Discussions of black-Jewish relations tend to focus on a particular time and place: the 20th century in the United States.
But often neglected is the rich history of black-Jewish encounters in the Caribbean from the 16th century to the later 20th century, says Sarah Phillips Casteel, an associate professor of English at Carleton University and author of the new book Calpyso Jews: Jewishness in the Caribbean Literary Imagination.
Casteel spoke about her research in a talk titled “The Holocaust in Caribbean Literature and Art,” held Oct. 20 at the University of Toronto.
The event was part of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies’ 2016 fall lecture series and was presented in collaboration with U of T’s Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies.
Casteel said Calypso Jews seeks to bridge the gap between Jewish studies and colonial studies – two fields that “haven’t talked to each other too much before” –and to examine what she maintains is the “persistent presence of Jewish history and cultural motifs in Caribbean literature,” particularly in literature of the post-World War II period.
Casteel argued that the story of Jewish-black relations that most people are familiar with tells of an alliance that formed between the two communities in the United States during the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s, but began to unravel in the 1990s, with the publication of the controversial Nation of Islam book The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews.
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It alleged – falsely, according to many – that the Jews played a key role in the Atlantic slave trade.
“I’d like to tell a different story about blacks and Jews,” Casteel said, “one that moves beyond the U.S. and the 20th century.”
Jewish historical encounters in the Caribbean reflect two of Jewish history’s great traumas, she said: the expulsion of Sephardi Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century and the Holocaust, with its displacement of European Jews.
In the 1930s, hundreds of European Jews sought refuge from the Nazis in various parts of the Caribbean, such as Trinidad, where they dubbed themselves “Calypso Jews,” Casteel said.
Their arrival was predated by several centuries by Sephardi Jews who resettled in the Caribbean after the Jewish expulsions from Spain and Portugal in the 1400s.
“Many are unfamiliar with this multilayered Caribbean-Jewish story because of the tendency to focus on the Ashkenazi experience in the U.S.,” Casteel noted.
The black-Jewish narrative in the United States has largely characterized relations between the two groups as one of “competitiveness and antagonism,” Casteel said, explaining that this narrative often draws parallels between the tragedies of the Holocaust and black slavery, but also portrays black-Jewish histories as “separate and disconnected.”
She argued that the black-Jewish narrative of the Caribbean, shown through Caribbean literary invocations of the Holocaust, is “sympathetic rather than competitive.”
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Jewish and Holocaust motifs are most commonly found in Caribbean literature written by authors who came of age during World War II and the postwar decades, Casteel explained.
Rather than depicting, as in the United States, a sense of competition around the magnitude of suffering and the public memorializing of the Holocaust and the enslavement of black people, Caribbean writers of the period, such as Caryl Phillips, commonly referenced a deep sympathy for the Holocaust and affinity with figures such as Anne Frank.
Some Caribbean writers of the period noted learning about the Holocaust in adolescence and viewing it as a kind of “surrogate for the unspoken history of slavery in Caribbean culture.”
These writers saw learning about the Holocaust, and their identification with the event, as a way to more deeply uncover the traumatic and buried history of their own people.
“Caribbean invocations of the Holocaust… are informed by an awareness of the overlapping character of Jewish and African diasporas and identities,” she said.