By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Art by Peter Bennett|
For almost 40 years, Williams has explored politics and history from the morally ambiguous space of personal relationships. He is best known for The Man Who Cried I Am, an ambitious political and historical novel that includes fictionalized treatments of Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Malcolm X and James Meredith. The book centers on Max Reddick, a journalist and World War II veteran who uncovers the "King Alfred" plot for the extermination of blacks in the United States. Williams draws a direct parallel between this plot and the Nazis' "final solution." In many ways, Clifford's Blues, with its theme of black genocide and African-American male emasculation, picks up where The Man Who Cried I Amleft off.
IN 1933, CLIFFORD PEPPERIDGE, BORN IN THE STORYVILLE section of New Orleans, is arrested in bed with a white American diplomat in Berlin. The diplomat returns to America, and Pepperidge is placed in the "protective custody" the Nazis reserved for Jews, American blacks and black Germans, gays, petty criminals, communists, Jehovah's Witnesses and Mennonites. Covering a period from May 28, 1933, to April 28, 1945, Pepperidge's diary entries catalog and narrate the world of prisoners and of their SS captors.
Among a crowd of arriving Dachau inmates, Pepperidge is recognized by Dieter Lange, an acquaintance from Berlin -- "a hustler, pimp, profiteer, a regular MacHeath [whose] lovers were all men. He was a chicken-plucker who'd always wanted to pluck a black chicken because they were so rare in Germany . . ." At Dachau, Lange, who is now married, has re-created himself as model SS man -- the supply officer for an ever-growing number of concentration camps. He arranges for Pepperidge to get a criminal's green triangle instead of the pink triangle for gays, who are treated almost as badly as Jews. This designation allows him to live and work as a "calfactor," a houseboy, for Lange and his wife, Anna, in their home just outside the camp's fence. He cleans, cooks (the Southern food that the Langes love), tends the flower garden with ashes from the crematoria, manages the camp canteen, plays the piano and sexually services a variety of Aryans, for whom his black-male presence becomes the ultimate fetish: "Play the piano, sing a little, give English lessons, turn a trick, and cook. Shit, The Cliff would be indispensable."
In often spare and matter-of-fact prose, Pepperidge's diary recounts sexual encounters with Lange, with a ranking SS officer, with a Jehovah's Witness prisoner, and, later, with Anna and her lover, Ursula, the wife of another SS officer. Lange skims from camp supplies and hoards food and money. Anna, the apparently dumb farmer's daughter, soon learns that Lange and Pepperidge are lovers, and begins a second affair with her husband's superior officer. She finally sleeps à trois with both Pepperidge and Lange. On a psychological level -- from the apex of Hitler's victories to the deterioration of the Nazi war machine -- it is unclear who is master and who is slave in the Lange home.
Through Pepperidge, Williams makes clear that Clifford's Blues, like the blues, is a secular tale existing in a brutal world beyond God and the glorification of martyrdom. Uncle Tom's Cabinis the first book Anna finds for Pepperidge to teach her English. The irony isn't lost on him: "Thank God we're close to the end of the book. We just read the part where Uncle Tom dies. Anna cried. I have heard that most Germans cry when they get to this section. I don't know why. 'Who -- who -- who shall separate us from the love of Christ?' says Tom, and right away, boo-hoo, boohoo, boohoo. Christ has given this damned place up."
With the mass sterilization and castration of black Germans by the Institute for Racial Hygiene and Population Biology (a campaign that got its start in German colonial Africa), and forced labor for German companies such as Messerschmidt and BMW, camp activities settle into numbing drudgery. The outrageous becomes commonplace: "Yesterday I walked from the garden near the north fence up toward the main building where, in the showers, Baum got his brains splattered on the concrete floor. It was a nice day."
News from the outside world, like the Joe Louis bouts against Max Schmeling and the Jesse Owens appearance in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, becomes an unwanted intrusion for the SS guards. They cut electricity to camp radios during Schmeling's loss to Louis in their second fight: "First there was Jesse Owens and now Louis. In the first round! In seconds! That superman shit of Hitler's was taking a whipping."