[Marxism] Nelson Peery
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
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
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. ï¿½
Jabari Asim, a former deputy editor of Book World, is editor-in-chief of
the Crisis magazine.
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