A little over a year ago, I started thinking about the connections between the Holocaust and Jim Crow. I did this, partly, because I planned to do a study travel trip to Poland where students and I would explore these connections, notably meeting and working with Polish students who were studying Southern literature. However, that trip did not materialize, due to a myriad of factors. I thought, at that point, that I would move on to another topic in preparation for a future course or project. Yet, I keep coming back to looking at the intersections between Jim Crow and the Holocaust. This summer, I’ve jumped deeper into this topic because one of the students who planned to go to the Poland trip still wanted to do the course, so she we are exploring the connections “Jim Crow and the Holocaust.”
As we were planning out the course, before we ever officially met, the student told me that numerous people asked her about her the purpose of the course. Specifically, they asked why anyone would claim that a connection exists between the Nazi atrocities during World War II and white supremacist Jim Crow atrocities in the United States. Their questioning of why anyone would even take a course such as “Jim Crow and the Holocaust” reinforced a lot of what I have been thinking about over the past few years, namely the information we provide to our students and to the community as a whole.
Flipping over to Fox News recently, as I am wont to do during commercials to see the rhetoric they employ, Fox and Friends Weekend host Pete Hegesth started hyping Battle for the American Mind: Uprooting a Century of Miseducation, his upcoming book that he cowrote with David Goodwin. Touted as “a field-guide for remaking school in the United States,” the book argues for a return to an educational system from yesteryear, one that “assigned the classics, inspired love of God and country, and raised future citizens that changed the world forever.” For Hegesth and Goodwin, education sits at the forefront of the cultural wars, and they promote “classical Christian education,” which Kathryn Joyce points out, has become a loaded term that “basically means,” when coming from the right, “exalting Western civilization, American exceptionalism and the notion that America was founded on ‘Judeo-Christian’ principles.”
In this framework, World War II would be limited to discussions of the United States’ involvement following Pearl Harbor, D-Day and the defeat of Nazi Germany, and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It would highlight the exceptionalism and heroism of the nation in the face of fascism and tyranny. This is a narrative that needs to be told, and one that we must not forget. However, what this framework would eliminate is enormous and does greater harm to our nation than the full scope of the historical record.
Writing about working with educators on the concealed stories of Asian American resistance, Kayhan Irani details an activity that she does with participants at a one-week Civil Rights Educator Institute in Arkansas each year. At the start of the institute, Irani has the participants complete “a crowd-sourced American history timeline activity.” They have large sheets of butcher paper with dates on it, from the 1400s forward, and participants fill in information that they know on the timeline, either historical information or personal experiences. Irani does this while teaching participants about Japanese incarceration in Arkansas during World War II and Japanese resistance to Executive Order 9066.
If we were to do this for World War II, let’s say 1918–1945 (give or take), what would people put on the timeline. We’d see armistice in 1918. We’d see the roaring twenties. We’d see the Great Depression. We’d see Pearl Harbor. We’d see D-Day. We’d see the end of World War II. We may see the start of the United Nations. We may see the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. We may see some other items here and there. Would we see the Red Summer? Would we see Japanese Incarceration? Would we see the Harlem Renaissance? Would we see the Immigration Act of 1924? Would we see the Scottsboro Boys? Would we see the St. Louis, a ship filled with Jewish refugees in 1939? Would we see the “Pro American Rally” at Madison Square Garden in 1939? Would we see Dorie Miller? Would we see the Detroit Riot in 1943 and Thurgood Marshall comparing the Detroit police to the Gestapo? Would we see We Charge Genocide from 1951? Would we see that Hitler’s favorite movie was Gone with the Wind? What would we see?
Thinking about the query of why someone would even take a course looking at the connections between Jim Crow and the Holocaust I think about all of this. I think about the need for a full picture of history. We need to know and recognize the Klan as the precursors to fascism. We need to know and recognize the ways that Jim Crow laws and the South inspired Hitler and the Nazis. We need to see the ways that the Black Horror on the Rhine propaganda mirrored Jim Crow and racist propaganda in the United States. We need to see that the Nazis had a presence in the United States. We need to read books such as Sinclar Lewis It Can’t Happen Here (1935) which predicted a lot of what happened in World War II by foreshadowing what would happen if fascism took hold in the United States.
We need to know all of this and more because if we don’t, we inflate ourselves and position ourselves as the moral compass against fascism and the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II. This is something we always do. We find it easy to look outside of ourselves, across the ocean and borders, seeing the horrors that individuals inflict upon others and tell ourselves, “We’re not like that. We’d never let that happen here.” However, we fail to look at ourselves and see that those things, those horrors, exist(ed) here as well. We deflect our gaze, ignoring to do the hard work of examining ourselves in the mirror because we’re afraid of what will stare back at us.
Yet, we must look upon our reflection. We must see the ways that all of this is interconnected. Nothing within the world is singular. Everything overlaps, creating intricate webs that pull together various strands, making it difficult to unravel. So, what do we do? We go for the most simplistic formulation available, there has to be a good and a bad. Thus, the United States did good against the bad Axis powers. This formulation, though, places one as “morally” superior over the other, allowing them to ignore a deep-examination of their own role within the events that transpired.
We should study things such as the intersections between the Jim Crow and the Holocaust because that knowledge helps us build a better future. One can love the Untied States and still critically examine its history just as one can love Germany and denounce the Nazi atrocities of World War II. Being critical of one’s history doesn’t mean that one hates the nation. It means that one is working and striving for the best of what the nation can ultimately be. As James Baldwin put it, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” One cannot build a better future until one confronts the past, whatever that past may be.