(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...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Andrews, William L., et al., eds. The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Brief biographies of four hundred African American writers, including Williams.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Emily Brooks Higginbotham, eds. African American Lives. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Brief entries on 611 African American authors over four centuries, including a good review piece on Williams.

Graham, Maryemma, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Provides social and intellectual context for 150 years of novel writing in North America, from the slave narrative to the postcolonial novel.

Harkins, Pamela, et al. African American Writers. Boston: Nextext/McDougal Littell, 2001. Brief, discursive survey of contemporary African American literature that includes insightful commentary on Williams’s achievement as a novelist.

Proctor, Robert. Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. Describes the interaction of culture, politics, and science that attempted to legitimize Nazi racial theories.

Williams, John A. “The Dubious Ecstasy of Exile.” In Defining Ourselves: Black Writers in the ’90’s, edited by Elizabeth Nunez and Brenda M. Greene. New York: P. Lang, 1999. Essay by the author of Clifford’s Blues, discussing the relationship between exile and African American writing of the 1990’s.