It’s hard to put down this unusual biographical narrative by a Korean War veteran and POW who elected to settle in China after the war rather than return to the low horizons available to African-Americans in the pre-Civil Rights era South.
Twelve years later, after earning a degree at Beijing University, working for years as a translator for the government publishing enterprise, and developing sincere friendships with Chinese colleagues, Clarence Adams left China during the Cultural Revolution when intellectuals, teachers and writers were attacked by gangs of Chinese youths encouraged by Chairman Mao to make a “permanent revolution.”
He returned to the United States in 1966 and may as well have stepped barefoot into a minefield. In the U.S. some media outlets distorted his actions and played to the quick prejudices of the public confused by rapid social change and the numbing carnage of the Viet-Nam War. Adams and the twenty other American POWs who had elected not to return to the United States after the end of the Korean War had already been tried and condemned as traitors by the media and popular opinion, even though the treaty that ended the war included a clause permitting prisoners of war to choose any country for repatriation. Adams returns to this point throughout the book. He explains that by staying in China after release from the war prisoner camps, he was given the opportunity for education and professional experience that would not be open to him in the United States at that time.
Adams grew up in a clearly defined segregated South in a Memphis family used to dealing with the harsh economic and political realities of segregation and discrimination. He learned to hustle for extra tips at a hotel job by playing up to people’s need to feel important. Then came the call for soldiers to fight in Korea.
Though the segregated military was supposed to be a thing of the past by 1948, it took years for the entrenched military to change. Various encounters in the military underlined the defacto segregation in the North that led Malcolm X to this statement: “The Mason Dixon line begins at the Canadian border.”
The Chinese entered the Korean War, surprising US troops fed on Thanksgiving turkey and incomplete information from their US superiors. Adams observes a black regiment providing cover for white troops escaping enemy fire, leaving no cover for the African- American soldiers. This event distilled into Adams’ a life long protest: though blacks in America lived in a climate of distain, were denied equal opportunity and basic human rights, they were shipped off to fight America’s wars.
In An American Dream, Adams writes of harrowing scenes of capture by Chinese troops, the march on iced roads to prison Camp 5 near Pyuktong and the near-starvation of the captured Americans. His narrative includes acts of kindness by the Chinese captors, but Adams is politically aware and knows that getting out alive will require communicating with the army prison officials. During the march to their permanent prison Adams couldn’t keep up with the main column of prisoners. Weak POWs who lagged behind were being shot, so Adams bargained for his life, begging to be allowed to start out early on the march and continue slowly to the next night’s camp behind the main column. He lost toes on one foot; he didn’t sleep, but he made it to the camp. Though afraid he might be branded a collaborator, months later, Adams stepped forward when the Chinese asked for representatives from the prisoner ranks to work with them to improve camp conditions.
After the war, Adams and 20 other American POWs (three African-Americans including Adams) elected to settle in China, some, like Adams, were placed in university degree programs, others were given factory jobs. All, according to Adams just wanted a better life than what they knew would be waiting for them back in the US. Vilified by the press, the 21 American POWs had varying degrees of success in China. Adams explains his choice: “I might not have known what China was really like before going there, but I certainly knew what life was like for blacks in America, and especially in Memphis.” (P.64)
Adams married a Chinese woman, they had two children, and he finished university and worked as a translator for the Foreign Language Press. During the Vietnam War Adams spoke on Radio Hanoi appealing to black American soldiers to think about their position in the war, suggesting they should be fighting for their own civil rights back home. The broadcast to American soldiers in Vietnam was used as grounds for a summons to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which dropped the charges after questioning Adams for a week in camera.
After 12 years in China, Adams decided to return to his homeland. The Cultural Revolution had begun with unprovoked attacks on westerners, beatings and incarceration of educated people and intellectuals, not to mention, widespread destruction of art and cultural artifacts. When his employer told him to leave the Foreign Language Press and work in a distant factory, Adams knew his run of good relations with the Communist government was over.
By Clarence Adams
Edited by Della Adams and Lewis H. Carlson
University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA, 2007. 176 pages.