“Dedicated to those without memorial or monument.”
That is the epigraph to John A. Williams’ Clifford’s Blues (1999), a novel that illuminates the the connections between Jim Crow and the Holocaust and illuminates the Nazis treatment of Blacks during their reign of terror. Clifford Pepperidge, a Black, gay musician from New Orleans who traveled to Europe to escape Jim Crow and play music narrates Clifford’s Blues. The novel is his diary, a diary he kept from his incarceration in Dachau in May 1933 till his escape in April 1945. It chronicles his 12 years spent in the Nazi camp, and as he writes in one of his final entries before escaping and hear about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death, “Roosevelt was a president I never even knew much about.”
Clifford’s Blues is a memorial or monument to the Black victims on Nazi Germany’s violence and oppression. While we follow Clifford exclusively, getting bits and pieces of historical events outside of the walls of Dachau, we see the ways that the Nazis treat him and other Black individuals within the walls of the camp. While Clifford has a job working in the house of Dieter Lange, an SS officer, he still experiences violence and persecution. Dieter and his wife, along with other Nazi officials, treat him paternalistically, petting his head and treating him as if he is invisible. Other victims such as Doctor Nyassa, who married a white German woman, get spared because of their skills and talents, even though the Nazis look down upon them because they are Black.
Nazi racism against Blacks did not start in 1933. While it didn’t start with their colonial exploits in Africa either, we can look to the Berlin Conference as a jumping off point because there Germany, as Laura M. Quainoo puts it, “received the green light to colonize Namibia, Cameroon, Togo and Tanzania.” The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum calls Germany’s actions in Namibia specifically the Herero and Nama Genocide a “prelude” to the Holocaust. Between 1904 and 1907, Germany murdered “approximately 80,000 indigenous people . . . about 80 percent of the Herero people and 50 percent of the Nama people.”
Following Germany’s defeat in World War I, they lost their African colonies and the French placed African soldiers in the Rhineland to maintain control. This move sparked a moral panic dubbed the Black Horror on the Rhine, a panic that claimed that Senegalese and African soldiers committed acts of sexual violence against German women in the Rhineland producing children who the press deemed Rheinlandbastarde. These children became ostracized, and Guido Kreutzer, in his 1921 novel Die Schwarze Schmach: Der Roman des geschändeten Deutschlands said the chikdrent were “physically and morally degenenerate” and were not German citizens. As well, their mothers ceased to be German due to their relationships with non-white men.
This panic did not go away, and Adolf Hitler employed it in his own propaganda and writing. In Mein Kampf, he linked the Black Horror on the Rhine to the conspiracy theory of a Jewish world order. He wrote, “7,000,000 people languish under alien rule and the main artery of the German people flows through the playground of black African hordes…It was and is the Jews who bring the Negro to the Rhineland, always with the same concealed thought and with the clear goal of destroying by the bastardization of the white race they hate.” Hitler claimed that a Jewish controlled France placed the African troops in the Rhineland and that Jews should be held responsible for bastardizing Aryan blood.
Starting in 1937, Hitler and the Nazis sterilized every mixed-race child they could find in the Rhineland, all in the desire to maintain “racial purity.” Hitler played into the Black Horror on the Rhine conspiracy in his justification of sterilizing the children and others. Again, in Mein Kampf he wrote, “The mulatto children came about through rape, or the white mother was a whore. In both cases, there is not the slightest moral duty regarding these offspring of a foreign race.”
Writing about letters he received from a friend in January 1938, Clifford says that his friend asked him if he had “heard anything about how the Nazis took the kids of the German women and colored American soldiers who’d been stationed in the Rhineland right after the war and made it so they couldn’t have children?” Clifford hears about these actions, and he sees how the Nazis view him, even though he is a United States citizen.
Clifford understands the strong similarities between the United States and Nazi Germany. He makes this abundantly clear throughout the novel, but in particular he points it out in his September 22, 1935 entry where he writes about the Nuremberg Laws. Here, he asks, “Do you suppose the Nazis . . . been studying with some of those cracker [Theodore] Bilbo and [James K.] Vardaman and Ben Tilman and Hoke Smith?” Clifford lists off Southern politicians in the United States who supported Jim Crow in all of its forms, and he notes that that, as James Q. Whitman does in Hitler’s American Model, that the Nuremberg Laws have their genesis in Jim Crow laws.
The Black Horror on the Rhine took a page out of the Jim Crow South, the fear of Black men raping and defiling the purity of White women. When the New York World asked Bilbo, during his first term as Mississippi’s governor, how he was working to prevent lynchings, he told them “it is practically impossible without great loss of life, especially at the present time, to prevent lynching of Negro rapists when the crime is committed against the white women of the South.” He went on to say that the nation is “strictly a white man’s country, with a white man’s civilization, and any dream on the part of the Negro race to share social and political equality will be shattered in the end.” Bilbo, here, sounds just like Hitler in Mein Kampf in his use of rhetoric that positions Black men as a threat to White women and thus a threat to the United States as a whole.
In fact, as Ira Katznelson puts it in Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, Bilbo took a page from Hitler in his opposition to the Wagner-Van Nuys bill in 1938 which would make lynching a federal crime. Bilbo argued that “one drop of Negro blood place in the veins of the purest Caucasian destroys the inventive genius of his mind and strikes palsied his creative faculty.” The Nazis even found the “one-drop rule” too harsh. As Whitman points out, a Nazi textbook for teachers in 1934 said, “Sharp social race separation of white and black has shown itself to be necessary in the United States of American, even if it leads in certain cases to human hardness, as when a mongrel of predominantly white appearance is nevertheless reckoned among the n******.”
Clifford’s Blues doesn’t explicitly go into all of this, but all of this informs Clifford’s Blues. As I’ve written about extensively over the past couple of years, we need to know this history, the way it interconnects and informs what happened in the past. We need to know it because it is a memorial and a monument to those who do not have physical memorials and monuments. In the next post, I will look some more at Clifford’s Blues, specifically the ways that its formation, as a diary, serves as a commentary on the forgotten past that we need to recall.
What are your thoughts? As always, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.