In his theorising of collective memory, Maurice Halbwachs writes 'it is in society that people normally acquire their memories. It is also in society that people recall, recognise and localise their memories'. The Holocaust, like the Rwandan genocide, or the atrocities committed in the Congo under King Leopold II, exceeds the bounds of traditional historical archives and methodologies. Even gathering information about numbers dead has proven difficult.
As Halbwachs demonstrates, our understanding of the scope of the atrocities of the Holocaust is informed by cultural documents, such as Primo Levi's Auschwitz Report. Levi's book narrativises the intergenerational exchange of personal, collective, and cultural trauma, prompting a dialogic engagement with the war. Articles such as the Auschwitz Report have laid the groundwork for events such as Holocaust Memorial Day.
The following extract is from the introduction to the Auschwitz Report and written with Leonardo De Benedetti, an Italian Jew interred with Levi at Aushwitz. To quote De Benedetti, the extract demonstrates how 'every story of survival in Auschwitz is a story of extraordinary circumstance', by revealing the minutiae of how the camps functioned, Levi and De Benedetti provide empiricist detail that legitimates the narrative accounts of Holocaust survivors to chilling effect.
We are black, it is true, but tell us, gentlemen, you who are so judicious, what is the law that says that the black man must belong to and be the property of the white man? ... Yes, gentleman, we are free like you, and it is only by your avarice and our ignorance that anyone is still held in slavery up to this day, and we can neither see nor find the right that you pretend to have over us ... We are your equals then, by natural right, and if nature pleases itself to diversify colours within the human race, it is not a crime to be born black nor an advantage to be white.
This excerpt is from a letter written in July 1792 by the leaders of the revolution of Haitian slaves. The letter has been republished in the collection of writings of the black leader Toussaint L'Overture, The Haitian Revolution, which includes also the correspondence between him and Napoleon Bonaparte. In the late eighteenth century, Toussaint L'Overture and his supporters established the first black republic in the world.
In the United Kingdom, October is Black History Month. The celebration was originally introduced in 1926 on the initiative of Carter G. Woodson, the editor of the Journal of Negro History. In 2007, no fewer than 6,000 events were held in the UK as part of its programme. Here are some key Verso titles past and present that are relevant to the study and celebration of African and Caribbean history.