If there is an undiscovered aspect of the black experience, it will be found by John A. Williams, one of the founding members of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In his newest of twelve novels, Williams presents the fictionalized narrative of a black jazz musician imprisoned in Dachau who keeps himself alive by working as the band leader of a group of prisoners who play jazz at a nearby officers’ club. Clifford’s Blues penetrates a hidden portion of African American history, and the hidden reserves of the heart.
Told in journal form, this novel is the story of Clifford Pepperidge, a gay musician performing in Europe during the thirties. After he is caught in a compromising situation with a American diplomat, Clifford spends the duration of Hitler’s reign in Dachau. He escapes the worst horrors of the camp by working as the house servant to an SS officer.
The impetus to write Clifford’s Blues came in 1965 when the author saw a photo of two black prisoners in the Dachau museum. Over the years they recurred to him until, unable any longer to forget them, he began researching the history of black prisoners from the U.S., Europe, Africa, and Germany. Finding confirmation, he fictionalized his material, he says, “to both enlarge and personalize the events of that time.”
This novel explores the resilience of the human will, as well as the instincts and tools we draw on to survive persecution. On witnessing one day the execution of a friend, Clifford later writes: “I thought of Revelations: ‘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.
“Inspired by a little known fact about WWII, Williams (Captain Blackman) creates a chillingly lifelike account of the treatment of black people by the Nazis. In the parlance of the time, Williams’s protagonist refers to himself as a gay Negro; he’s a jazz pianist in 1930s Berlin who runs afoul of the ascendant Nazis and is imprisoned for 12 years in Dachau. “My name’s Clifford Pepperidge and I am in trouble,” the narrator announces on May 28, 1933, in the first page of his diary, which ends inconclusively on April 28, 1945, as the Americans liberate Dachau. . . . Williams’s ear for black dialect, especially musical references, is superb and his knowledge of jazz impressive. . . . [Clifford's] diary, though fictional, is an eloquent testimony to the largely unknown sufferings of blacks, not only African-Americans but “colored men” from all countries, who were incarcerated in WWII concentration camps.” —Publishers Weekly
The Black Arts Movement Series is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, The Medtronic Foundation, Laura Jane Musser Fund, and Star Tribune Foundation, in cooperation with the Givens Foundation for African American Literature.