Cover image for Clifford's blues
Clifford's blues
Williams, John A., 1925-2015.
First edition.
Publication Information:
Minneapolis : Coffee House Press ; Saint Paul, MN : Consortium Book Sales and Distribution, [1999]

Physical Description:
309 unnumbered pages ; 23 cm
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Africans and African Americans in the Holocaust.

Author Notes

John Alfred Williams (December 5, 1925- July 3, 2015) was an African-American author, journalist, and academic. Williams was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and, after naval service in World War II, graduated in 1950 from Syracuse University. His novels, which include The Angry Ones (1960) and The Man Who Cried I Am (1967) are mainly about the black experience in white America.

In 1970 Williams received the Syracuse University Centennial Medal for Outstanding Achievement, in 1983 his novel !Click Song won the American Book Award, and in 1998 his Safari West won the American Book Award too. On October 16, 2011, he received a Lifetime Achievement award from the American Book Awards. Williams's personal papers, including correspondence and photographs, are archived in the Special Collections Research Center at Syracuse University. He died on July 3, 2015.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

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. Clifford's journal is framed by letters dated 1986 that trace how the diary was passed along and eventually published. Embroiled in a sexual scandal with a wealthy American embassy attaché, the New Orleans-born Clifford is effectively stripped of his identity and accused of "immorality to the state." At Dachau, he encounters SS officer Dieter Lange, who once haunted the same jazz and gay clubs as Clifford, and now becomes his protector and lover, using him as a "calfactor" or houseboy, and gaining prominence among the other SS for throwing parties at which Clifford plays the piano. The diary is filled with harrowingly authentic details about the workings of the camp: the ranking among the prisoners by colored triangles, the bargaining for food and sex, the brutality of the guards and increasingly horrific conditions. While Clifford's own situation is relatively privileged , he often compares the treatment of the other prisoners he observes to slavery in America. Williams's ear for black dialect‘especially musical references‘is superb and his knowledge of jazz impressive. Where the early entries lag with the long overture toward war, the later ones increase in tension as Hitler's aggression unravels. Clifford emerges as a naïf, often willfully ignorant but never cruel; his 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. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One September 21, 1986 Hey Jayson,     It's me, Gerald Sanderson--Bounce--and this stuff is for you. Justine and I are practically just off the plane with it. We were in Europe this summer picking up our daughter who was doing her collegiate Year Abroad and ran into this old German guy in Flensburg near the Danish border. Strange story. We stopped not far from where we were going to stay that night so I could take a leak. The guy was there. I couldn't really understand him, but it seemed that during the war Black American soldiers hadn't killed him when they could have. He was grateful, but maybe they should have put him out of his misery. I mean the guy was a mess. He left the box at the desk for us.     Tank suggested we look you up and get this to you, since you're the only writer we know. (Says you owe him for throwing that block of his that let you score the only touchdown in your life in high school.) I know it's been a long time since we've seen each other, but I thought this was important enough to say hello with. What you have is a copy. We have the original, if you want to see it, but it's been written on every kind of paper you can imagine--tissue, glazed, schoolkid tablet, wrapping, end pages of books, in pencil, ink, crayon--man, it was a mess to copy. So if you even look at the original, it'll start falling apart again. It had been wrapped in one of those old smelly raincoats where the rubber's dried and cracked off.     You should have seen us coming through customs with this; they probably thought we had 200 pounds of dope. I told customs it was research (I finally did get my master's in history). They rummaged around, asked the boss, made phone calls, and so on. Man they make it tough for you get back home. The Germans, when I told them it was research on Black people in the camps, they were glad to let it go.     Jay, this is a diary written by a brother, a piano man name of Clifford Pepperidge. Played with Sam Wooding, which was way before both your time and mine. Clifford was in Dachau. Yeah, Dachau. We drove there and checked it out. Even now the space--it's the size of about ten stadiums; I mean it's huge, and if you include the fringe around it that is now filled with young trees, it becomes a third larger. It's a museum now. saw pictures of some other brothers, too. Couldn't tell if they were us or Africans. Now I wonder just how many other Black people we never heard a peep about were in those places. Dachau must have been a bitch. I can't imagine what all those other camps were like. The way I figure it is this: the old soldier giving this to us, our knowing you, is a spooky triple play. Old soldier to Bounce to Jay. Not an accident. Maybe a mysterious way.     You know the Benny Golson tune "I Remember Clifford," with lyrics by Jon Hendricks? I know it was for Clifford Brown who died in 1956, but when I play it now, I think of Clifford Pepperidge. It would be great if you could do something good with this. I'm not trying to lean on you, it just would be great. Justine sends greetings to you, your wife, kids and grandkids. I'm told you got a bunch of them. Any of them good ball players? My ball club is going to be weak for the next couple of seasons, and if I don't get some talent bopping into this school, I may have to teach history fulltime. Maybe it's time for that, anyway. Playing ball doesn't serve the same function it did when you were a kid or even when I was. It's all about money now, not teamwork or building confidence. In any case, I know this season my mind's more on Clifford than anything else and how maybe that bell that rang for him is starting to ring again. I know you know exactly what I mean. For the ball game, except that it isn't a game.     You should know that we've enjoyed reading your books, especially our daughter, Liz, who would love to meet you. All our best to you and yours. Give me a call when you've finished. No hurry; after all, it's been in the box for forty-one years already. * * * Sunday, May 28, 1933     My name's Clifford Pepperidge and I am in trouble. I'm an American Negro and I play piano, sometimes, and I'm a vocalist, too. I shouldn't be here, but they didn't pay any attention to me when they brought me. Didn't listen when I was in Berlin, either. I am in Protective Custody, they call it, but I'll be out as soon as they finish their investigation, they've said. I hope so. God, I hate this place. As soon as I do get out, I'm hauling ass back home. I don't care what it's like. They never did this to me in New York, and until I left Storyville, after they closed it down, I managed not to have anything to do with the John Laws. That's what back home was all about--playing music and keeping away from trouble because it was always looking for you. Damn. I'd even go back South to get out of here. Any place but here. It could be worse. I could be over in the camp. There's a sign on the front gate: Arbeit Macht Frei . Tues., June 7, 1933    I'm a calfactor, a houseboy, and I am stuck here in Dachau with no way to get out. Except that if I'm a good enough houseboy my luck may change. That I doubt since Malcolm, to save his ass, double-crossed me. That's got to be what happened. Met him after playing in the Schwarze Kater in the Friedrichstrasse. Then he showed up at the Kater and usually sent me drinks. We recognized each other. Well. Malcolm worked at the American embassy. We got to be quite good friends, as he would say. He had a marked fondness for me and I played to it. He had money, lots of it. Even a popular colored entertainer who'd played and sung with the great Sam Wooding didn't make the money Malcolm already had. Family's rich. We used to sit around on a Sunday morning in silk bathrobes drinking champagne, trying to figure out who it was we'd brought home with us from Kurfurstendamm, where everyone was good-looking, or from Nollendorfplatz, where everyone was not. It really didn't matter to Malcolm as long as I was there to join in the fun we always had, although the cocaine was really hard to come by with the Nazis running things.     Hitler became Chancellor, so they made it, the Brownshirts, and Finck's Katakombe, where the Shins used to loiter, has become a very popular place indeed. A-men and Z-men used it a lot. These are agents and squealers for the Nazis. You never knew when they would be at a party, until the next day when someone stopped by to tell you that Frankie or Teddy had been arrested with a Protective Custody warrant as a member of an unpopular category. It was getting awful around Berlin; it was getting quiet in the Kater. The spirit was gone from the Friedrichstrasse, the Kurfurstendamm, the Jagerstrasse, the Behrensstrasse; the Conferenciers didn't make jokes about the Nazis any more, and they introduced the performers on the bills with less flair and fancy than they used to. It was like the way it used to be once you stepped across the line from Storyville.     I wanted to get away. I was dreaming of snakes all the time, and anyone from New Orleans knows that when you dream of snakes, you've got enemies. But Malcolm didn't care. He didn't give a damn. Told me I had nothing to worry about because I was an American and he was an American diplomat. And fool that I was, I believed him. We were still in bed on that Sunday morning when they came and found us naked as the day we were born. That was April 23. Malcolm declared he had "diplomatic immunity." They carried me away while Malcolm was saying, "Don't worry. I'll have you out soon." He took my passport. I haven't heard anything from Malcolm since. It looks like I don't exist. They say the embassy claims it has no record of me. But I was somebody in Berlin. At least I thought I was. So I figure that Malcolm got rid of my passport and the record of my check-ins, and that means I had no contact with him. Of course the cops know different. They arrested me in his flat, but I suppose Malcolm fixed even that. If Almighty God walked into Hitler's office without signing in, then as far as the Germans are concerned, He did not walk in. Wednesday, July 5, 1933     The camp used to be a munitions factory, they tell me. Some of the buildings and sheds are still standing. There are nine barracks inside the wall and ten outside. The ones outside are fenced around with barbed wire and are guarded. Almost no trees; a few white birches, I think, and pines. Hot sun everywhere. No shade. They expect to keep 5,000 prisoners here.     Dachau is a labor camp. No one here knows anything. Nobody cares to know anything. Never thought I'd be so close to where I played a couple of dates--Munich, in Schwabing. If I'd had any sense, I would have got the hell out of Germany then, with the Nazis running all over. More obnoxious than in Berlin. Goddamn Bavarians.     I came in a van from Berlin. A long drive, and they let us out only once to piss. Threw bread and sausages in the back. Arrived here mid-morning. Seems like years ago, but it's not quite six weeks. The SA and the SS cursed us out of the van into the sun. Gangs of men in gray uniforms, some harnessed like horses to big rollers and carts, moved back and forth, raising dust; they groaned and grunted. Most of them had red triangles fastened to the right pants leg; others had green, and some of those fellas looked as tough as the robbers and dope fiends in east Berlin. A few wore pink triangles, and when I saw those and looked into the faces of the men wearing them, I knew what was going to happen to me. I couldn't work like that; I played the piano. I sang songs. Everywhere I looked in those few minutes before my group was called, I saw men working harder than anyone I ever saw working on a chain gang. I started to shake. I couldn't help myself. Another group was coming out. I tried to read hope in their expressions but there was none, not on a single face.     We started up five steps. I concentrated on them to keep from shaking so much. My legs were like rubber. The SS were shouting and pushing. I felt a shoulder lean into my own to lend support. The man had gray eyes and a big square face; his eyes were the saddest I'd ever looked into, sad, but not afraid. The crush of the group and that shoulder carried me up the steps and inside a room that had as many SA and SS men as there were prisoners. I wanted to holler "I'm an American! You've made a mistake! You have no right to hold me here!"     I didn't say anything, of course. I'd said all this in Berlin, said it in Tegel-Berlin. Didn't help. Not with these jokers. Every official eye found my face. I shook more. I couldn't stop. The mass of black uniforms and the swastika armbands simply scared the pure-dee shit out of me.     Then I saw him. I think he saw me first and willed me to find him. Dieter Lange it was, and he had more reason to be here, in a gray suit, than me. He'd been a big Raffke in Berlin, a hustler, pimp, profiteer, a regular MacHeath, but his 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, and those he saw were already being plucked by someone else. But I had Malcolm by then. Besides, I never went out with men like Dieter Lange.     The officer in charge called us to attention and then read from papers in his hands. All of us had been charged and convicted as dangers to the state, for hostility and immorality to the state, and would be held here in Protective Custody under Article 14 until further notice. We would be notified when we were considered to be rehabilitated and released. Achtung! The thing about Germans is, give them a uniform, give them a little power, and they think they're gods. Yet it was Germans, people like Bert Brecht and Paul Graetz and Joe Ringelnatz, who said I was an artist. I'd never been called that at home, only in Europe. I guess I was so swelled up by that that I didn't notice other artists going to jail, being fined, or leaving the country. Hitler said the new art was degenerate. Especially jazz music. Entartete Musik. But I was an American. How could they do this to me?     When the officer called attention, all the SS and SA in the room began shouting and cursing again, turning us, shoving us out of the door, down those five steps, into the hot sunlight. Then we were marched into a smaller building where we had to squat while soldiers sheared our heads. They laughed at my hair, threw it up in the air, examined it. They were so busy having fun that they didn't notice how much I continued to tremble. Once I saw the man with the sad gray eyes and the great square face. Without hair his head looked like a rock. The floor was inches thick with hair--black, brown, gray, blond, white, straight, curly. In another room, where it was impossibly crowded and everything smelled like vinegar and sweat and stale cigarettes, we filled out forms and listed our belongings and signed papers without having time to read them. In the next room, as we were given uniforms, someone said to the soldiers throwing them out, to give me one with a green triangle. It was Dieter Lange. The SS screamed, called us pigs, bastards, freaks, communists, crooks, pricks. We peeled off our clothes as best we could and shoved them into boxes and gave them to the guards who gave us the uniforms. Dieter Lange said green again. He gave the man in charge of this business a piece of paper and turned to me. He told me to come with him. The uniform smelled and did not fit, and the SA were kicking me. They told me to go with the captain.     There was a pause like there is just before your fingers come down on the keys, like just before you sing your first note, and it seemed that everyone in the room, prisoners and SA and SS alike, for just a second, looked at me, looked at Dieter Lange. Then I was out in the sun again, Dieter Lange, hands on his hips, looming in front of me. He said I had been detailed to him. He smiled and said, Kind Schokolade, said it softly. Told me not to worry.     Until I was arrested in Berlin and double-crossed by Malcolm, I was an independent person, or thought I was. I learned my music without benefit of formal teaching. Singing came natural to me; it was a way of saying something with tone and sometimes word that expressed more than just plain talking. Other, older musicians, sometimes when they were trying to conceal techniques or more often tricks, taught me without knowing they were. I could make my way, find a job, find a stoker, if one didn't find me first. I made mistakes. Malcolm was the biggest. Living in Europe, being considered a strange, exotic creature, gave me, I'm afraid, a sense of being important, and that made me stumble and fall into this snakepit. Maybe it was because of the people I knew and traveled with. Most of them were well-off and didn't seem to notice that I was a Negro. It seemed that way.     But walking behind Dieter Lange, the dust and the shouts merging somewhere near a point in my head that kept lifting toward a faint, I felt alone as I'd never felt before. That sense of independence--it must have come from what I thought was the kindness of people, or from people who wanted something from me, or from people who didn't give a damn about me, really--vanished. I was no longer trembling; I was crying. There was Dieter Lange, a captain in the SS. But I remembered, then, back in 1929, the year Paul Robeson heard us play in the Berlin Zoo Roof Garden, Dieter Lange came into the Troika with his swastika armband half sticking out of his pocket, trying to hide his membership in the Nazis. I never laugh at people. I have never been mean to anyone, so I didn't join in the laughter and the shoving and the teasing. But here he was, now, getting into a car and telling me to hurry because he wanted to fuck me good. I was crying, but I was listening, too.     When he saw me, Dieter Lange said, he'd got one of his friends to give me a uniform with a green instead of a pink triangle because it went hard for queers in Dachau. They were sometimes, if lucky, placed with the political prisoners, the Reds, cutting turf and draining the swamp or working in the quarry, which was worst of all. This way, I was his personal calfactor, his private servant. And he could hold grand parties with me playing and singing and this would get him in good with his superiors. He was the camp purchasing agent--a job with all sorts of possibilities, and he was soon to be in charge of purchasing for other camps that would be opening in a matter of months.     He thought all this was not bad for a better than average hustler. He'd joined the party in 1928 and was accepted into the SS in 1931, about the time he vanished from Berlin. He did it to be on the safe side, and it turned out to be the right move. Dieter Lange was very proud of himself.     (I have just found some extra paper, so now I can finish writing about my first day in Dachau.) The Nazis were growing in power, he said, and there was not a city, town, or hamlet in Germany, and quite possibly Europe, that would not feel that power, sooner or later. He said he would make some inquiries for me, see what he could do. I asked how long my sentence was. He said he didn't know. No one knew. He would have to be careful. It would be wise for me to make the best of a bad situation that could have been worse if not for him. If I were nice to him, he'd be nice to me. He'd always liked jazz music and my singing and playing. He would do his best to look after me. But if I became troublesome, he'd have me back in the camp in a prisoner barracks in a flash. As it was, I could work around his home and help him in the office canteen in the camp. These were good jobs. It had been prudent, Dieter Lange told me, for him to marry. Her name was Annaliese. She went to Munich often, he said, to shop and go to the theater, the things women do, for there wasn't much going on in the SS quarters and hardly anything in the town of Dachau. She was not demanding of his time or person. She was the daughter of a farmer and considered herself fortunate to have made such a good marriage. She would not be troublesome, for she knew nothing of life, having left the farm only a year ago when Dieter Lange met her in Munich at a rally. He was sure, he said, she had not even ever seen a real Negro. Friday, July 7, 1933     God, I've prayed all night. Did you hear me, God? How can this be happening to me? I know I didn't go to church. I know I lived like You weren't there, like I wouldn't have to pay my bill to You. Maybe You don't want to hear from me because of what I am. I didn't choose to be this way, Lord, You know I didn't. And anyway, aren't we all Your children? Isn't Your Kingdom of Heaven for all of us? Forgive me for what I am. If I could stop right now, I would, but it's not left just to me anymore, Lord. Would it please You if I killed myself? Isn't life Yours to give and Yours to take? Please, God, if You didn't hear me, just read this. Yes, I used to play music on Sunday so people could dance and have a good time, and I drank and took dope, but not for meanness; some money, yes, to live on or just to have fun some times, but not to be mean, Lord. You know I've been more afraid than mean. I've turned the other cheek a thousand times. I've not hurt anyone, because I can't. Doesn't Your word say "Blessed are the meek for they shall see God?" Lord Jesus God, Holiest of Spirits, help this poor Negro so far from home and in the deserts with Satan and the serpents. Don't forsake me, Lord. Hear me, O God! I'll do anything You want, anything, that I can do. Just give me a sign. Let me know You're listening or reading, Lord. Or, Lord, is this Your will, visiting trial and tribulation upon Your obedient servant? If it is, Lord, give me the strength to bear this heavy, heavy cross. Thy will be done, Almighty Lord, but why me? (Continues...) Copyright © 1998 John A. Williams. All rights reserved.