Lately the inability of African Americans to have faith in the “American Dream” has been coming under fire from Michelle Obama’s proclaiming renewed faith in her country to a black singer replacing the lyrics of the “The Star Spangled Banner” with “Lift Every Voice and Sing” citing she sometimes feels like a foreigner in the USA. But no one could claim that more than Clarence Adams.
When Adams signed up for the Korean war back in the early 50s he was living in Memphis among whites-only water fountains and limited job opportunities. While stationed in the north he saw little difference.
“When I thought of my life as a young black man, I had great difficulty in seeing what democracy and freedom had done for me,” Adams writes in the new book “An American Dream: The Life of an African American Soldier and Pow Who Spent Twelve Years in Communist China.
While fighting in an all black artillery unit Adams was captured by the Chinese. After three years as a POW he refused repatriation once the war was over in 1953. He was among 21 POW who decided to stay in China after the Korean war.
“There was racism in the prison camps just as there had been in the Army. There were those whites who openly called us niggers and told us what they would do to us when they got us back in the States. I knew nothing about communism or any other ‘ism,’ but during many of my sleepless nights, I questioned why America was in Korea and what I was doing there. The more I thought about my life, the more I felt I had been used, cheated and betrayed.”
In China Adams was promised more than he could receive in the U.S: an education and a job. He went to a university to study Mandarin and Chinese literature. He married a Chinese woman named Liu Lin Fang; Fang majored in Russian and taught Russian at Wuhan Polytechnical University. During the Vietnam war Adams volunteered to tape radio broadcasts aimed at black soldiers.
“You are supposedly fighting for the freedom of the Vietnamese, but what kind of freedom do you have at home, sitting in the back of the bus, being barred from restaurants, stores and certain neighborhoods, and being denied the right to vote. … Go home and fight for equality in America.”
But as China moved into what is now called the Cultural Revolution Adams began to feel unsure of his place in Chinese society. Following his feelings of homesickness he decided to pack up his family and move back home to Memphis. Upon arrival in the U.S. he had to face the House of Un-American Activities where he was accused of disrupting the morale of the American troops.
His life in the U.S. wasn’t easy. He worked several menial jobs to help keep food on his family’s table and a roof over their heads. During these times he was also under surveillance by the FBI.
Eventally Adams and his wife opened up a Chinese restaurant that became known for it’s Chinese soul food. Through hard work the Adams family was able to move into American middle class life.
When Adams died in 1999 he left behind nine hours of audiotape, notes and an unfinished memoir. His daughter, Della and retired history professor Lewis H. Carlson completed the book for him.
“I wanted to call the book ‘The American Dream’ because it involves all of the American mythology of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and doing better than your mother and father. It’s just what he (Clarence) had inside of him. He was a tremendously strong individual,” Carlson said.
It was what Adams had inside of him. After a neglected childhood and what was shaping up to be a bereft young manhood Adams set out to recreate himself and carve a niche in the world.
“I was determined to be my own person and control my own destiny, and no one else was going to define who I was or tell me what I was supposed to do. When you think about it, isn’t this what America is supposed to be all about?”