[Marxism] Nelson Peery

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 26 12:08:41 MDT 2007

Washington Post, Sunday, August 26, 2007; BW02
The Fire This Time
A fellow traveler of a different color describes his turbulent times.

Reviewed by Jabari Asim

The Education of an American Revolutionary
By Nelson Peery
New Press. 242 pp. $24.95

As a teenager, Nelson Peery asked himself a question that perplexed and 
frustrated many African Americans who, like him, came of age during the 
Jim Crow era. "Why am I, who never harmed anyone," he wondered, 
"mistreated, segregated, assigned an unequal place in a country that 
promises equality?" In Black Fire (1995), the well-received first volume 
of his memoirs, Peery recalled wrestling with that agonizing riddle 
while growing up in the 1930s as a member of the only black family in 
Wabasha, Minn. He rode the rails while still in high school and fought 
in World War II, encountering enough vicious racism to develop the 
rudiments of a philosophy. "The decision about getting along in the 
white man's world had already been made," he wrote. "I wasn't going to 
get along. The problem was, how to resist."

He chronicles his experiments with resistance in Black Radical. As in 
his previous book, Peery consistently describes himself as a 
revolutionary, although he seldom proves the appropriateness of that 
dramatic and ambitious term. He comes across as bright, likable and 
earnest, but he flirts too frequently with self-aggrandizement. Black 
Radical, he tells us early on, is "also the story of my family, the 
freedom movement, and the experience of African Americans as a whole 
during the crucial postwar period from 1946 through 1966." That would be 
quite an accomplishment for such a slender book, and Peery must know as 
well as anyone that the postwar experience of African Americans couldn't 
be sufficiently told in a library full of books, let alone a single volume.

The black freedom movement was split, Peery explains, between W.E.B. Du 
Bois and Paul Robeson on one side and Walter White and Roy Wilkins on 
the other. He simplistically condemned the latter pair as inept 
"moderates" -- Peery's curious disdain for most of the black middle 
class seldom goes unexpressed -- and declares his belief that their 
approach would never work. While still in his teens, he had been "a 
communist with a small c," but in 1946 he applied for and received his 
membership card.

Soon, he was "on the track of becoming a Party organizer," he writes, 
but he provides few details of such organizing. He seems to have spent 
most of his time participating in various urban campaigns that dissolved 
in internal conflict or obeying orders that didn't make sense. Despite 
strong misgivings, he spent much of 1949 underground in Detroit as 
instructed, "hiding while the streets of America smoldered." After 
leaving his family without explanation, he reflected, "Maybe we 
[communists] just would have to hide and wait but God, that wasn't 

Peery never gets the world-changing uprising of which he dreams, but he 
does manage to evoke effectively the suspicion and hostility inflicted 
upon most blacks who tried to challenge their nation's systemic racism. 
He recalls that, "in 1951 America, if you spoke out for equal rights for 
the African American people, you were a Communist. If you murmured 
anything about women's equality, you were a Communist. If you spoke for 
peace (and were not wearing the cloth), you were a Communist. The 
intellectually independent African American was a Communist."

Ironically, intellectually independent African Americans weren't 
embraced by the communists either. Like Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright 
and others who explored the party's possibilities, Peery found that his 
white allies valued his presence far more than his thinking. In his 
view, even the progressive Left wasn't immune to the symptoms of white 
racism. "It was a relatively simple moral decision to say that lynching 
and discrimination is wrong and to join an organization to fight against 
it," he writes. "It was quite another thing to cleanse one's mind of the 
stereotypes, the race jokes, and the sewage of American social history 
that created the pervasive cobweb of white supremacy."

The party's decision to "drop the Negro question" led to Peery's 
expulsion, but he left determined to maintain his revolutionary stance. 
"I tried to create an organization of the good people who were leaving 
the Party, disgusted with its sudden and decisive swing to the right. I 
tried to set up study circles, but after a few meetings they fell apart. 
Without an organization one cannot organize. . . . Little by little I 
gave up."

Although Peery doesn't spare himself, he reserves his harshest judgment 
not for his shortsighted white comrades but for his black contemporaries 
who chose other forms of resistance, all of which he tends to dismiss 
with superficial generalizations. His defiantly ahistorical view of 
African American political activism, in which "both sides were chosen by 
the Man and the people were unable to actually choose their leadership," 
fails to account for the rise of organic leaders such as Martin Delany, 
Marcus Garvey, Ella Baker, Daisy Bates or Fannie Lou Hamer, to name just 

Peery is now in his 80s, but "old revolutionaries, like old soldiers, 
never die -- they fade away," he assures us in conclusion. "I am still 
staunchly resisting that process by teaching, lecturing, and writing," 
still working toward the establishment of a "peaceful, cooperative 
world." One admires Peery's longevity and dedication while wishing he'd 
provided more clarity and critical analysis regarding what his labors 
have taught him -- and, through this book, might have taught us. �

Jabari Asim, a former deputy editor of Book World, is editor-in-chief of 
the Crisis magazine.

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