In 1946, after three and a half years spent fighting in the segregated US Army on the Pacific front of World War II, Nelson Peery returned to a home front marked by joblessness, mob violence, lynchings, police tyranny, and red-baiting hysteria. Discussing the homecoming of black veterans such as himself in his new memoir, Black Radical, he says, “We had become conscious defending other people’s freedom.”
Black Radical is the sequel to Peery’s first memoir, Black Fire, which takes us from Peery’s childhood during the Great Depression to the wartime experiences that lead to his expanding racial consciousness. Black Radical focuses on Peery’s time in the Communist Party, which he joins soon after his return to Minnesota. Shortly thereafter, Peery’s father, an American Legion stalwart, chooses patriotism over paternity and declares to the state legislature, “I have seen my seven sons swallowed in the bloody maw of Communism.” This “good Negro” pose is exactly what Peery has vowed to struggle against, although he is equally skeptical of black nationalism, embracing instead a Marxist analysis that sees the overarching system as the problem, not just white racists and their deluded allies.
Peery’s dedication to the Communist Party, which he likens to his commitment to his army division during the war, is sometimes stunning when juxtaposed to the organization’s systemic racism. And while he is forthright about his ethical struggles and political development, there is a staginess to much of the dialogue that transforms plot turns into vehicles for Peery’s soul-searching. But the book is also filled with anecdotes that lend emotional depth to Peery’s revolutionary rhetoric, such as when a white librarian hands him a copy of Karl Marx’s The German Ideology, though such a gesture could lead to her immediate dismissal. Or when Peery hosts legendary blues singer Leadbelly at his Minneapolis home and the singer ends up entertaining a crowd of 200 revelers that includes the visiting Dean of Canterbury.
Black Radical concludes in the LA neighborhood of Watts, where Peery attempts to do organizing work as relentless police harassment of poor black residents leads to the Watts uprising of 1965. Peery visits a supermarket where customers are piling their shopping carts high and then wheeling everything past smiling clerks. One woman tells Peery, “You can take whatever you want. They ain’t chargin’ today.” While the riots are eventually suppressed by 24,000 law enforcement thugs, this moment still illuminates the possibilities for the self-determination Peery invokes.
BLACK RADICAL: THE EDUCATION OF AN AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY
By Nelson Peery
Sept. 20, 7 p.m., free
City Lights Bookstore
261 Columbus, SF
(415) 362-8193, www.citylights.com