Following the 1978 premiere of the television miniseries Holocaust, a vocal number of African American activists protested what they argued was a Jewish attempt to steal attention from the long overdue social and cultural interest in America’s egregious criminal past. More specifically, these critics begrudged NBC’s admitted attempt to mimic the overwhelming and unexpected success of ABC’s 1977 eight-night television event, Roots, with their own ethnic melodrama. Whereas NBC successfully had the day of their own premiere nationally dubbed “Holocaust Sunday,” those critical of the attempt to piggyback off of Roots’sachievement were left with the distinct sense that the critical success of the series about their own traumatic history, and more importantly the history that inspired it, were being pushed aside. In retrospect, it hardly matters that production of Holocaust was underway by the time of Roots’s success; this social fissure simply brought into relief a tension between blacks and Jews that had been quietly simmering for some time.
This fraught response to the Holocaustminiseries took place a full decade before Toni Morrison’s 1987 dedication of Beloved to the “sixty million and more,” and its implicit critique of the refrain-like familiarity and focus on the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Anticipating Morrison, the African American critics of Holocaust were already sounding the drum about what they perceived as an ultimately successful attempt to eclipse America’s domestic shame, plantation slavery. Even now, there is a frequent contest between purveyors of African American and Jewish history over the consequences of slavery and the Holocaust, the cynically labeled “olympics of suffering.” However tedious this conflict may seem from the outside, its resonances in contemporary social discourse and cultural production point to a set of unarticulated but significant stakes. This project seeks to pull back the veil that is so often distilled as “Holocaust vs. slavery”—at its most charged, “black vs. Jew”—and sort out the significance of the narratives to contemporary American moral identity.
The operating premise of Plantation Pimps & Nazi Monsters: Labor, Sex, and Madness in American Slavery and Holocaust Fiction, and the arc that ties its chapters together, is the idea that, although slavery and the Holocaust are discreet historical and temporal events with unique victims and perpetrators, causations and consequences, American popular culture has converged around a surprisingly small set of tropes to tell these stories, so that novels and movies about slavery and the Holocaust are constitutive of and reliant on the same core, causal narrative. The opening chapter discusses William Styron, the author whose best-known novels conflated slavery and the Holocaust in an effort to indict proto-capitalism, and sets the stage for the larger American rejection of Styron’s characterization of these histories. Although he succeeded at permanently if tenuously yoking one atrocity with the other, Styron’s successors implicitly reject what he argues is the shared animating principle—greed—leaning instead into a multiplicity of alternative explanations for how and why these two events fit so tightly together. I have attempted to recover Styron, not in an effort to recover his oversimplified explanation that places money at the root of all evil. What he does, though, that the authors in the second, third, and fourth chapters don’t do, is insist upon the reasonableness of atrocity in the context of contemporary culture.
Styron anchors his accounts of slavery and the Holocaust, and thus his critique, on the established politics of financial prosperity that define success in the Western European story, and particularly the American mind that has taken this story and crafted an economic myth and mystery all its own. He acknowledges in his myopic way a dimension of the larger truth as it evolved in the 1960s-70s American worldview: a Darwinian landscape that instrumentalizes “survival of the fittest” as an ideal, constructs a myth of merit that names the strongest as deserving of the spoils, and advances a system of social capital and economic commerce that intensifies competition for limited resources (financial or otherwise). In this context, establishing merit by eliminating the social and economic threats that weaken your position is simply good politics and good business; it is equally bad politics and business to acknowledge, to oneself and one’s fellow citizens, that the performance of this worldview may not only lead to, but in fact calls for, the tolerance of atrocity every so often.
The second chapter begins the process of showing how that acknowledgment of tolerance was buried over time, and explains why, when we think of slavery and the Holocaust, we are so often conditioned by books and movies to think, first and foremost, of sexual violence and brutal torture. If Styron’s version can be summed up as “capitalists commit atrocity,” Kyle Onstott and Orlando Patterson, the authors examined in the second chapter, can be summarized as advancing the idea that “sexually depraved torturers commit atrocity.” And while the latter is certainly true, the perpetrators of slavery and the Holocaust were far more likely to be just plain greedy than they were to be driven by sadism for its own sake. This idea is discomfiting indeed because, if true, our day-to-day encounters with plain old capitalists—in fact, the likelihood of our membership in their ranks—means that we may be rubbing shoulders with, or perhaps even in league with, the atrocity perpetrators of tomorrow. Collapsing the macro-narrative means that avoiding sexual depravity is no longer sufficient to evade the guilty or risk guilt.
The subsequent chapters elaborate on an alternative causal narrative—namely, madness—and consider the ultimate synthesis of all of these narratives (greed, sexual violence, and lunacy) in twenty-first century screen culture. The fact that Plantation Pimps & Nazi Monstersopens by discussing 1960s Southern fiction and ends with readings of 2010s popular film and television is not simply proof of the depth and breadth of these narrative tensions in American cultural production, though that alone accounts for the critical interest in the topic. More importantly, the range of the archive, and the works’ disparate contexts, illustrate the perceived and shifting stakes associated with how we explain away the enslavement and annihilation of blacks and Jews, and the lasting belief that understanding one means understanding the other, and that understanding both means understanding the basic nature of good and evil in the American intellectual and creative imagination.