You could say there’s a certain symmetry to the fact William Melvin Kelley, the black “lost giant of American literature,” as The New Yorker called him earlier this year, was “rediscovered” by a white writer.
One question could be: “Was Kelley right about white people?” It depends on who is reading the book.
After all, Kelley’s first novel, “A Different Drummer,” published in 1962 when he was just 24, is told by a black man, about black people, through the eyes of white people.
It may seem an unfortunate premise considering that there are already plenty of published books written about what white folks think of black folks, and even more unpublished weighty opinions. Why on earth would a black man write about what white people think about black people?
In her New Yorker piece on the novelist, Pulitzer winner Kathryn Schulz describes how a moment of serendipity at a Chesapeake Bay junk store leads her on a quest to learn more about Kelley and his daring point of view in the novel.
She writes, “Kelley turned his considerable intellect and imagination to the question of what it is like to be white in this country, and what it is like, for all Americans, to live under the conditions of white supremacy — not just the dramatic cross-burning, neo-Nazi manifestations of it common to his time and our own but also the everyday forms endemic to our national culture.”
Although snippets of what Kelley’s life was really like are dotted throughout Schulz’s piece, as well as in the foreword of his book, one can only really imagine why he wrote about what he thought white people thought.
His personal history might be the place to start considering this. Kelley, part of the black bourgeoisie, grew up in an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx. His grandmother was at least part white, and a descendant of a Confederate general. He went to Harvard, even as the Little Rock Nine were fighting for their right to a basic education. One could argue that he didn’t have the “typical” black experience, but that would assume that there was a typical black experience. There isn’t.
One question could be: “Was Kelley right about white people?” It depends on who is reading the book. One can imagine black people reading the book and either nodding along in agreement or getting triggered by the language and thought processes. You can recognize the truth in well-meaning white folks reminding themselves to not say “the N word” in front of black people. It’s familiar to field glances and some curiosity as to what you’re doing even if you’re just running regular errands like waiting at a bus stop or buying groceries. It’s based in truth about how black people experience the world.
If you’re white, you might be evaluating it solely as a piece of literature—a snapshot in time that has nothing to do with you but can be read for didactic or entertainment purposes. The curiosity only comes in when something is easily recognizable. In Schulz’s case, it came in the form of the inscription from Langston Hughes on the inside of the book in the junk shop. Hughes was recognizable; Kelley was not. One can imagine that the main reason for looking up Kelley in the first place was because Hughes mentioned him—thus giving him a modicum of importance. “I gawped,” Schulz writes, “then I beckoned my partner over and we gawped together.”
Schulz praises “A Different Drummer” for clear writing that had a brilliant setup.
“Our culture has produced countless fantasies about what would have happened if the Civil War had ended differently—chiefly, if the Confederacy had won and slavery had endured,” she writes. “But we have a paucity of art that chooses to imagine a different outcome for the civil-rights movement, or alternate universes where African-Americans, from any era, wield not less power but more.”
For most, the very idea is unthinkable. Kelley’s story is based on the sheer shock that a black man attempted it in the first place. Schulz writes, “Appropriately, that seizure of power — the sudden refusal of African-Americans to continue living under conditions of subordination — flummoxes the white citizens of Sutton.” The surprise is less that it was done, but that they had dared to do it.
The story of Tucker Caliban, in an oblique way, is the story of many black Americans. He was the descendant of a slave, became a sharecropper, bought his own farm, and then unceremoniously destroyed it and set off to start a new life elsewhere. While rather linear, it’s what you’d expect of the so-called “black experience.” However, what is masterfully done is how Kelley manages, just like his white characters, to hold the black experience at an arm’s length and examine it like some curiosity.
The story begins with Tucker’s ancestor, known in the novel as “The African” a not-so-subtle nod to the fact that not only was he stolen from Africa, but he also became nameless. This is in part because his story before the slave ship was truncated and in part because his captors didn’t really give a damn.
“Appropriately, that seizure of power — the sudden refusal of African-Americans to continue living under conditions of subordination — flummoxes the white citizens of Sutton.”
Even the tale of the African was an unbelievably tall one. When someone’s strength or power is inconceivable, it becomes fair game for speculation and exaggeration. The African’s prowess was a point of awe for the white folks around him. The fact that they kept assigning blame to “the blood of the African” and doing the same for Tucker underscored the fact that they weren’t interested in understanding. (In an echo, the headline on The New Yorker piece refers to Kelley as a lost giant of American literature. Giants aren’t often lost; they’re just too big to get lost. The exaggeration could be that this level of mastery was inconceivable for the time.)
It was “the blood of the African” that made Tucker do something “crazy” like salting his land, shooting his animals, and burning down his house, according to the white characters. Dog whistles abound, as this description reduces black individuals into binary categories: trouble-causing versus non-trouble-causing, “crazy” versus “sane,” and valuing versus devaluing property.
Kelley was acutely aware of his blackness and how it may be perceived. It’s why he played out the fantasy of an outspoken Negro with Bennett Bradshaw (while Tucker remained the quiet, unrelenting force). With striking similarities to his own life, Bennett was not well-liked by the white people. He was well-educated, and understood plainly how money talked. The fact that white people got into the car with him was an indication that they were more curious about what he was about than anything else (again, the theme of awe and speculation rears its head). Alas, the glamour was short-lived as Bennett’s eloquent airs wore off and the white folks remembered why they didn’t like Negros very much.
The story lies not so much in how the white people reacted to Tucker, but how they reacted to Bennett. Tucker gave them no real cause for alarm, even while salting his fields. Bennett couldn’t be trusted because he had no track record of being acceptable for white people in Sutton. In fact, from the very first time he rolled into town, he made white people uncomfortable. Lynching was inevitable from the moment his shiny green car came into town.
Even though Schulz is referring to another of Kelley’s work when she writes this, the general theme still stands: “The whole journey is a merciless satire on themes of white fear guilt and hypocrisy, played out in the always charged language of miscegenation—only, this time, with the current of that charge reversed.”
In a way, both Kelley and Schulz were right. “Many white readers didn’t want a black writer telling them what they thought, especially when so much of it was withering, while many black readers, long starved for literary representation, didn’t want to read about more white characters,” she writes. “To make matters worse, very few people, white or black, wanted to subscribe to a vision of America that grew progressively more damning in the course of Kelley’s career.”