Clifford's Blues Summary
by John A. Williams

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Clifford's Blues Summary

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Clifford’s Blues is narrated through the fictionalized diary of an African American jazz pianist who survives more than a decade in the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau. The novel begins with a 1986 letter from Gerald Sanderson to Jayson Jones. Sanderson asks Jones to read Clifford Pepperidge’s diary and to determine whether it might be published. The bulk of the novel consists of the diary itself, and the book concludes with a return letter from Jones to Sanderson. Jones is impressed with the achievement of Clifford’s diary and is committed to seeking its publication. He realizes, however, that because stories of black people in Nazi concentration camps are little known, it is ironically unlikely that sufficient demand will exist for it to be published.

Clifford’s diary itself—supposedly written over the course of twelve years on tissue paper, glazed paper, children’s writing tablets, wrapping paper, and the end pages of books in pencil, ink, and crayon—creates a compelling fictional world. It expresses the perspective of an African American houseboy witnessing the rise and fall of the Dachau concentration camp. Pepperidge’s background as the piano player in Sam Wooding’s jazz band provides a context and a vocabulary for his narration. Familiar with the jazz clubs of western and northern Europe, Pepperidge makes the mistake of engaging in a homosexual dalliance in Berlin with Malcolm, a low-level American diplomat who double-crosses Pepperidge to get himself out of Nazi Germany. Pepperidge is sent to Dachau for “criminally indecent activities.”

Pepperidge’s first diary entry is dated May 28, 1933, only two months after the concentration camp was opened. It is fitting that Dachau is the setting for Pepperidge’s diary, since Dachau was the first concentration camp and served as a model for those that followed. Indeed, Schutzstaffel (SS) officer Dieter Lange, who only recently had been a pimp, hustler, and profiteer in Berlin, is often described as traveling during Pepperidge’s narrative, ostensibly setting up canteens at the new camps.

Lange is an opportunistic manipulator, and he recognizes Pepperidge from the gay and jazz clubs of Berlin. He procures for Pepperidge a green rather than a pink triangle, designating him as a habitual criminal rather than a homosexual. He then arranges for Pepperidge to become his calfactor (houseboy). As the Dachau complex is built and expanded, Pepperidge—who keeps the accounting books for his boss in the canteen—provides a unique perspective on the developing Nazi incarceration machine. As major historic events occur, including the opening of the Buchenwald concentration camp (1937), the invasion of Poland (1939), and the second major assassination attempt on Hitler (1944), there are resultant shudders in the supply and logistics systems of Dachau that trigger further indecencies, torture, and wanton, brutal deaths.

As it becomes clear in the last year of the war that the Nazi cause is doomed, food supplies become insufficient and wanton killings accelerate. At the same time, some mid-level officers begin to ingratiate themselves to prisoners in the apparent expectation of leniency or clemency in any war crimes trials that may take place after the liberation of the camp. The diary ends on April 28, 1945, with a...

(The entire section is 775 words.)