“The Black veteran returned from World War II a first class soldier,” Nelson Peery says, as he leans forward in his chair. “We were not about to be driven back into second class citizenship.” Peery is talking about “Black Radical: The Education of an American Revolutionary,” his memoir just released by The New Press. “It was a terrible time of indecision,” he writes. “I couldn’t ignore the brutality and violence just because it hadn’t hit me personally.” A soldier, Peery says, knows only one way to fight, and that requires organization. In the spring of 1946, Peery set out to find that organization within which he could “close with the enemy.” He “re-enlisted,” this time in the Communist Party, “the only integrated organization.”
Peery remained within the Communist Party until 1953. This seven years, active among the university communists in Minneapolis and the steelworkers and bricklayers of Cleveland, was when Peery first got the schooling in the book’s subtitle. Expelled from that organization, Peery in a sense graduated.
“Black Radical” traces his efforts from Cleveland back to Minneapolis, to New York and finally to Los Angeles to build a “serious” organization. From the pages of this book leap larger-than-life events—the night blues singer Leadbelly stayed with the Peery family and met the British Dean of Canterbury; the day the jukebox playing Billie Holliday singing “Strange Fruit” ignited a revolt of Cleveland workers; the frozen moment in Watts when Peery, holding his infant son, faced the barrel of a National Guard Captain’s weapon; and the stunning description of the night in New York’s Five Spot, when Peery met the woman he would marry.
Peery returns often to the experiences of 1953 and 1954, when the equal-rights struggle led by the black veterans was superseded by the civil-rights movement, led by the churches. This distinction reaches its climax in the last pages: the surprising story of the Watts uprising, from a street-level view. In the wake of Jena, Peery’s story forces the reader to consider again the lessons of that historic juncture. (Lew Rosenbaum)
Nelson Peery discusses his memoir November 29 at Barbara’s Bookstore, 1218 South Halsted, (312)416-2655, at 7:30pm. Bill Ayers also appears. Free.