Kelley, William Melvin 1937-
Kelley, William Melvin 1937-
William Melvin Kelley 1937-
American novelist and short story writer.
Kelley's fiction published between 1962 and 1970—spanning the most tumultuous years of the Civil Rights movement—displays the author's evolving perceptions of black and white racial issues in American society. His writing undergoes a noticeable transformation from his first novel, A Different Drummer (1962), which advocates nonviolent assimilation as a means of effecting social change, to his later works, which become increasingly experimental in structure and more vehemently critical of social injustice and more in line with the militant, separatist ideology of the Black Power movement. Critics have pointed out that this progression in Kelley's fiction parallels changes in the 1960s Civil Rights movement itself, and have viewed his four novels, along with his short story collection Dancers on the Shore (1964), collectively as a saga of contemporary African American experience.
Kelley was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1937, to William, an editor, and Narcissa Agatha Kelley. Kelley's parents, believing that integration was the answer to racial problems in America, were the only black family in a predominantly Italian neighborhood. Kelley attended a prestigious, mostly white school, the Fieldston School, where he led the student council and the track team. He entered Harvard University in 1957, intent on becoming a lawyer; two years later he abandoned those plans in favor of studying under novelist John Hawkes (at which time he began writing A Different Drummer) and poet Archibald MacLeish at Harvard. His first story, "Spring Planting," was published in 1959 in Accent, and the following year, he won Harvard University's Dana Reed Prize for the best piece of writing published in an undergraduate Harvard journal. During the 1960s Kelley published short stories and essays in such publications as Esquire, Negro Digest, the Saturday Evening Post, and Mademoiselle. He also received fellowships to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and to the New York Writers Conference. In 1962 he married Karen Isabella Gibson, a painter and designer, then spent a year in Rome before returning in 1965 to New York, where he served as a writer in residence at the State University of New York and taught at the New School for Social Research. By this time his zeal for the politics of integration and nonviolence had begun to wane, and his ideology began to shift toward a communal consciousness, toward a desire to emphasize the connection between African American experiences and the experiences of African diaspora people throughout the world. He spoke at political gatherings, challenging the lie of white supremacy and acquiring the labels of "radical" and "militant." In 1967 he traveled to France, where he wrote the novel dəm (1967) and lectured in American literature at the University of Paris. He then moved his family to the Caribbean. Each new view from abroad challenged him to create a means through which he could communicate with a black audience who could discern the unique language patterns he was formulating and understand his rejection of standard English. The result was Dunfords Travels Everywheres (1970), an experimental novel that was inspired by James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. After the publication of the novel, Kelley shifted his focus away from literary endeavors and toward the political expression of his ideas, aligning himself with the policies of the emerging black nationalists.
In his early works, Kelley emphasized the worth and intrinsic rights of humans as individuals, exposing the paradox between the individual's idea of himself and the person society says he should be. This contradiction is expressed most often in the form of black individuals who are unable to escape being defined by a society that images a monolithic black experience. In A Different Drummer, Kelley focuses on the invisibility of blacks in white society in a story about a mass exodus among blacks from a fictional Southern state. Told from the perspective of the town's white residents, the novel revolves around Tucker Caliban, a fifth-generation descendant of the legendary "African," a tribal chief who heroically escaped enslavement only to be murdered by a member of the prominent white slaveholding Willson family. As the novel opens during the mid-1950s, Tucker, a chauffeur for the Willson family, persuades the current head of the family to sell him acreage from the plantation where descendants of the "African" were enslaved. Tucker then systematically destroys the landscape—planting salt in the ground, slaughtering the livestock, and torching and burning the house. Killing all symbols of his family's enslavement, he provides a model for other blacks, who realize that to achieve freedom they must take action for themselves and not rely on distant leaders to save them.
Kelley's short story collection Dancers on the Shore examines the theme of identity, specifically how white American society affects the black individual. The stories illustrate Kelley's assertion that integration could never resolve America's racial problems, and present characters that are empowered by explorations of African American history that they are able to reclaim and, thus, rewrite. Kelley's further writings continue to express his rejection of assimilation, conveying his view that the more black people conform to white society, the more divorced they become from their African roots. This emphasis on African history and the necessity of racial pride is revealed in Kelley's second novel, A Drop of Patience (1965), about a black jazz musician whose physical blindness has been seen as symbolic of the blindness present in all black people who cannot visualize their own worth. In dəm, Kelley moved in the direction of thwarting white society's attempts to change the culture of black Americans, taking a distinctly radical approach in communicating the destructive influences of racism in America. In this satirical novel, an upper-middle-class white couple, through a rare fertilization process, become the parents of twin boys, one white and one black. The white father, in his attempts to track down the black father, finds himself in Harlem, where he becomes disoriented and alienated by his inability to understand the language of the inner-city population. According to critics, Kelley restructured American society in the novel, portraying whites as victims of the myth of their own superiority. In his most fantastic work, Dunfords Travels Everywheres, Kelley combined an experimental, collective language—a mixture of several forms of black speech, including Harlem argot and Pidgin English—to relate the internal exploration of Chig Dunford, a contemporary Harvard-educated black man. In his self-exploration, Dunford comes upon an aspect of himself embodied in a character named Carlyle Bedlow, a black street hustler from Harlem; these twin aspects of the same person converge along common bonds that are understood through their secret language. The novel marks Kelley's move from creating individual characters to creating composites that represent larger social groupings of African Americans.
Critical response to Kelley's individual books has been divided. He is often cited for maintaining a controlled and calculated distance from his subject, yet at times is criticized for writing too facilely, or from an overly ideological perspective. His experiments with style, along with his political convictions, have generated a substantial amount of scholarly discourse. Commentators have discussed his use of various narrative perspectives in A Different Drummer and his opting to portray Tucker Caliban solely through the eyes of the town's white residents. Claiming that this device underscores the fact that Tucker is invisible to members of the white community, who are only capable of seeing the stereotype of the black man, Trudier Harris-Lopez has argued that even though Tucker may have freed himself and his family, he cannot change the brutal racism of the American South of the 1950s. Eric J. Sundquist considers how the novel portrays the theme of a black Exodus from the South, linking this action with historical events from around the same time, including the extermination of the Jews by Nazis, and the growth during the 1950s and 1960s of the Nation of Islam and its vision of a separate nation for nonwhites. According to Sundquist, Kelley inverted this idea of a separate black nation within the United States, for in the novel the black population has not resettled somewhere else—it has been erased from the landscape entirely. Additional lines of critical analysis have revolved around the complex and experimental nature of Dunfords Travels Everywheres. Although many critics acknowledged the difficulties inherent in creating the novel, some felt the language to be an impediment to readers, finding it tedious and of little consequence. Other observers, including Marieme Sy, saw the ghetto street language as vital to the work—representing as it does the rejection of the language of the oppressor and therefore a primary means to freedom. Sy, proposing that the novel portrays a disappointing reality combined with a vision for a satisfying future, maintained that the author's aim was to produce "a universal story wherein the Collective Unconscious of black people would emerge into the Collective Unconscious of mankind while freely expressing itself."
A Different Drummer (novel) 1962
Dancers on the Shore (short stories) 1964
A Drop of Patience (novel) 1965
dəm (novel) 1967
Dunfords Travels Everywheres (novel) 1970
Marieme Sy (essay date June 1982)
SOURCE: Sy, Marieme. "Dream and Language in Dunfords Travels Everywheres." CLA Journal 25, no. 4 (June 1982): 458-67.
[In the essay that follows, Sy contends that the author's use of the technique of the dream and his creation of a "ghetto street language" in Dunfords Travels Everywheres contribute to his aim of "reveal[ing] the soul of black folks as it relates to the Soul of Mankind."]
William Melvin Kelley's fourth novel, Dunfords Travels Everywheres (1970) is an attempt to embody both a sense of reality that is frustrating and the vision of a fulfilling future in one acceptable aesthetic form. The result is a seemingly "hybrid" style which proceeds from the apparently curious blend of traditional and experimental prose on the one hand and conventional and newly developed language on the other. The surface structure of the novel follows the cyclic motion of history: an unending story which could begin anywhere in the book. The inner structure is shaped around the pattern of a waking dream or the process experienced by a person who envisions the future in his waking state: one level of consciousness pertains to environmental reality and the other to the world the dreamer "unconsciously" sees or yearns for. Such a dreamer is not undergoing the process of dream in its Freudian quality but, as Ira Progoff puts it, he is actually effectuating "a symbolic movement in waking life towards the possibilities of the future."1 Instead of limiting his vision to the narrow sphere of his own past or repressed experiences, the waking dreamer broadens his scope and reaches out for new and larger contexts of meaning.
This is the means by which Kelley chooses to render his view of the Afro-American experience, his response and answer to it. Inserted in the infernal cycle of history such experience loses its ethnic boundaries in time and space and integrates the human experience. The experimental prose and the concern for a personal language reveal this writer's interest in a black or African challenge to Western civilization. The technique of the dream enables Kelley to uncover that deeper level of the unconscious which the philosopher Jung calls the Collective Unconscious. As Ira Progoff explains, the Collective Unconscious in the Jungian sense is that area of the unconscious which contains all the patterns of symbolism proper to a man, not because he is an individual, but because he is human.2 Kelley's meanings, then, go beyond the personal level to attain mythical dimensions.
Dunfords Travels Everywheres is built around three story lines, and most critics have perceived this fact. However, many critics have failed to detect that the core of the novel lies in how and why the main protagonists of the two parallel stories finally meet to make up the third story in the ideal setting of "New Afriquerque." The point here is the coming together of the educated middle-class black (Chig Dunfords) and the Harlem-educated street-hustler (Carlyle Bedlow). Unable to perceive the multifaceted consequences of the gap between these two social figures and relate them to the failure of the black liberation struggle, Clifford Mason browbeats the novel and dismisses it as being the record of "unreal conflicts in meaningless worlds."3 Influenced by the literary establishment which confines all black writers to a "literary ghetto," other critics, such as Michael Wood, label the book a mere pastiche of Joyce's Finnegans Wake and blame Kelley for wanting to be "new at all costs."4 In trying so hard to categorize Dunfords Travels Everywheres, these critics miss altogether Kelley's purpose: the creation of a universal story wherein the Collective Unconscious of black people would emerge into the Collective Unconscious of mankind while freely expressing itself. The language used ceases to be the dream language of a particular individual or group of people; it becomes instead the dream language of mankind developed through understanding of the unconscious levels of meanings which underlie ghetto street language. These unconscious levels of meanings reach down to the basically African nature of the Afro-American personality and could only be uncovered through the African approach which Kelley calls "Africurekey," explicitly Africa, the key to the cure. In other words, the only place where the black man is to seek an answer to the black situation is inside himself, and the novel could be perceived as a guide in the journey to the inner souls of black folks.
The novel begins with the naturalistic account of a group of young Americans going to play softball in some fictitious European country. The atmosphere of a naturalistic novel is set from the very start as the interactions of these young people are quite reminiscent of Hemingway's little band in The Sun Also Rises. They seem to have no other purpose than to enjoy them- selves, and a prevailing sense of boredom with life seems to reveal shallow and uncommitted personalities. However, the surface reality is intermittently broken through by the hallucinatory experiences of the two main characters: Chig Dunfords, the Ivy League black; and Carlyle Bedlow, the Harlem con-man. The realistic stories of these two characters move back and forth in a dreamworld which, in the end, becomes "New Afriquerque," seen by the author as the final answer to the Black Cause as he calls it "the begending" ("the end of begging"). Kelley seems to suggest that it is high time that black people stopped waiting for solutions to their problems to be devised by others while trying hard to survive. As he Himself puts it, "The Black folks have always survived. But now, it's time for us to stop just surviving and try to be a little bit more conscious about the direction we want to take."5
The first move towards New Afriquerque is made by Chig when, in and angry bout, he spits out a street word and allows Kelley to enter his dreamworld in Chapter viii. This is the author's way of saying that culturally integrated persons such as Chig need to say no to borrowed culture if they are to perceive their own reality and be ready for the significant cure. Kelley seems to say that the first and most important step towards the great cure is the rejection of the essential instrument of cultural oppression: language. Using ghetto language is for Chig a sort of homecoming as it is the spontaneous, even unconscious, voicing of deeply felt emotions. As Professor Lehmann-Haupt correctly remarks, black dialect contains "more things buried in it than are dreamed of in white philology,"6 and rejecting learned patterns of speech and behavior means recognizing one's difference, which is a giant step in the process of self-discovery and meaningful change. Chapter viii thus begins: "Witches one way tspike Mr. Chiggle's langish, n currying him back tRealty, recomince wi hunmisereaducation."7 At this point begins the process of change Chig's name will undergo throughout the novel, in an attempt to find the most effective combination of the two names Chig and Carlyle, in order to symbolize their crucial encounter. Not until these two characters meet and unite their efforts to build New Afriquerque will they be able to awaken to a new way of being and understand what it takes to be free: annihilation of the disastrous effects of acculturation (the Blafringo Arumerican) and reconstruction (africurekey) of the original African self (the phistorystematical intrafrincanical structure). Chapter viii thus continues and becomes a kind of lecture meant to wake up the black man's consciousness to his situation and help him through the cure:
"Awick now? Goodd, a'god Moaning agen everybubbahs n babies among you, d'you Ladies in front who always come vear too, days ago, dhis Morning we wddeal, in dhis sagmint of Lecturian Angleash 161, w'all the daisiastrous effects, the foxnoxious bland of stimuli, the infortunelessnesses of circusdances which weak to worsen the phistorystematical intrafricanical firmly structure of our distinct coresins: The Blafringro-Arumericans."
The lecture goes on through Chapter ix to demonstrate how poisonous a gift Western civilization has been to the black man (the grieft of servilization). Several issues connected to the plight of black people and the racial situation are discussed in these passages. Chief among the myriad subthemes that make up the fabric of Kelley's dreamworld is an attempt to rid the black man of the racial hang-up displayed by his preference for the company of whites (Chig) and his infatuation with the "Muffitoy," a word for the white woman. The theme developed in Chapter ix continues through Chapter x, wherein the lecturer asks Mr. Chirlyle if he is free (satisfreed) of the damaging image (dimage) of the muffitoy (p. 61). If so, then he can move on to the next lesson, which aims at consolidating his awareness of the cultural disaster (helotionary sexperience) he himself personifies. At this point, the novel drifts back to reality through the realistic narration of Carlyle Bedlow's story. This procedure is Kelley's way of suggesting that neither Carlyle nor Chig is ready for their meaningful encounter on the path to New Afriquerque.
Carlyle's personality filters through the account of a few episodes of his life as a con-man. He seduces for pay the wife of a dentist to help him get a divorce from a nagging wife. He succeeds in convincing the lady willingly to provide her husband with grounds for a divorce and gets his money all the same from the dentist. He is also able to save his friend Hondo from a dangerous congame and gives proof of his unmatched abilities in such games. In the image of the conman—being, as Cynthia Smith remarks, "the oldest and most honored of the Black tradition—"8 Carlyle appears as a typical figure of the ghetto. He has about him everything that pertains to the black man born and raised in his own "milieu." He inhabits a black world, talks black talk, and is clever enough to be the winner in any daredevil congame. However, his assertiveness and aggressive manliness do not seem to help him much beyond the Harlem underworld, as Cynthia Smith correctly remarks.9 However, Cynthia Smith seems to be unaware of the fact that at this point, the novel moves back into Kelley's dreamworld, where the black press, The Daily Citizen (Dialy Citysun), now replaces the lecturer to give more examples of the damage of cultural assimilation. Changing his money into a belted camel's hair overcoat, nice shoes, and perfume reveal Carlyle's bourgeois philistinism, which in turn explains his failure to make his life meaningful. It is only after he remembers long forgotten Robena (the dentist's wife) and the place where he met her (Harlem) that Kelley deems him fit to start the quest for material (sauce matourial) meant to help his understanding of the relationship (tclose dgap) between his inner self (hid-self) and the black situation (hExperience, [p. 86]).
Carlyle then joins Chig under the sin of "Ivy Leaueritude," as Lehmann-Haupt puts it,10 and these two characters become a microcosm of present-day black society, where the middle-class intellectual, who often chooses exile, and the ghetto-educated black, who lives on a make-shift oasis at home, drift apart and engage in actions that are meaningless to the cause of black people. Chig's indolence and noncommitment perfectly match Carlyle's activism and his "Negritude" in their ineffectiveness. Kelley suggests that unless these two characters come together and rebuild the shattered self of the black man, life will maintain the infernal cyclic motion of a spiritually unbalanced world. The novel thus follows the patterns of reality, surging back and forth into the dream-world that is to come. But underlying this jigsaw movement is the slow and sure progression of Chig towards Harlem (or Carlyle), into the frenzied hallucination of a "bubbahling" dreamworld, and still deeper into New Afriquerque. Chig and Carlyle symbolically meet in the novel when each of them shows signs of an awareness of their inner beings and project the image of Man asking himself the vital question: Who and why am I? It is important that these two characters realize at the same time that they have in themselves something that lies deeper than just their surface selves, in Chig's case being attracted to white women and culture, and in Carlyle's being a conman who cruises the streets for a living and only cares for his good looks and the means to survive.
Chig's progress is significant, because it started with a resolute rejection of the polished surface of reality in the field of language. To Chig, who never "suffered a pronunciation problem" and who grew up to loathe the language of the street boy and love the white man's sophisticated manners, letting loose a dirty word is quite a meaningful move. Kelley is saying that language can be the vehicle of meanings that lie far beyond a man's consciousness and reach down to the deepest level of his spirit which no borrowed or imposed-upon language ever can express. This street language is therefore the way home: through the streets, into the ghetto, and then further into the Collective Unconscious or the human reality of the black man which Kelley uncovers through the "Universal language" he has developed in Dunfords Travels Everywheres.
Most critics find Kelley's experimental prose tedious, pointless, and, as Cynthia Smith says, "irrelevant to the ultimate message of the novel."11 The fault is less with Kelley than with those critics desperately looking for a referential system and fixed conventions to explain the mechanism the author has used to elaborate his "new language." They have utterly failed to perceive Kelley's new means of expression as a further elaboration of what black dialect actually is: a constant remodelling of conventional English to suit the mental, spiritual, and behavioral patterns of black people. Kelley himself remarks:
We are constantly improvising; that's how we survived. If we had been rigid and rock down in our beliefs and our ways of dealing with things, we would not have survived in America. We wouldn't have been able to adapt to the change that we had to undergo…. You put us in the ghetto, we adapt. You put us in a rat-infested ghetto, we tame the rats. We always survive.12
In other words, black dialect expresses an urge on the part of black people to hold back the monster of assimilation and preserve their integrity. Kelley is only suggesting that language is one of the basic tools of cultural oppression, and that throughout history the slave or the colonized has reshaped imposed language to match his inner soul and be comfortable with it.
Because Kelley's experimental prose is an attempt to reveal the soul of black folks as it relates to the Soul of Mankind, it becomes a record of the human experience. His technique is based upon his ability to transcend the one accepted meaning of a word, break through the conventional structures of the phrase, and experiment with the sounds and the spelling of words in order to create new patterns of rythmically harmonious speech. Kelley is actually trying to develop a universal language with an African flavor provided essentially by the rhythmic effects he knows tone languages possess. Pronunciation and grammar are no longer heeded, and the phonetic aspects of words are stressed instead. Words taken on the quality they have in Dogon expressionism, where the concrete thing no longer creates the word but is created by the word. It all goes back to the philosophical truth that nothing exists before the word, because all words come out of our profound being and correspond to deeper levels of the human spirit. Therefore, if the word projects in the physical world the inner landscape of the human soul, then it must express ideas and feelings that thwart its function of designating just one thing. It no longer results from conscious reasoning around that particular thing. Kelley comments that the word no longer stands for the thing created because it becomes a creation in its own right.13
Judged from an aesthetic point of view, Dunfords Travels Everywheres appears, then, as abstract painting in opposition to representational painting. Just as abstract painting reproduces the artist's inner self and appeals to the subconscious for meaning, so Kelley's new prose expresses his personal dream in such a way that anyone could find it expressive of his or her own dream. The trick lies in making the word embody more than its one assumed verbal meaning by experimenting with its visual and auditive effects through spelling. For instance, on page 57 we have the expression "grieft of servilization." If one reads this expression aloud, one basically gets the sonnet meaning of what Kelley is trying to say, more or less "the gift of civilization," which is a positive thing. However, in silent reading, when the mind's eye is more alert and the visual quality of the word is emphasized, the same expression takes on some negative overtones, such as "grief," "serve," "servile." So for the price of one, Kelley comes out with two or even more meanings, just as Joyce does when he means to say "Let us pray" and writes instead "Let us prey." The subconscious is called upon to make its own interpretation of words, and this is why all attempts to give Dunfords Travels Everywheres one fixed meaning or insert it in some Western literary tradition seem hazardous, if not presumptuous. Viewing the literary establishment as a Southern plantation during slavery, Ishmael Reed compares Kelley to the fugitive slave his master called "a cute rascal" because of his great ability to elude capture. "William Melvin Kelley," Reed writes, "is undoubtedly the fugitive slave of the literary plantation, determined to win his own aesthetic no matter how many claimants (Fitzgerald, West, Joyce) his master sends for him."14 Joyce's legacy to Kelley is less his vision of the world than the tools he used to convey such vision. Joyce was the first artist to have discovered that English does not sound the way it looks, and he played with the way it looks and the way it sounds; Kelley explains that when writing his fourth novel, Finnegans Wake presented itself as a tool chest that he could use for his own purpose. In other words, Joyce "opened up a horizon of writing. He made it so that one could use words in another way, that one could make up one's own words, rearrange them, break them apart, give them other meanings and have them do other things, make them dance in another way."15Dunfords Travels Everywheres is not therefore a mere reproduction of Joyce's Finnegans Wake. It is Kelley's clever personal and successful use, to his own end, of the things which have made Joyce the literary giant of our times: his versatile techniques.
Kelley's adroitness in using Joycean tools seems to be a source of great uneasiness to his critics. In a country where the literary establishment is built around a manichaeistic conception of the universe, black writers appear to be confined to a "literary ghetto" where they are compared to each other as second-class writers. Each new writer is traced back to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s for literary ancestry or is readily juxtaposed to some black contemporaries. If occasionally this natural tendency of the critics is thwarted somehow, the writer is simply overlooked for being guilty of irrelevancy to the black cause. Kelley strongly rejects this perception of the black writer as strictly a political tool, and trying to reach out for universality is his own way of contributing to the liberation struggle of black people. In the preface to Dancers on the Shore, he writes:
An American who happens to have brown skin faces this unique problem: solutions and answers to the Negro Problem are very often read into his work. At the instant they open his book, his readers begin to search fervently, and often with honest concern, for some key or answer to what is happening between Black and White people in America.
At this time, let me say for the record that I am not a sociologist or a politician or a spokesman. Such people try to give answers. A writer, I think, should ask questions. He should depict people, not symbols or ideas disguised as people.
I am an American Negro. I hope I am a writer, but perhaps the latter judgement is not mine to judge.16
This is a revolutionary statement in a nation where black stereotypes and racial prejudice have laid solid grounds for the myth of white supremacy and for the black writer's inaptitude to take the road to greatness. In being compared with Joyce in the field of literary skill, Kelley has spectacularly broken through the "literary ghetto"; in presenting the black experience in its full human dimensions, he has developed a most subtle way of denouncing segregationist institutions and the folly of racism. Through the way he understands and renders the plight of black people, Kelley has touched the heart of mankind and thus universalized his message.
2. Ibid., p. 180.
4. Michael Wood, "Dunfords Travels Everywheres: A Review," The New York Review of Books, 11 March 1971, p. 41.
5. Personal interview with William M. Kelley, 28 August 1980.
7. William M. Kelley, Dunfords Travels Everywheres (New York: Doubleday, 1970), p. 49. Hereafter cited in the text by page reference only.
8. Cynthia Smith, "New Departures in Prose," Freedomways, No. 2 (1971), p. 205.
9. Ibid., p. 206.
10. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, p. 15.
11. Cynthia Smith, p. 206.
12. Personal interview with William M. Kelley.
15. Personal interview with William M. Kelley.
16. William M. Kelley, Dancers on the Shore (New York: Doubleday, 1964).
Trudier Harris-Lopez (lecture date 1997)
SOURCE: Harris-Lopez, Trudier. "Salting the Land but Not the Imagination: William Melvin Kelley's A Different Drummer." In South of Tradition: Essays on African American Literature, pp. 149-59. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002.
[In this essay, originally presented as a lecture in 1997, Harris-Lopez focuses on the fact that in A Different Drummer Kelley's portrait of Tucker Caliban is based solely on the perspective of the town's white residents.]
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
Eric J. Sundquist (essay date winter 2000)
SOURCE: Sundquist, Eric J. "Promised Lands: A Different Drummer." TriQuarterly 107-108 (winter 2000): 268-84.
[In the essay that follows, Sundquist centers on the theme of a black Exodus in A Different Drummer.]
By 1967 William Melvin Kelley counted himself among those African American intellectuals who had turned the corner into radicalism. The splintering of the civil rights movement, the assassination of Malcolm X, and the rise of the Black Panthers had sparked increased denunciation of the integrationist goals identified with Martin Luther King, Jr. Color consciousness surmounted the ideal of color blindness, and Kelley joined those who argued that the philosophy of integration required an untenable contradiction. The black integrationist, wrote Kelley in an essay entitled "On Racism, Exploitation, and the White Liberal," concedes that "to the extent he is black, the black man is not a human being … because of his black skin, he can never be more than almost human." Proof that the liberalism of integrationists was doomed lay in the logic of Nazi Germany: "The German liberal, frustrated in his attempts to Germanize the Jew, saw the salvation of his dream of uniformity in Hitler's call for the extermination of the Jews. Only when there were no more Jews would everybody be truly German." We cannot risk discovering what white liberals will do, said Kelley, when they find out that their "dream of American uniformity" cannot be realized as long "as black people exist in America."
Kelley's invocation of the specter of genocide was hardly original in 1967, no more so than his turn to separatism, as a writer, or his ensuing expatriation to France. His reference to the delusion of Jewish assimilation in Nazi Germany, accompanied by the stereo-typical observation that the stance of American Jews toward American blacks was one of exploitation, put Kelley in the mainstream of Black Power. Had he chosen, Kelley might have written a novel like Bernard Malamud's The Tenants, whose lacerating portrait of the crisis between blacks and Jews, mediated by the rhetoric of the Holocaust, is rendered in the form of hyperbolic allegory. Few writers of the day surpassed Kelley's ability to layer realism with dense abstraction. But his later experimental novels—d əm (1967) is a piercing satire on racial mixing, Dunfords Travels Everywheres (1970) postmodern work inspired by Finnegans Wake—failed to win a significant audience, while his first and finest novel, A Different Drummer (1962), faded from view after brief acclaim. Although the angry separatism and appeal to Nazi Germany to which Kelley felt driven by 1967 are only latent in A Different Drummer, this distinctly African American narrative epitomized the uncertainties of black freedom in the early 1960s and forecast the increasing fragility of pluralism in postwar America.
If we style freedom first of all a revolution in consciousness, there is no more exhilarating variation on the Exodus than that incorporated into A Different Drummer, whose action is set in May of 1957 and therefore situated on the coming wave of the civil rights movement. Kelley's novel is a spectacular meditation on the trope of migration, the psychology of apartheid, the tenuousness of minority leadership, and the illusions of nationhood. Its premise—the evacuation of all African Americans from a region situated in the American South—is the utopian fulfillment of the black Exodus, an inversion of the proposal periodically advanced by the Communist Party, the Nation of Islam, and others that a separate black republic be created within the borders of the United States. Kelley imagines instead a super-migration and erasure of black life from an imaginary state situated between Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and the Gulf of Mexico produced when, all at once, the state's African Americans simply rise up and leave, stranding the white population in a mock enactment of the racial supremacy that has underlain their laws and social philosophy for nearly four centuries.
The migration that leaves the state without any black population is sparked by Tucker Caliban, a fifth-generation descendent of the story's original, unnamed African, a statuesque maroon whose legendary resistance to enslavement sets in motion the deep historical action of the book when he is hunted down and killed by his would-be owner, Dewitt Willson, at an unspecified date in the early nineteenth century. Suddenly one day in 1957, Tucker Caliban, who has not long before purchased from Willson's great-grandson the parcel of land on which his African ancestor was slain, abandons his apparent intention to farm the land. Tucker Caliban salts his fields, slaughters his animals, destroys his furniture, and burns his house to the ground before setting out with his wife and child on a journey apparently to the North. Within a matter of days, the entire African American population of the state, inspired by Tucker's strange act of prophecy and revolt, follows him in what one white observer calls a "strategic withdrawal," leaving the whites in a bizarre quandary: "It was like attempting to picture Nothing, something that no one had ever considered. None of them had a reference point on which to fix the concept of a Negro-less world."
Carrying to its ultimate conclusion the Hegelian thesis of the master's dependence upon his slave, the ironic bondage that Orlando Patterson has represented as a kind of inverted parasitism, Kelley creates a world in which the racialization of America—not just of the South—stands forth in striking clarity. Without blacks, what is left of white thought, white culture itself? The novel's rich play on the long African American tradition of anonymity and invisibility, from the legends of folklore to Bert Williams to James Weldon Johnson to Ralph Ellison, comes to rest in an illustration of James Baldwin's contention, in The Fire Next Time, that "the black man has functioned in the white man's world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations."
Tucker Caliban's revolt symbolically recapitulates the Exodus paradigm that has dominated African American history, whether in the form of escapes from slavery, periodic mass migrations, nationalist schemes for colonization in Africa or Central America, or voluntary expatriation, as in the case of intellectuals such as Richard Wright, Chester Himes, Baldwin, and later Kelley himself. But it also inadvertently fulfills the dream of radical racists that blacks be driven from the land altogether. The result for the white world is an abrupt negativity. The departure of blacks from the State is voluntary and falls short even of preliminary Nazi schemes to make Germany judenrein through mass deportation (to Madagascar or elsewhere) rather than mass extermination. Enmeshed in a deeper meditation on diaspora, Kelley's allusion to modern Jewish experience in the novel is no less important for being largely subliminal. By hypothesizing a complete rupture with the world of slavery and segregation while leaving blank the future of this new black diaspora, Kelley's totalizing migration creates a white South that is, so to speak, negrorein. In doing so at the very moment that America's confrontation with the Holocaust assumed a public dimension, Kelley threw the modern meaning of the Exodus into mesmerizing relief.
The compass of Kelley's vision is evident in the title of the opening chapter, "The State," which provides an almanac history of the anonymous territory from which the Exodus is enacted. In addition to the allusion to Thoreau's own private resistance to the "State"—evident first of all in his novel's title, drawn from a famous passage in Walden—Kelley's evocative phrase sums up the battle for African American equality. Not just the hypothetical southern state of the novel's primary action is encoded here but other tropes as well: the actual or virtual state of slavery from which African Americans had migrated in multiple reenactments of the journey to the Promised Land; the nation state from which black Americans, in varying degrees, had long been politically and culturally excluded; the jurisprudential conception of the state as an entity lying outside federal oversight, which had been at the heart of interpretations of the constitutional reach of the Fourteenth Amendment from Plessy v. Ferguson through Brown v. Board of Education; and the imagined territory of nationalist aspirations by which a subject people might hope to define itself—in the case of African America a diasporic geography coextensive with the history of slavery in the western empire summoned up so vividly by Kelley's naming, in Tucker Caliban, Shakespeare's The Tempest as his own master source.
Tucker Caliban has no announced philosophy, but A Different Drummer makes no secret of its appeal to Thoreau, in its title, its epigraph, and its dramatization of "a movement … started from within … at the grass roots." One of the most famous passages in Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government" (popularly known as "Civil Disobedience") is, of course, a prescription for the univocal rebellion of a Tucker Caliban: "If one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America." The uncertain utility of Tucker's act illustrates the double-edged meaning of Thoreau's example.
On the one hand, Thoreau became a celebrated (and well-marketed) catalyst to 1960s activism, in the civil rights movement and otherwise. King's inspiration by Thoreau became legendary—witness his reflection on his organization of the Montgomery bus boycott 1955, in which he expressed his conviction that the boycott was true to Thoreau's argument in "Civil Disobedience": "We were simply saying to the white community, ‘We can no longer lend our cooperation to an evil system.’" Or consider John Lewis's instructions to activists preparing for the historic 1960 Nashville sit-ins, where he concluded with the admonition: "Remember the teachings of Jesus, Gandhi, Thoreau, and Martin Luther King, Jr." Such modest but heroic resolve is captured well in Kelley's portrait of the common folk gathered at the bus depot to head into exile: "A few sang hymns and spirituals, but most stood quietly, inching forward, thoughtful, triumphant, knowing they couldn't be stopped." On the other hand, Thoreau's exhortations were abstract to the point of futility, a limitation brought home by one strain of Stanley Elkins's argument in his landmark book Slavery. Overshadowed by his infamous use of the Nazi concentration camp as an analogue to southern slaveholding, Elkins' chapter on the politics of antislavery was equally provocative. The Transcendentalists' focus on individual conscience and moral abstraction threatened to drain antislavery of its ethical meaning, said Elkins, leaving each man, like Thoreau, privately at war with a State whose very leniency protected his right to protest that the State had no authority over him whatsoever.
With the exception of Tucker's private war against the State and the Exodus it initiates, the novel depicts floundering and paralysis on both sides of the color line. The puerile philosophy of white segregationists, the stagnation of Left progressivism, and the entire range of activist black leadership associated with the NAACP, Marcus Garvey, Father Divine, the Nation of Islam, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—all are implicitly held up to suspicion in A Different Drummer. The "men on the porch," a white choric group called to witness the migration but otherwise inactive until their manic outburst in a hateful lynching at the end of the novel, follow the sophistic dictates of Mister Harper, a failed military man whose despair has reduced him to a self-willed paralytic life in "a wheel chair as old and awkward as a throne." (Harper is distinctly reminiscent of the homegrown fascist Percy Grimm in Faulkner's Light in August, of whom the author said that he had "created a Nazi" before Hitler did. He also points forward to Dr. Strangelove, the mad German émigré scientist, bound to his wheelchair, in Stanley Kubrick's famous 1964 film.) David Willson, the socialist renegade of the patriarchal family, sacrifices the ideals formed during the Depression through his friendship at Harvard with the West Indian black nationalist Bennett Bradshaw to weakness and tradition, becoming a self-loathing rent collector for the family's sharecropping properties. And Bradshaw himself, following a flirtation with a group called the National Society for Colored Affairs, from which he is purged because of his Communist leanings (much as Du Bois was driven away from the NAACP), becomes a well-heeled religious showman, founder in 1951 of the Resurrected Church of the Black Jesus Christ of America, Inc., which displays a familiar litany of anti-Semitic lore and styles its doctrine on a mix of "Mein Kampf, Das Kapital, and the Bible."
The subconsciously militarized atmosphere of the A Different Drummer illuminates the Exodus as a story about the power of a state over a subject people, particularly as it draws upon the escalating counterpoint between federal authority and the claim of states' rights in the battle over desegregation. In addition, the trope of "marching," borrowed from Thoreau and resonant throughout A Different Drummer, places the novel within a rich symbolic history. During and after World War II the equivocal militancy of "marching" was foregrounded in the long contemplated March on Washington (first envisioned in the early 1940s by A. Philip Randolph but not realized until King's historic event in 1963) and in renewed calls for blacks to abandon the Jim Crow South. The phenomenon, of course, had a long history, in the modern era dating to Robert Abbott's 1917 exhortation in the Chicago Defender that southern blacks must begin "The Flight Out of Egypt" (within two years some 65,000 had moved to Chicago). Until Brown v. Board of Education and the advent of the modern civil rights movement, the Promised Land remained the geographic North, a theme prevalent in black fiction and poetry, and exemplified in Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.'s book Marching Blacks (1945): "As soon as World War II is over millions of marching blacks of the southland must pack up and move. Freedom road is no longer an unmarked trail in the wilderness. It is a highway." Although the North is not yet Canaan, said Powell, the South is ruled by "Der Fuehrer, King Lynch," and those who have been "suckled with the milk of freedom" must turn their backs on the Egypt of the South and renew the "American Exodus."
Well beyond World War II the South appeared to many not simply as an alliance of states bound together by their resistance to federal authority, but, for that same reason, as a kind of "State" in its own right. Although black predictions of true genocide have usually been incredible, the power of the southern "State" to authorize and conceal racial violence in the era of Jim Crow is hardly in question. What Roy Wilkins, editor of Crisis, wrote in 1938 remained true through the era of A Different Drummer : "The South approaches more nearly than any other section of the United States the Nazi idea of government by a ‘master race’ without any interference from any democratic process." Kelley's insertion of Thoreau's pacifism—or, more accurately, his eccentric libertarianism—into this setting underscores the tensions growing unbearable as the non-violence of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference advanced on a collision course with the varying strands of black militancy represented in SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), the Nation of Islam, and the Black Panthers.
It is a reminder, moreover, that the militancy of civil rights heroes did not take the form of abandoning a fascist state. The historic marches of the civil rights movement—King's March on Washington, the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, among others—both recapitulated and redirected previous calls to enact a black Exodus from the South. In this respect, they were marches in which flight to a new homeland is superimposed upon reclamation of rights to a homeland—namely, the Constitutionally guaranteed rights of the United States. They were a kind of Exodus in place, one in which the homeland was here and now, if only the marchers, as southern activist Lillian Smith said in reflecting on the Freedom Rides just beginning in 1961, had the courage to "climb into the unknown."
By tracking the narrated lives of the modern-day Willson family and Bennett Bradshaw back to the radical politics of the 1930s, A Different Drummer alludes not just to the galvanizing effects of totalitarian orthodoxy upon black civil rights in the United States but more specifically to the Communist Party's ill-fated "49th State Movement," which envisioned that southern counties with a majority black population be banded together and converted into a southern Black Belt republic. Neither George Schuyler's ridicule of what he called the "Separate State Hokum" nor the Cold War entirely put to rest this "cartographic fantasy" of a black republic, as Eric Hobsbawn has labeled it. In April of 1968 the National Black Government Conference, a radical black caucus convened in Detroit and later featured in Esquire magazine, rejected emigration to Africa and promulgated instead plans for the "Republic of New Africa," a sovereign land modeled on Tanzania's purported cooperative economy and comprised of the five southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, which were to be purchased county by county, like Palestine, through "Malcolm X land certificates" worth $100 each, to a total of some $400 billion. If necessary to secure the new state, armed guerillas and nuclear weapons acquired from China would be deployed.
The bizarre unreality of such a scheme obscures the abiding power of separatist fantasies in the African American imagination. Such a temptation motivated Sutton Griggs's vision of a secret black republic in Texas in his 1899 novel, Imperium in Imperio, a book likewise preoccupied with the inability of the federal government to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment; and it led Communist Party member James Allen to speculate in The Negro Question in the United States (1936) that the creation of a "Negro Republic" would give southern blacks, as in the Soviet Union, "the right to choose freely between complete independence as a separate state and federation with a state or group of states." Inverting such a promise, Kelley forecast something beyond contemplation, locking utopia and dystopia into a kind of tautology. By writing without reference to a future land of milk and honey—that is, by initiating an Exodus but identifying no sought-for homeland—Kelley exaggerated the pain of the continuing black diaspora. Severed economically, psychologically, and culturally from a homeland, A Different Drummer suggests, African Americans are left in a condition of perpetual wandering. Conceivably, the novel is silent on the subject of the Promised Land because Kelley found or anticipated it to be a bankrupt illusion, a mere redesigning of the space of segregation in urban terms that had already been well imagined, for example, in works such as Richard Wright's Native Son or Ann Petry's The Street, and that Kelley himself had already portrayed in several short stories collected in Dancers on the Shore (1964), where the Promised Land for some of his novel's characters turns out to be the Black Belt of Chicago. Or it may be that he saw Tucker's act to fall within the tradition of western messianism whose signal feature, as Michael Walzer has written, "is the apparent endlessness of the Exodus march."
Begun while Kelley was a student in John Hawkes' writing class at Harvard, A Different Drummer was almost certainly inspired by an episode in Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles (1950) entitled "Way in the Middle of the Air." Set in 2003, Bradbury's story begins in the conversation among white men on a hardware store porch in the South—a tableau, just like Kelley's, that could refer to any time within the previous one hundred years—about the shocking exodus of all the "niggers," who have secretly saved their money and built rockets to take them to Mars. Like the episode's title, which echoes a black spiritual, the names ascribed to the rockets by a taunting white man—Elijah and the Chariot, The Big Wheel, and Over Jordan, among them—underscore the biblical meaning of this delivery to the Promised Land of Mars. (The story also echoes Elijah Muhammad's teaching that Mars was inhabited by a colored race and his enduring prophecy that the reign of a new black civilization would begin, after an apocalyptic destruction of white people, with the arrival of the celestial Mother Plane adumbrated biblically in Ezekiel's Wheel.) Paying one another's debts, maintaining an unfailing courtesy to the white folks, and abandoning their possessions in neat piles along the road, a vast "black tide" of the South's African Americans disappear "straight up into the blue heavens," leaving the white men to contemplate life without a cheap black labor force and the nightriding pleasure of the Ku Klux Klan: "The men on the porch sat down, looked at each other, looked at the yellow rope piled neat on the store shelves, glanced at the gun shells glinting shiny brass in their cartons, saw the silver pistols and long black metal shotguns hung high and quiet in the shadows. Somebody put a straw in his mouth. Somebody else drew a figure in the dust."
Comparable plots would later reappear in Douglas Turner Ward's 1965 stage farce A Day of Absence and then again in Derrick Bell's 1992 parable of black expulsion "Space Traders."1 Bradbury's prescient story set a high creative standard, though, by fusing black migration and civil rights militancy with the aftermath of the Holocaust—the complete removal of a people as though they had disappeared into the blue heavens. At the same time, "Way in the Middle of the Air" posits, even if it does not portray, a homeland—a planetary state that will presumably afford African Americans the rights denied them on earth, much as post-Holocaust Jews were afforded a homeland only with the founding of modern Israel.
Kelley's strange abridgment of Tucker Caliban's revolt registers this ambiguity in the historical moment. As America's Jews, blacks had long since adopted Exodus as their foundational narrative, and they were increasingly prone—whether in sympathy or in a twisted contest—to claim that slavery forged their kinship with those who had suffered the Holocaust. Yet the absence of their own Israel, a national state to which African Americans could make aliyah under a Law of Return granting them immediate citizenship and cultural identity, pinpointed the transforming power, not of the Holocaust alone, but particularly of the creation of a Jewish state. African nations to which American blacks had emigrated in the modern era, such as Liberia and Ghana, remained tenuous outposts, bearing no resemblance in their economic and military relations with the United States to the state of Israel. "Unlike Zionists who after 2,000 years of wandering in the wilderness have found their home," wrote Lenora Berson a few years later, "the Black Nationalists have only just begun their odyssey."
For African Americans, however, the "State" that mattered most was the United States. Brown's draining of power from states long accustomed to ruling by legal and customary codes of racism changed profoundly the meaning of both states rights and the power of the nationstate for African Americans, even though, as Kelley's dwelling on the white reaction to the new Exodus prompted by Tucker Caliban suggests, the state abandoned by black Americans was first of all a state of mind. ("Come out from under the mind of a slave," said Louis Farrakhan at the Million Man March in 1995, invoking the perennial themes of Exodus and black historical amnesia.) For Kelley, the new Exodus would throw off both the black state of servitude to a racial ethos and the white delusion of black faithfulness, the fantasized agreement to segregation that has so marked the history of supremacist thought.
Although Exodus logically implies the exchange of one state for another, A Different Drummer has nothing to say about the imagined future of its black characters. Appearing at a time when the consequences of the civil rights movement could not yet be envisioned—when no more than six percent of southern schools had been desegregated, when the Civil Rights Act was still in the future, when a peculiar extremist named Malcolm X, catapulted into the national consciousness by the 1959 television documentary The Hate that Hate Produced, still appeared more often on network news than Martin Luther King, Jr.—Kelley's novel was a startling but mystifying exercise of the teleological imagination. For all the historical depth of the novel, Kelley wrote paradoxically in a prophetic mode but without prophecy. At the end of the 1950s, the future for racial equality remained a blank. For whites and blacks alike, perhaps, thinking of a world without segregation was indeed "like attempting to picture Nothing."
The conflict between integration and nationalism that reverberates throughout the novel might be interpreted in light of Kelley's autobiographical representations of black identity. Kelley was a native of New York City, the son of a one-time editor of Harlem's Amsterdam News but also a young man of relative privilege, educated at the mostly white Fieldson School and later at Harvard University. David Bradley calls attention to the searching irony in the fact that, while the nine black students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock were being cursed and spat upon in the fall of 1957—A Different Drummer is set in the spring of 1957—Kelley matriculated at Harvard into a very different September world. In the words of Kelley's revealing 1963 Esquire essay, "The Ivy-League Negro," the world of Harvard Yard was one where "the leaves on the trees were dark green; the grass too was green and I remember thinking that it looked like the view in an Easter egg."
A bittersweet reflection on the combined, but asymmetrical, racial and class alienation likely to be experienced by a black student at Harvard in the late 1950s, "The Ivy League Negro" also affords a different but no less demanding calculation of the metaphors of state and nationhood at the center of A Different Drummer. Several elements of Kelley's schooling at Harvard, as desultory as Thoreau's own, are echoed in the novel. The autobiographical fate of the black intellectual described in Kelley's essay involves nowhere near so cruel a revelation of racism as the lynching of the West Indian nationalist Bennett Bradshaw that concludes A Different Drummer —though the Bradshaw character is vaguely modeled on one of Kelley's friends at Harvard—but the "state" from which Kelley the student finds himself excluded and to which he finds his identity sacrificed is no less a reincarnation of the authority of the master. Whereas his privilege and isolation within a very small world of black university students estrange Kelley from what he calls "Negro consciousness" and the race pride it might imply, his color leaves him stranded between Africa and America, between "a race he feels he has grown away from and a [white] class which will not fully accept him."
The essay's poignancy is less striking, however, than its meditation on the paradigm of African American alienation. Unlike other minorities in America, Kelley writes, "after six or more generations, the African ‘immigrant’ remains one." In composing his variation on the common African American theme of double consciousness made most famous by W. E. B. Du Bois, Kelley explicitly echoed Langston Hughes, who wrote in My America (1944): "This is my land, America. Naturally, I love it—it is home," but who lamented the fact that his fourth-generation American family had fewer rights than European immigrants right off the boat. Just so, Kelley anticipated the psychology of alienation diagnosed in Black Rage, an influential work of the late 1960s—and still selling today—which argued that African Americans, unlike other immigrant groups, have no culture of their own. Whereas the Jew appeals to religion and tradition, the "black man stands alone," wrote William Grier and Price Cobbs, "forbidden to be an African and never allowed to be an American." In this respect, Kelley's argument that "the Negro was so completely cut loose from Africa that next to nothing is left of it in his culture," sounds like nothing so much as the notorious contention of U. B. Phillips, a southern paternalist of the early century, that African Americans were "as completely broken from their tribal stems as if they had been brought from Mars." Even if one takes Kelley's statement as a rhetorical ploy, it remains a fair indication of his haunting construction of "Negro consciousness" in A Different Drummer.
By the time he embraced the separatist philosophy of Black Power, Kelley had set aside any remaining am- bivalence about the source of his alienation. In rejecting the politics and aesthetics of integration—in denouncing older black writers, except Richard Wright, for working too much in a Western rather than an African literary tradition—he also condemned his former self as "one of the most integrated people that the society has produced … I was one of the most messed up mentally, one of the most brainwashed. All the private school and Harvard education I've had is something I've had to get over." In the early 1960s, however, Kelley wrote against a backdrop of personal educational privilege very much in tune with E. Franklin Frazier's landmark work Black Bourgeoisie (1957). Frazier described middle-class blacks who, in their desire to forget the Negro past, had become "exaggerated Americans" inhabiting a world of intense ambivalence about emulation of whites, a world of make-believe and deep-seated inferiority that strands them between two worlds, "in the process of becoming NOBODY."
In a 1962 preface to his bestselling book, Frazier noted that his Jewish friends found his portrayal of black alienation within a "white" world to describe their experience as well. Unlike Jews, however, African Americans in the late 1950s were far from the point at which appeals to an African cultural past could shore up, much less embolden, a sense of transnational identity. Indeed, one of the most famous—later one of the most notorious—reflections on black America by a prominent American Jew, Norman Podhoretz's essay "My Negro Problem—And Ours" (1963), asked why blacks should wish for pluralistic survival as a distinct group, when, unlike the Jews, they were not bound by "a memory of past glory and a dream of imminent redemption." Rather, said Podhoretz in expressing the growing anxiety about black militancy among Jews sympathetic to the civil rights movement, the Negro's "past is a stigma, his color is a stigma, and his vision of the future is the hope of erasing the stigma by making color irrelevant, by making it disappear as a fact of consciousness."
Podhoretz to the contrary, the necessity not just of integration but of assimilation would soon become anathema to many African Americans. More to the point, the erasure of color and its historic stigma was, in the era of "The Ivy-League Negro," a greater challenge than the post-Holocaust dismantling of anti-Jewish quotas and legal covenants. A telling remark by Harvard president Lawrence Lowell in early 1920s remained relevant in Kelley's day: "Cambridge could make a Jew indistinguishable from an Anglo-Saxon; but not even Harvard could make a black man white." To be a Negro in such an America, concluded Kelley, is to spend "much time in painful contemplation on the meaning of difference," the meaning of the "negative" value assigned blackness by an unfathomable white world. To be a Negro is, in Kelley's allusion to the Liberty Paints episode in Invisible Man, "to be a man waking up in a hospital bed with amnesia," willing to accept any name "because it is better to have a name, even one which holds no meaning, than to have no name at all." No doubt A Different Drummer registers Kelley's own middle-class alienation from an "authentic" blackness, his immersion in the world of "exaggerated Americans" described by Frazier, but it also registers a new moment of consciousness among African Americans. Writing at a moment when some black nationalists argued for casting off the slave names of the past in favor of African names—or for canceling out the master's name altogether in a signature X—Kelley's portrayal of the consciousness of nationhood had to balance his rejection of the Muslims ("who have turned the American Nightmare of irrational prejudice on its head and made it a Faith") against his unnerving invocation of African American historical amnesia.
A Different Drummer records this struggle with cultural amnesia in its fragmentary recovery of an African past. The legend of the African maroon from whom Tucker Caliban is descended stands in counterpoint to the almanac's history of the state's most famous citizen, General Dewey Willson, son of Dewitt Willson and a Confederate hero—the archetypal southern patriarch. Yet the importance of the African as a heroic liberator, an alternative to white history, is hedged by his betrayal from within by a seeming compatriot ("I'm an American; I'm no savage," the slave traitor says), and his murder by a white man before he can prevent his infant son from being enslaved. Named First Caliban by Dewitt, a reader of Shakespeare, the black child raised by slavemasters in the New World breeds a race enslaved by law and custom until Tucker's singular revolution undoes Caliban's curse and reverses the design of slavery's empire.
Although Mister Harper, who renders the legend of the African, ascribes Tucker's revolt to the "blood" of the African acting in him, the novel understands blood not as biology but as a figure for the achievement of cultural consciousness. Tucker Caliban's act, though its practical outcome remains unimagined in the novel, is thus a true "revolution." To the extent possible, it turns full circle, through the amnesia of history, back to the moment at which the African family lost its own name and accepted the name of Caliban.
When he takes buys the land on which his African ancestor was slain, Tucker is also given the mystic white stone recovered from the site where the dying African had tried and failed to murder his infant son in order to prevent his enslavement—a stone held in trust by the Willsons, so it seems, as a symbol of mutual dependence and bondage, an enigma to be grappled with by generation after generation until such time as enslavement might end. But Tucker finds that property itself is not identity, that he has nonetheless "lost something." Or, as Bradshaw more accurately puts it: "I think he meant that he had been robbed of something but had never known it because he never even knew he owned what had been taken from him." As Bradshaw's convoluted proposition suggests, A Different Drummer places itself on the horizon of a future that is also a past.
Tucker Caliban's act of renunciation, like Thoreau's temporary migration to Walden Pond—and even more like Ike McCaslin's renunciation in Faulker's Mosaic saga, Go Down, Moses—places a premium on the relation between property and identity. Whereas Thoreau sought to describe a geography of the self in which complete sovereignty might be imagined (if never achieved), Tucker's renunciation maps, for African America, a comparable space of sovereignty in fittingly negative terms. By buying and then destroying and abandoning his property, Tucker declares that what has been taken from Africans can never be given back. Like "The Ivy-League Negro," the novel implicitly argues that consciousness of African identity among American blacks is predicated upon inventing a collective sense of African memory—an invention rendered at once intense and precarious by the fact that slavery forever differentiates African Americans from other immigrants. The dilemma of black Americans, notes Gerald Early, is that "they are bound by the prison of self-consciousness about the meaning of their once having been African, while realizing that they can never be African again."
Indeed, so far as the novel tells us, Tucker Caliban does not discard his name. His renunciation creates a blank domain of historical mourning, a space that may be provisionally filled by legend and memory but never be fully healed, no more than the life and possessions stripped away in centuries of enslavement and racism can be fully returned, or a rootedness in Africa entirely recovered. His purchase of the land brings an "end" to work for the white man, marking a rejection of the racist pastoral promulgated by the southern Agrarians and constituting a clear break with the sharecropping past; but it does not, as he discovers, permit him and his family to "free ourselves." Among the possessions that Tucker destroys is an antique grandfather clock taken off the slave ship along with the first African (and likewise belonging to Dewitt Willson) and eventually passed into the Caliban family as a reward for service. When Tucker chops up the clock with an ax, he annihilates both the time of bondage and the false recompense of property. He also provides a fitting figure for the paradox of the novel's creation of a pathway from amnesia to memory, its struggle to narrate the temporal plot of African American life in a way commensurate with a history of estrangement that cannot be undone either by Tucker's revolt or by Kelley's storytelling. Time—Nation Time, as Black Power would say—is not recovered in Kelley's novel but rather suspended. Egypt is no more, but Canaan is nowhere in sight.
Tucker's act points to a world without segregation, but the underside of this dream, the "Negro-less world" left behind in the white "state," is perfectly captured in the mirroring action that ends the novel, the lynching of Bradshaw. The original African is killed by Dewitt Willson because he cannot be possessed, will not become part of the white man's property, like his clock, and live in his time. Bradshaw, in contrast, is killed by the men on the porch as an outside agitator mistakenly thought responsible for the migration. But most of all he is killed as what the men perceive to be "our last nigger, ever. There won't be no more after this, and no more singing and dancing and laughing." Whereas the African had seen something akin to a look of masculine respect in the gaze of Dewitt Willson before he shot him, Bradshaw sees, as though in a short circuit to the historical present, paternalism degenerated into racist fury—a stare that is "completely blank, that very blankness a sign of the renunciation of alternatives, of tenderness or brutality, of pleasure or pain, of understanding or ignorance, of belief or disbelief, of compassion or intolerance, of reason or unswerving fanaticism; it was a gaze which signals the flicking off of the switch which controls the mechanism making a man a human being."
Incorporating the totality of victimage—as though the eliminationist philosophy of the Holocaust were contained in a single murdered Jew—Bradshaw at once depletes the reservoir of sacrificial victims and inaugurates an age of wrenching paternalist nostalgia. In this respect, Kelley's scenario is reminiscent of George Schuyler's Black No More (1931), where the disappearance of the nation's blacks through a skin-bleaching vogue leaves a southern community with "nothing left to stimulate them but the old time religion and … clandestine sex orgies," until a last pair of bleached Negroes is discovered whose mutilation and burning provides a final act of communal gratification. If Tucker Caliban's revolutionary act of exile reveals the metaphysical trauma of whiteness deprived of blackness, Bradshaw, as the white community's "last nigger, ever," reveals the brutal underpinnings of whiteness.
One could argue that these southern killers are "ordinary men," that lynch mobs, as Christopher Browning and more recently Daniel Jonah Goldhagen have argued of the Nazi Holocaust, were composed of common people wrenched by circumstance into a capacity, even a lust, for diabolical acts. Whatever A Different Drummer tells us about the continuum between casual racism and genocide in the white southern psyche, however, Kelley's rendering of black consciousness is all the more terrible and sobering because even its annihilation is contained within white consciousness. The men force Bradshaw to dance and sing a grotesque minstrel tune before hauling him off in his own limousine (his driver, like the original African's black compatriots, deserts him) to an undescribed ritual death, narratively rendered only by its distant screams, on Tucker Caliban's abandoned property. The young white boy in whose narrative consciousness the peculiar night sounds of the lynching are registered, leading him to imagine a festive party prompted by Tucker's return, closes the novel on a harrowing note.
Year by year as Kelley was writing, the African freedom movements sparked by war against European colonialism galvanized the civil rights movement in the United States. By 1961 more than a dozen former African colonies, beginning with Ghana in 1957, had achieved independence, yet even these historic events provided but a shaky foundation upon which to build a pan-African ideology of liberation, let alone a strategy of "repatriation."
Tucker's migration leads nowhere—yet. And his past tells no usable story, for it is not he, but others, led by a white demagogue, who narrate it. Black consciousness remains in eclipse, time is momentarily frozen on the brink of a revolution that cannot be enacted, and the white men's sacrifice of Bradshaw suggests that, once one people is accustomed to the elimination of another, migration and murder draw closer together.
Migration cannot be fully conceptualized in A Different Drummer, not because there are no models available—indeed, black American history is a history of such models—but because, in 1962, Kelley could not see where this new march toward freedom would lead. As actor Ossie Davis would remark in 1969, in a tribute honoring the prominent Zionist Avraham Schenker on his emigration to Israel: Just as "you have found and pinpointed in time and space your Jerusalem," we, too, seek our Jerusalem. "Think of the pathos of men who stand on the corner and dream of free Southern States that they want to call their own. Think of the sorrow and sadness of men who stand on a ladder in Harlem and preach of the desirability of returning to Africa some day because they will never find in this country what it is that will make them complete men." William Melvin Kelley the writer might retreat to Harvard Yard, if not to Walden Pond, but for William Melvin Kelley the African American, there was no Exodus.
1. In Ward's A Day of Absence, staged by a black cast in whiteface and costumed in red, white, and blue, the sudden exodus of the African American population leads to chaos in a southern community that "has always been glued together by the uninterrupted presence of its darkies." Economic paralysis is followed by near social disintegration when it is revealed that some prominent white citizens who have been passing are also missing—among them city council members, a college football star, and the chairlady of the Daughters of the Confederate Rebellion. The mayor's televised passionate appeal to the missing blacks to honor their "sacred" obligations to the Jim Crow South dissolves into a white riot; but the next morning all the blacks are back, as though they have never been gone and nothing has changed—except, presumably, the consciousness of the white townspeople. "Space Traders," published in Bell's Faces at the Bottom of the Well, is an allegory of exile set in the year 2000. An extraterrestrial power offers the United States gold to pay its government debts, chemicals to clean its toxic environment, and a safe nuclear energy source in exchange for removing all African Americans from the nation. Refusing to let the trade be the "final solution" for blacks in America, Jews organize in protest, promising to hide blacks away according to plans drawn up by the Anne Frank Committee; an unarticulated concern is that, in the absence of blacks, Jews will become the nation's principal scapegoats. Ultimately, a constitutional amendment allowing the trade passes with 70 percent of the vote. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, all African Americans are forced to leave: "Heads bowed, arms now linked by slender chains, black people left the New World as their forebears had arrived."
Campbell, Jane. "The Passage Back: William Melvin Kelley's A Different Drummer and Alex Haley's Roots." In Mythic Black Fiction: The Transformation of History, pp. 111-35. Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1986.
Posits several similarities between A Different Drummer and Roots: they both follow the form and style of a historical romance, they both make use of African oral and folk traditions, and they both portray how black American culture is rooted in its African heritage.
Galloway, David. "William Melvin Kelley: ‘The Poker Party’ (1961)." In The Black American Short Story in the 20th Century: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Peter Bruck, pp. 129-40. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: B. R. Grüner Publishing Co., 1977.
Following a brief overview of Kelley's life and publishing history, offers a laudatory assessment of the short story "The Poker Party."
Hogue, W. Lawrence. "Disrupting the White/Black Binary: William Melvin Kelley's A Different Drummer." CLA Journal 44, no. 1 (September 2000): 1-42.
Proposes that in A Different Drummer Kelley rejected the white/black binary that claims the supremacy of white Europeans over the denigrated and objectified "Other," and created a black individual "who becomes a liberator, who becomes a model of the ultimate autonomy of the individual regardless of race or other modern social organization."
Additional coverage of Kelley's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Black Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 77-80; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 27, 83; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 22; Contemporary Novelists, Eds. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 33; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; and Literature Resource Center.