Over the past few weeks, I’ve been teaching John A. Williams’ Clifford’s Blues and exploring the intricate interconnections between Jim Crow and the Holocaust. In a recent post, I wrote some about the Black Horror on the Rhine and Clifford’s Blues. Today, I want to continue some of that discussion, specifically by looking at Clifford’s June 27, 1938, diary entry which covers a few different events and topics that highlight the sinews reaching back and forth between the Jim Crow United States and Nazi Germany.

Clifford begins the entry by relating the lead up to the second match between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling which took place on June 22, 1938, in Yankee Stadium in New York. Clifford writes about the way that SS guards would mock and laugh at him throughout the week leading up to the fight because of their racism and their belief that Scheming, being white, would pummel Louis as he did in their first matchup. Along with the SS guards, those wearing Black (antisocial) and Green (criminal) triangles would join in the mocking, ignoring the fact that the Nazis holding Schmeling up as an Aryan superman, keep them imprisoned alongside Clifford. They would all pass Clifford and say, “Oh, Schmeling’s gonna kill that guy, Sunshine, you watch! That n*****’s gonna get his, Snowball. Schmeling’s of the master race!”

Clifford pinpoints how whiteness, even when someone is incarcerated, manifests itself because it trumps the physical situation that Clifford shares with the Black and Green triangles. Instead of connecting over their shared experience, the white prisoners that Clifford mentions connect with their captors, those who seek to dehumanize and punish them in the same way they continue to dehumanize Clifford. The loyalty to race over anything else manifests itself as well when the Clifford sits with Anna and Dieter to listen to the fight. During the introductions, they hear a large portion of the crowd in Yankee Stadium cheer vociferously for Schmeling, almost as much as they do for Louis.

The uproar causes Anna to ask Clifford why the American crowd would react that way especially given the current political climate. Clifford doesn’t answer Anna. He tells us, “I was ashamed to tell her that white Americans wanted Louis to get beat almost as much as the Germans did. I pretended I didn’t hear her.” Even though the fight was billed, essentially, as democracy versus fascism and the United Sates versus Nazism, a large portion of the populace wanted to see Louis lose and get his ass kicked, simply because he was a Black man fighting a white man.

Louis defeated Schmeling handedly, and when the Nazi radio station realizes what’s happening, they cut the feed. While Anna and Dieter sit there dumfounded, Clifford struggles to suppress his excitement because “[t]hat superman shit of Hitler’s was taking a whipping!” His excitement gets subdued though as he starts to think about the “colored men” in the camp and how they may be “catching hell from the other prisoners” because Louis defeated Schmeling. He writes, “But I know those jokers; they’re white and German first, prisoners second.” Their race supersedes their current position as prisoners.

A couple of days after the fight, Clifford runs into Dr. Nyassa, a Black man whose Tanganyikan father married a German woman. He wore a Black triangle, signaling he was “a Mischling.” Nyassa tells Clifford about the Black men that he has seen entering Dachau over the past few days and weeks. Nyassa tells him that these men “were Africans stranded in Germany, students, one or two boxers, adventureres. But the Germans called them Ballastexistensen — persons without value. With them were some of ‘The Rhineland Bastards,’ Der Rheinlandbastarde.”

Nyassa tells Clifford about the children mixed-race children born to German women and Senegalese or Vietnamese or other French Colonial soldiers in the Rhineland. He tells Clifford that the Nazis see the children as stains on the purity of the German people and in order to eliminate the chance of them reproducing, they must be sterilized. When a doctor pokes his head into the room, Clifford and Nyassa sit up at attention, and when the doctor leaves, Nyassa tells Clifford, “A lot of those people, grown and children a like, were taken to clinics. I’ve been away, to Frankfurt, to the clinic of Dr. Otmar von Verschuer. I’ve been sterilized.”

They should not exist, as Nyassa tells Clifford. He asks Clifford, “Whoever heard of a Neger Biologisch? . . . I can’t exist, but I do. The solution is simple: I must not exist.” The Nazis, just like whites in the Jim Crow South, do not see Clifford or Nyassa as human. They see them as nothing more than labor and disposable. When Nyassa gets up to leave. Clifford fears for Nyassa. He does not know what Nyassa will do, but he knows that something will happen. The two shake hands in the middle of the Lagerstrasse, and Nyassa walks away. At this moment, Clifford realizes that Nyassa is walking towards the fence, acting as if he is going to escape, so the guards will shoot and kill him. Nyassa walks towards the fence, the guards tell him to stop, but he continues. They shoot and Clifford sees him falling through the air.

Clifford ends the entry by quoting Jesus speaking to John in Revelation 1:17–19: “I was dead and now I am to live forever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and of the underworld. Now write down all that you see of present happenings and things that are still to come.” Clifford’s diary, like John’s revelation, is to bear witness to the atrocities of the Nazis and the Holocaust. It is to bear witness to the sins of whiteness and the pervasiveness of its tentacles. It is to bear witness to the intersections, across borders, of racism, xenophobia, and anti-semitism. It is, as the epigraph to the novel reads, “Dedicated to those without memorial or monument.” Clifford lays out the history we don’t learn. He reveals the truth hidden behind the facade of myths. He erects monuments and memorials to those who do not have such remembrances. He forces us to remember.

Clifford’s Blues is an important book. It is dense, and it causes us to confront the past and the ways that the past is not as simple as one side and another. It causes us to see the past and the present as multifaceted, where borders don’t exist and where ideas permeate the globe. There is, of course, much more to say. What are your thoughts? As always, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.

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