Primo Levi's Old Negro Spiritual

As I mentioned, I've been reading Primo Levi's If This Is A Man. I finished last week, but I feel like I need to reread the entire book (which I'm doing) before I give a serious considered response. It's easily my favorite memoir this side of The Life And Times of Frederick Douglass, but there's more to be said.

I'll also say that I wasn't really prepared for the ways in which Levi unwittingly evokes the black experience in America. I don't mean this in the sort of cheap way you see The Holocaust deployed as a trump card ( "the black Holocaust") in the Olympics suffering. I mean this in the sense that Levi is writing about genocide, and slavery. There's a gripping chapter where Levi describes the camp awaiting the selections--which is to say the time when certain Jews will be taken out and killed. Reading it, I found myself thinking of my ancestors and how they waited, in the run-up to the fantastic end to American slavery, to see who would be selected and sold into the oblivion of Mississippi.

Here is a passage that wrecked my world:

But where we are going we do not know. Will we perhaps be able to survive the illnesses and escape the selections, perhaps even resist the work and hunger which wear us out but then, afterwards? Here, momentarily far away from the curses and the blows, we can re-enter into ourselves and meditate, and then it becomes clear that we will not return. We travelled here in the sealed wagons; we saw our women and our children leave towards nothingness; we, transformed into slaves, have marched a hundred times backwards and forwards to our silent labours, killed in our spirit long before our anonymous death. No one must leave here and so carry to the world, together with the sign impressed on his skin, the evil tidings of what man's presumption made of man in Auschwitz.

That is an old Negro spiritual. That is the Middle Passage. That is how I see my African ancestors here in America, suddenly aware that they will never go back, that they are dead to everyone they have known and loved.

I've said before that I never really understood why so much ink was spilled over the relationship between black people and Jews. Jews were white people in my eyes, perhaps white people of another tribe, but white people nonetheless. And yet it was clear to me that some black people -- activists and academics -- really saw Jews as "different," and also that many Jews saw themselves as "different." My readings over the past year have begun to bring home why. As well as my travels. There's something illuminating about living in a place with other foundational myths, and other foundational evils.

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

From This Author

Just In