Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thirst that is the drink.
Several times I've heard and read complaints that the Jewish Holocaust is treated with more sanctity and inviolability in the media than slavery, by which I and apparently everyone else mean the capture, captivity and transport of black Africans from the African continent to the Americas, especially the United States, and their forced labor and unconscionable persecution here. Recently a friend of mine posted bitterly on the ol' FB about Kanye's record being the hottest one in the country right now despite his airing of the moronic and offensive opinion that slavery was the choice of the enslaved. This friend opined that, had Yeezy said the Holocaust was a choice, there would've been hell to pay. And he's probably correct. I say probably because it's a hypothetical situation, not because there's much doubt in my mind.
I won't go into the very valid reasons he came up with for this disparity. I'm more interested in how the Holocaust is perceived in the cultural imagination compared to perceptions of the Captivity, which is how I will refer to slavery per se, but also the repercussive subsequent persecution of black people in the USA. Though distinct historically, I think the various stages of the persecution deserve to be linked, and I think so because of things I've read and heard from black intellectuals and personalities and persons I respect, and because of evidence supplied by the behavior of white people around me, which seems to be worsening thanks to behavior and rhetoric of the current inhabitant of the White House.
I can already tell this will be at least a two-part discussion, so I'll confine this week's part of it to examining the amount and type of documentation of the Holocaust, or Shoah, and that of the Captivity.
From its first discovery by Allied soldiers at the end of WWII, the horror of the extermination of Jews and peoples of other qualities unacceptable to the Nazi culture revealed itself like a hidden shame. The Nazis did their best to keep their industrial mass murders a secret, fearing that even their own people, trained though they were to hate deviance from Aryan perfection, would balk at such massive horror.
And yet, being a supremely self-admiring bureaucracy, it was nevertheless considered essential to document the progress of the cleansing of the Reich. The Nazis destroyed all the evidence they could as the Allied victory became inevitable, but they'd done too thorough a job keeping track of their project.
Films of camps, of piles of corpses being bulldozed, photos documenting the entire effort from humiliation of Jews by their neighbors, children held at gunpoint, windows smashed, buildings burned, prisoners packed into cattle cars, prisoners laboring, starving, digging their own mass graves. There are documents recording the shipping, delousing, gassing and incineration of people, the reports of Nazi doctors, and the Stroop Report detailing in words and photos the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto. And there are the writings of the survivors, and the aforementioned documentation by the liberators of the camps.
That's what we have of the Shoah. Of the Captivity there's even more evidence. The slavers weren't ashamed of what they were doing, it was commerce, although they kept documentation of certain of their activities, such as raping, to a minimum. There are ships' manifests, diagrams of human cargo arrangements, advertisements for the sale of black people detailing their marketable features, for the return of runaway slaves, artifacts like shackles and chains, etchings and prints. Slaves were supposed to be kept illiterate by law, but despite the law, writings of slaves and former slaves document the kidnapping from their home, the appraisal and sale of adults and children for labor and breeding, the separation of families, the cruelty of overseers and owners, the destruction of culture, torture and mutilation, systematic dehumanization. If there are surviving films documenting this slavery stage of the Captivity, I'm not aware of it. It was too early in history for that.
After slavery, though, there's even more evidence. Ku Klux Klan members seemed keen to keep their identities hidden under hoods, but the pride of the many white people who hunted down black people, innocent or not of violating the written and unwritten rules of apartheid society, and tortured them to death, is evident in the photos on postcards and holiday cards they sent to their friends and family members, where they stand around the mutilated, burnt, and/or hanged corpses of their victims, flashing big, victorious smiles, as if they've won some athletic competition, or caught a big fish.
There's ample documentation of violence and ghettoizing from the beginning of the Great Migration north through today. There's photo-documentation and written accounts of white people, civilian and official, committing mass attacks on black communities, even destroying entire towns. There are videos of police killing black people under circumstances no white person would find coming to a lethal conclusion, albeit such records are often released by law enforcement only under public pressure. Much of this violence is documented by fellow black citizens. And there is a long record of the incarceration of black people far out of proportion to their demographic representation in the United States population as a whole. Most of us are familiar with evidence of the Captivity over at least the past sixty or seventy years, even if the non-black portion of the citizenry fails to keep it foremost in its consciousness.
All of this is by way of saying, it certainly isn't a disparity in the amount of historical evidence that might account for the supremacy of the Shoah in the popular mythos of persecution. We have plenty of evidence of both. But why do Yad Vashem and the other Holocaust Museums have such officially recognized gravitas and narrative cachet, while museums devoted to the mass crime of slavery are few and little known, and even the Smithsonian's National African American Museum of History and Culture only opened in this century?
Possible answers are hinted at in the discussion above, but certainly don't lie in the quantity of documentation. In describing the documentation itself, we're already touching on the quality of the record and the pictures it paints. Next week I'll talk about the differing aesthetics of the two mass atrocities. That's where the real fun starts.
This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!