon black and Jewish consciousness, demonstrating similar histories of marginality and oppression.

    Casting off the fixed social categories of an earlier age, Enlightenment thinkers argued that all men in their capacity as citizens of a secular state had the right to full civic participation and equal protection under the law. In theory, such an ideology did not recognize classes or races of men automatically excluded from citizenship. In fact, negative images of blacks and Jews continued to inform European thought and policy, providing a rationale for a thriving slave trade abroad and continued oppression of Jews at home. Thus blacks and Jews were forced to define themselves in accordance with or in opposition to European ideas about who they were. Of necessity, blacks struggled against the stereotypes of black barbarism and bestiality. Jewish intellectuals protested their alleged moral unfitness to participate in society, while proclaiming primary allegiance to their host country rather than to other Jews.

    Central to this examination are four key autobiographies, two from the late 1700s and two from recent history. The autobiographies of Richard Wright and Alfred Kazin, taken as prime twentieth-century American expressions of racial and ethnic identity, reveal striking similarities to their Enlightenment counterparts in Europe, the black Olaude Equiano and the Jewish Salomon Maimon. Equiano, Maimon, Kazin, and Wright all accept the ultimate desirability of Western culture. All believe in the Enlightenment promise. All were ostracized by the larger political cultures of Great Britain, Germany, and America, but each made an arduous journey from the ethnic margins of language, culture, and "tribal" loyalty to the cosmopolitan center of London, Berlin, Chicago, or New York.

    These modern European conceptions of black and Jewish identity, as well as the modern forms of racism that came to term in the eighteenth century, entered America whole cloth. Consequently, American intellectual and social history of the twentieth century mirrors the same movements toward acceptance and ostracism that had existed in Enlightenment Europe.

    Robert Philipson is an independent scholar who lives in Oakland, California. His work has been published inResearch in African Literatures,Studies in American Jewish Literature, andCallaloo.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-425-4
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction: Flight from Egypt
    (pp. ix-xxii)

    Let us start by unraveling an American cultural tangle. The Reverend Al Sharpton, African-American gadfly of New York politics, has led scores of protest marches against assaults and injustices perpetrated on the Black community. This man’s name has become anathema to many Jews for what they perceive to be his inflammatory role in the Crown Heights riots of 1991 and the 1995 arson that killed eight people in a Jewish-owned clothing store in Harlem. Yet when Al Sharpton published the autobiography that has become the standard accessory of American celebrity, he gave it the titleGo and Tell Pharaoh(1996)....

  4. The Light from the West

    • Eighteenth-Century Perspectives
      (pp. 3-29)

      In the first book-length Black autobiography,The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African(1789), the author offers an ethnographic description of the Ibo people he was kidnapped from while still a young boy. He ends his opening chapter with the first extended comparison between Blacks and Jews in the English language. The analogy, he writes, between the manners and customs of his countrymen and those of the pastoral Jews before they had entered their Promised Land strikes him “very forcibly.” Both peoples were ruled by chiefs and elders, both practiced circumcision, both made...

    • The Dawn Patrol
      (pp. 30-78)

      James Clifford writes, “As counterdiscourses of modernity, diaspora cultures cannot claim an oppositional or primary purity. Fundamentally ambivalent, they grapple with the entanglement of subversion and the law, of invention and constraint—the complicity of dystopia and utopia” (265). Black and Jewish intellectuals who broke out of the ethnic enclaves—ghetto or slavery—imposed upon them by the West did so with the help of Western individuals and organizations who subscribed to emergent ideologies of enlightenment tolerance and egalitarianism. These pioneers often owed a debt of gratitude to Western allies who championed their cause as individuals or as members of...

  5. American Assents

    • Mid-Century Perspectives
      (pp. 81-111)

      The intellectual and social history of America in the first half of the twentieth century vis-à-vis its minorities offers numerous parallels with that of eighteenth-century Europe. The terms of Enlightenment emancipation had not yet changed—assimilation into a universal culture was still “the price of the ticket,” to use James Baldwin’s phrase. Blacks and Jews held to their strategies of capitulation, resistance, and dialogue. Capitulation found public expression in humor (Bert Williams on the minstrel stage; Potash and Perlmutter in print and on Broadway); resistance rhetoric was mostly intraethnic (the Nation of Islam; orthodox Jews). Ethnic literature—that written in...

    • The Sunset Generation
      (pp. 112-166)

      Richard Wright and Alfred Kazin belonged to the last generation of American writers who adhered, on a conscious level, to the ideology of ethnic transcendence that had come down from the eighteenth century. The liberal American mainstream continued to pay lip service to the proposition that all citizens should receive equal treatment under the law, but the general acceptance of blatant inequalities based on class, race, and gender drove many men and women of conscience into radical critiques of Enlightenment liberalism. Although socialism and communism never had a major impact on American electoral politics, their ideologies made significant headway among...

  6. Transformations in the Promised Land

    • Journey to the West
      (pp. 169-188)

      In one of the most famous poems to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance, provocatively titled “Heritage,” Countee Cullen ponders his relationship to the land of his ancestors. “What is Africa to me?” he repeatedly asks in iambic tetrameter. Concluding that he must keep his association with Africa remote and unreal if he is not to be undone by Black anger and Black emotion, he underscores the point with an intertextual reference to a line of poetry from the French renaissance:

      What is last year’s snow to me,

      Last year’s anything?

      The allusion to François Villon’s famous refrain, “Mais òu sont...

    • Ethnicity and Its Discontents
      (pp. 189-220)

      Throughout this study, I have been positing a structural equivalence between Black and Jewish identity which I have subsumed under the rubric of ethnicity. This structural equivalence can be seen in the utility of paradigms developed within one ethnic discourse as applied to another. Many Jewish intellectuals would recognize their dilemma in the concept of double consciousness developed by Du Bois to describe Black subjectivity. Similarly, the typology developed by Robert Stepto for Black narratives applies equally well to Jewish ones, indeed to numerous ethnic narratives. Elaborating on the way double consciousness has been expressed in the lives and writings...

  7. Conclusion
    (pp. 221-227)

    “Enlightenment is totalitarian,” Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno wrote inThe Dialectic of Enlightenment(6). The Frankfurt School theoreticians posited in their book that the Enlightenment represented a philosophy of total integration that subsumed everything under a tyrannical rationality, splitting subject and object, man and nature, signified and signifier, art and science into bounded, self-contained realms. On the level of philosophy, they criticized the Enlightenment for begging the philosophical question, perceiving in a disenchanted nature only what reason would allow and surrendering all human and supernatural dimensions to mere factuality.

    What appears to be the triumph of subjective rationality, the...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 228-234)
  9. Works Cited
    (pp. 235-246)
  10. Index
    (pp. 247-254)