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.

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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.

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