Danielle Christmas 
Assistant Professor 
Delta Delta Delta Fellow in the Humanities
Department of English and Comparative Literature
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Danielle Christmas | dchristmas@unc.edu
HomeCurriculum VitaeResearchTeaching

Auschwitz and the Plantation: 
Labor and Social Death in American Holocaust and Slavery Fiction
Manuscript Abstract

The sea journey of the slave ships was a horror comparable only to the German freight cars.     ~Richard L. Rubenstein 















This project grew out of my interest in comparative genocide representations as explored in Rwandan theater troupe Urwintore’s production of Peter Weiss’s Holocaust trial play The Investigation. What I soon realized, however, was that my interest was in something more specific than the question of how different cultures represented genocide. I was instead interested in how what might be described as identity-based crimes have come to be regarded as distinctively evil in ways that go beyond the horror of their sheer magnitude. Thus, for example, although Toni Morrison’s famous epigraph to Beloved—to the “sixty million and more”—is usually taken to imply a kind of competitive comparison (more Africans were killed than Jews), I began to think that the more interesting relation was the implied similarity of motive, that however many Jews or Africans were killed, they were killed for the same reason. And, as I began reading and rereading some of the relevant texts of the period—from the novels of Ishmael Reed, William Styron, and Octavia Butler to social and historical texts like Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death and William Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross—I realized that this question of motive played a central, crucial and often controversial role in almost all of them.

Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, for example, drawing on the scholarship of Richard L. Rubenstein, describes the Nazi death camps as work camps and persistently suggests that the racial murder of the Jews was more a by-product of the effort to get work out of them than a goal in itself. And although this thesis was relegated to the margins of American responses to the Holocaust, when a different version was introduced in Fogel and Engerman’s characterizations of American plantation slave-owners as motivated more by money than by racism (and hence as more inclined to treat their slaves well than to abuse them), it became the focus of a major and heated controversy. More generally, I argue that, in what is now regarded as the emerging dominance of American neoliberalism—with its emphasis not just on the economic value of efficient markets but on their moral value as well—an intensified interest in identifying racism as the source of the world’s greatest evils became linked with an intensifying interest in rehabilitating greed. It is this nexus of relations, between the emerging sense of the horror of genocide and the different but, I argue, compatible sense of the value of markets that is at the center of my project.

This project seeks to contribute to the literary history of texts that orient themselves around narratives of genocide. Often, these texts are examined with respect to an author’s authenticity and historical accuracy. Does William Styron, a white gentile, have the authority to tell Holocaust and slavery stories? Is Toni Morrison’s reference to sixty million African victims a fair comparison to the better-documented six million victims of the Holocaust? I hope to show that the series of issues having to do with questions of motive, and above all the emergence of racism for some writers—and for others like Styron, the critique of racism—are connected by a shared logic. Because this logic extends beyond the questions raised by literary representation, this project also intervenes into Holocaust and slavery historiographical discourses, advancing the centrality of the relationship between economics and race-hatred. Insofar as these historiographical issues emerge alongside the broader cultural rehabilitation of the market, the questions of people’s motives concurrently emerge as crucial not just for what they did—which is crucial—but also for thinking through what at any given moment counts as truly wrong. While the pure version of this is “greed is good,” for most of the artists and scholars I consider, it is not that “greed is good,” but rather that “greed is better than racism.” And this rehabilitation of greed ultimately evolves into the idea that making money can and should be an antidote to race-hatred and even, and especially, genocide. 
From "Eichmann-as-Victim" to "Nazi-as-Jew": 
Deconstructing Justice in American Holocaust Trial Films
Forthcoming in Aftermath: The Politics of Memory

The Adolf Eichmann trial is a turning point in the popular theory of Holocaust 
justice, and transitional in the very consensus that there was something called 
the Holocaust for which justice was essential and overdue. The Eichmann trial is 
such an important moment in understanding the history of post-Holocaust justice 
because it stimulated, through the controversial international nature of its origins, 
arguments over fair and adequate juridical remedies to genocide, and the stakes of 
an international consensus on how to carry that out. This is all contrasted against 
the origins of Holocaust justice at Nuremberg, which may seem to have resolved 
these questions or, at least, to have already stimulated these discussions. However, 
Nuremberg took European criminals and tried them in European trial spaces, 
without cameras and at a comfortable physical and temporal distance. Israel’s 
abduction and trial of Eichmann, on the other hand, raised issues of international cross-border cooperation, and the diplomatic conflicts arising from disagreement over the jurisdiction of any non-German, decades-removed parties attempting to impose belated justice. With this transitional moment in mind, my discussion of different films that represent Holocaust trials will show the under-considered, fundamental shift in the prevailing theory of the Holocaust trial that resulted from this critical moment. 

Shoshana Felman and Yasco Horsman’s reading of Hannah Arendt, and the conclusions they draw regarding the theory of justice for which artistic representations tend to argue, is ill-reasoned. Actually, stagings of Holocaust trials consistently support what Horsman terms Arendt’s conservative notion of the trial and its possibilities. Four film representations of Holocaust trials illustrate the chronological and theoretical ascendancy of the Arendt-ian notion of the trial. Following an evaluation of the pre-Eichmann/Arendt theory of the Holocaust trial posited in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), I will discuss how The Man in the Glass Booth (1975) manifests the Arendt-ian claim for the unexceptionalism of the new criminal through the collapse of victim and perpetrator. After this, I will discuss two more films that endorse the limited nature of the trial space and its inadequacy as a vehicle for justice, by examining how Music Box (1989) and The Reader (2009) argue for the essentially extra-juridical nature of authentic justice while displacing didactic and therapeutic resolution.  
When the Holocaust Comes to Harlem: 
Racial and Economic (In)Justice in American Holocaust Film

Co-authored with Dr. Adam Brown, Deakin University
Published in Mapping Generations of Traumatic Memory in American Narratives ​


Sidney Lumet’s influential film The Pawnbroker (1964)is one of 
the earliest films to consider the encounter between Holocaust 
narratives and low-income, urban American racial minorities. 
As much concerned with contemporary ‘race relations’ in the United States as it is with the Nazis’ persecution of Europe’s Jews, the film intertwines the story of Holocaust survivor Sol Nazerman with the social tensions of 1960s America, represented in his relationship with the young Puerto Rican shop assistant Jesus Oritz. The film stylistically juxtaposes raw footage of concentration camp existence with dismal images of New York slum life. Against these backdrops, the protagonist’s climactic ‘silent scream’ emblematically merges the repressed trauma of the survivor with the filmmaker’s interest in race relations, a theme that has undergone various transformations in a number of films since.   

One film that contemporizes this encounter is Richard LaGravenese’s Freedom Writers (2007). As opposed to the tragic outcome of the pawnbroker’s induction into urban America, here the Holocaust is a redemptive tool that permits inner-city Black and Latino youth to contextualize their own suffering. After reading The Diary of Anne Frank, this group of ‘at-risk’ sophomores are inspired to collaborate on an ultimately successful effort to bring Miep Geis, the woman who sheltered Anne Frank, to speak at their high school. Foregrounded by the 1992 Los Angeles riots, gentiles teacher Erin Gruwell and savior Miep Geis transform the Holocaust from an amplified parallel of American slums into an event that permits the children of American postcoloniality to triumph in spite of their socio-economic circumstances. 

Underlining the tension between the Jewish specificity and unprecedented nature of the Holocaust, and the need to generate Holocaust narratives that intersect with intrinsically racialized American narratives, such films have significant implications for how collective memories of suffering are constructed and contested. 
Repurposing the Nazi, Inhabiting the Jew: African Reconciliation Narratives After “Never Again”

The primary manuscript revision of my dissertation puts the Rwandan production of Peter Weiss’s Holocaust docudrama, The Investigation, into conversation with J. M. Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K. While Weiss’s original play is innovative, the African performance of The Investigation is even more remarkable for the aesthetic dissonance that results from the Rwandan-survivor cast performing the documentary Frankfurt trial testimony patched together in Weiss’s play. This theater production is a point-of-entry for similar works that deploy the tropes of Holocaust atrocity, reconciliation, and recovery as a framework to imagine their own atrocities. J. M. Coetzee brings this aesthetic approach to bear on South African apartheid, when his characters indulge in fantasies of an ideal justice—violent Afrikaners in the Nuremberg docks—juxtaposed immediately with the more unsettling image of these same men in the Nazi-like Boer relocation camps. Just as Urwintore’s Rwandan actors played both Nazi and Jew in their layered performance of the post-genocide courtroom, so do Coetzee’s Afrikaners equally embody Nazi perpetrator and Jewish victim in the post-apartheid fantasies of the novel’s main characters. And just as Coetzee leaves us ambivalent to this collapsing of distinctions between atrocity victim and perpetrator, so do Weiss and Urwintore leave their audience longing for a verdict that the play’s final curtain withholds. 

As a preliminary conclusion, for this specific section as well as for the larger thematic resituating of the project, I would argue that—as in the American example—revived and relocated Holocaust tropes in the trauma and reconciliation narratives of the Rwandan genocide and South African apartheid operate as veiled examples of the economic, as opposed to racialized, theory of atrocity. These representational imprints of post-Holocaust perpetrator-victim subjectivities are in fact lenses; through these lenses, we can begin to decipher a given state’s prevailing attitudes toward the global mechanisms that defined post-Holocaust justice, those same bureaucracies that are implicated in contemporary postcolonial machinations and, it follows, destabilizations. The questions introduced in this additional section, while consistent with the core claims of the project, will obviously require manuscript-level revisions that more thoroughly introduce representations of African atrocities and socioeconomics into the existing American framing.
SECOND MANUSCRIPT PROJECT

Fleeing the Calypso Shtetl: Race in the Margins of Caribbean Literature, 1939 to the present

I plan to move from my first book manuscript to a second project that further locates American literature within transnational—in this case, Caribbean—contexts. Illuminating the permeability of barriers between marginalized groups, this second study opens with the little-known history of Jewish refugees arriving in the Caribbean, fleeing from Nazi-occupied Europe, only to be interned upon arrival as German-identified enemy aliens. Departing from this redescription of Jewish victim as German perpetrator, my analysis considers how the difference between whiteness and blackness, and victim and perpetrator, is at once elided and rearticulated in Caribbean narratives during and after the Second World War. When, in The Nature of Blood, Caryl Phillips attempts to answer his question—“If white people could do that to white people [during the Holocaust], what could they do to me?”—his narrative produces another question altogether: what does it means when the racism deployed against the Jewish survivor of a Nazi death camp is redeployed by the woman’s fellow survivors on an Ethiopian Jewess? By reading this novel, alongside texts as different as the wartime rhymes of calypsonian Charlie “Gorilla” Grant and the more contemporary oeuvre of Derek Walcott, I explore the ways in which the ability of one character to mutate into another ultimately reveals how the structure of Anglo-European racism is both consolidated and altered in the postcolonial context.