|Art by Peter Bennett|
IF CLIFFORD'S BLUES SIMPLY TOLD THE STORY OF A BLACK, gay jazz musician imprisoned in Dachau, it would be compelling enough. Telling the largely unknown history of black men in German concentration camps would be interesting enough. But in his 12th novel, John A. Williams simultaneously acknowledges and transcends the brutal reality of the camps. The Holocaust becomes a symbol of race relations, in which race, sex, sexuality, religion, commerce and popular culture are viewed within the context of white- supremacist yearnings and anxieties in Nazi Germany.
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 Am left 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 Cabin is 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.”
And though “Negro jazz” has been banned along with music by composers such as Bach, the SS officers arrange for Pepperidge to play at their parties and to lead a band. On Friday and Saturday nights at The Nest, a borderline brothel, young SS officers meet their future wives and begin producing the minimum four children for the war effort. For two nights a week, the band members — Jews, Gypsies and German communists — wear new tuxedos, eat and drink well, keenly aware of their absurd gig at the place they call “The Pussy Palace.” By the following spring, infants cry in an adjacent nursery; the prisoners are trucked back to the camp each night.
Initially, the diary, the music and the camaraderie help Pepperidge maintain his sanity. But as the years pass, even token gestures of kindness (“Sometimes I think Christmas was invented to help bad people do something good once a year”) are sobering reminders that hundreds are murdered daily. Music and the written word can go only so far to ameliorate unimaginable horror: “How efficient this gruesome assembly line is. The prisoners work in silence, exclaiming only if a tooth is difficult to pull or when fire snatches at the hair of a body before it is pushed farther into the oven . . . What is there for me to say in this place?”
Clifford's Blues exemplifies the African-American literary tradition; it signifies. It alternately reads like a slave narrative, a jazz autobiography, Beat poetry and Holocaust memoir. Like a survivor bearing witness or a churchgoer testifying, Pepperidge tells his story. When a black German commits suicide by running into the electrified fence, Pepperidge writes: “The guard kept shooting. I thought of Revelation: '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.'”
His narrative, by its very existence, opposes silence and amnesia in the face of oppression. Like the blues, the book suggests that freedom lies in creating stories out of pain and in preserving memory. Loving oneself, in spite of what has to be done for survival, becomes the ultimate key to freedom. Early on, the leader of the camp communists tells Pepperidge: “The thing to do . . . is to outlast them, no matter how, no matter how long . . .”
CLIFFORD'S BLUES | By JOHN A. WILLIAMS | Coffee House Press | 309 pages | $15 paperback