Black Fire: The Making of An American Revolutionary, by Nelson Peery, New Press, New York, NY, 1994, $11.95 paper.
“Rest well, beloved comrades, The fight will go on till we’ve won.” With those words, one closes the powerful memoir, “Black Fire: The Making of an American Revolutionary.” However, in many ways, this cry of resistance serves as the lifelong underlying call to arms for its author, Nelson Peery. His narrative distinguishes itself in that it chronicles the ideological awakening of a young African-American man who came to manhood as a soldier in World War II.
Peery recounts his story simply; yet, it also becomes the story of Black America as it struggles for survival and progress. As chronicled, Peery’s humble beginnings are as a young member of the only Black family in rural Wabasha, MN — a small hamlet outside of Minneapolis directly on the line of the transcontinental railroad. For African Americans, the railroad held a special significance as it was a primary deliverer to a promised land devoid of racism and harassment and flowing with freedom and opportunity. It is the railroad metaphor — large chassis lurching forward, huge engine churning, black smoke billowing and loud whistle blowing — which forms an apt metaphor for the exploration of Peery’s narrative.
“Black Fire” is a ground breaking contribution to the autobiographical literature of African Americans in that it originates in the rural Midwest, as opposed to the South or the urban North. Numerous Black communities existed in the West and Midwest, yet published, first-person accounts are rare. Nevertheless, Wabasha serves as his Grand Central Station; the nexus where his journey finds its genesis and where it subsequently returns. Unfortunately, like many autobiographies by African-American men, Peery spends much too little time at his home stop. For example, he mentions only one of his eight siblings by name, and his father seems to be an illusory figure, while his mother’s responses to his life events are clearly catalogued.
Nevertheless, Peery’s narrative style consistently draws you into his life and his early arrival into a somewhat naive racial consciousness. As a young African American in Wabasha, all of his peers were white, and a cautiously friendly spirit of cooperation existed between his family and the white residents of the town. After the Depression begins, the Peerys move to Minneapolis and young Peery develops a “street corner” peer group of young African-American men. Peery says that their “street corner” discussions served as cultural resistance, and he says that all aspects of theft and vandalism were direct responses to direct injustices. This section should be required reading for all young African-American men.
Despite this newly discovered peer group, Peery still managed to cultivate a series of other cross-racial relationships, especially among his teachers, who stimulated him creatively and urged him toward higher goals. Exceptionally poignant is a section describing his relationship with a young white woman named Heidi, his first true love. Peery’s recitation of his willing participation in the “ultimate taboo” is refreshingly devoid of self-fiagellistic and polemical nationalism.
Also exceptionally narrated is Peery’s experience as a railroad “hobo” in the West. Seeking employment after Heidi’s unexpected pregnancy, Peery shifts his childhood hobby into a journey of responsible necessity and affectionately describes the “boxcar lives” of the African-American men who lived and died upon the rails. Encountering tightly knit communities, Peery lifts the lid on these men who existed by wit, wile and scrap far from the urban environments of their peers. “The Lonesome Howl of a Freight Train” is a highly recommended chapter.
However, the engine churns, the smoke billows and the whistle blows. At the conclusion of high school, the United States becomes involved in its second global conflict and Peery heeds the call and enlists. Next stop, Fort Huachuca, AZ. It is here that Peery’s desire “to learn to fight” is fulfilled. However, Peery is at his best as he describes the irony of preparing to fight a foreign enemy when African Americans were still very engaged in their own domestic war for survival. Assigned to the segregated 93rd Infantry Division, Peery does not merely recite events but astutely reveals the thoughts and feelings of these young men as they experience this often dehumanizing rite of passage to manhood. For these young African-American soldiers, the conflicted irony of “enemies” has a clear solution and conclusion; the domestic war clearly subsumed the foreign one. The whole of their military training — drills, methodologies, maneuvers, etc. — were adapted for the domestic battle against white supremacy which threatened to crush them in the Arizona desert.
Throughout this section, Black soldiers are constantly battling the white soldiers and the racism of the surrounding towns. Daily they endured news flashes of lynchings, murders, tortures, riots and other brutalities visited upon Black neighborhoods. The Black soldiers shrewdly sought revenge via highly strategic skirmishes involving the white soldiers. Understandably, southern whites were fearful of these African-American men who were armed, fearless and maintained a “seething, impotent rage.” After a stint in Louisiana, the 93rd was shipped overseas into battle. The engine churns, the whistle blows.
In the South Pacific, the 93rd is dispatched to various islands for “cleanup” after the major battles with the Japanese have been won. Peery’s narrative again shines with brilliant psychological poignancy as he recounts the dilemma of the African-American soldier: how do you kill another person of color who is also a victim of colonialism, imperialism and racism? Again, digging beneath surface recitations, he offers his personal feelings as he kills an already wounded Japanese soldier. His subsequent musings as to causation, psychological projection and the origins of oppression truly bring to light the horrors of war. While African Americans are aware of the heroic exploits of the Tuskegee airmen and the “liberators” of the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps, we are rarely moved by the internal processing of a young soldier who must kill for a country that would rather be rid of him. Peery accomplishes this beautifully.
His stint on the South Pacific islands produces another awakening, but this time it is one of political and social consciousness. In the Philippines, Peery makes contact with the leadership of the residue of a political resistance front which found its genesis in communism. As a young boy, Peery was exposed to communism–through his writing teacher, his uncle, and, subsequently, through other acquaintances. Yet, it is only during his final moments in the Pacific that he verbally converts to this ideology and commits to its tenets. It is this conversion which forms the weakest part of the book’s journey. The “revolutionary” of the title refers to the amalgamation of his racial-social ideologies with that of his political ideology. The sincerity of his conversion, however, is obfuscated by his love affair with a young Chinese-Filipino revolutionary named Carmen, and the autobiography ends before we can grasp the feasibility of his conversion and its applicability to the United States.
Overall, “Black Fire” is a journey which illuminates the dilemmas of placement and agency; it is the existential discernment of a young African-American man as he discovers his role in societal transformation. In this post-Cold War era, “Black Fire” provides a glimpse of a historical journey which serves to enlighten our present and illuminate our future. However, its abrupt ending leaves us in the lurch; we are suspended somewhere upon the railway in the middle of a huge plain waiting for the journey to continue and anticipating the destination. We are left to hope that Peery will continue the journey in a second volume which will explore the vicious territory opened up by the twin evils of McCarthyism and racism. Both Richard Wright and Paul Robeson have presented stories of their entanglements with American communism and, hopefully soon, we will add Nelson Peery to the list. The engine will churn, the chassis will lurch, the smoke will billow and the whistle will blow again.
Kelly Lee Riley is a graduate student in ethnic studies at the University of California-Berkeley.
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