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William Melvin Kelley: A Different Drummer

Kelley could have made this a straightforward satire but then the book would not have had the impact it does. It is not the first or, indeed, the best book to look at the condition of African-Americans in the United States but it is certainly one of the most interesting and, undeservedly, has not received the recognition it deserves.

It is set in a fictional and unnamed state which clearly approximates to Mississippi. At the beginning an old white man tells the story of how all the African-Americans left the state, leaving it now the only state without any Negroes. Most of the rest of the novel is in the form of flashback, with different players (white and black) giving their account of what happened. It starts with the arrival in the state of a slave ship, with a huge, powerful African. No-one can control him and he escapes but Dewey Willson, the patriarch has already bought him and forbids anyone from shooting him and sets out to find him. He cannot. The African then appears at Willson’s house and frees his slaves. Eventually, after many slaves have been freed, the African is tricked by a former slave and is killed, leaving his son as Dewey Willson’s slave. It is the great-grandson of the son who will lead the exodus.

Tucker Caliban (his great-great grandfather was named for the Shakespeare character) works for Dewey Willson’s descendants, doing a lot of the heavy work in the house. When Bethra, a new servant is hired, he falls for her and eventually marries her. Shortly after his father dies, he persuades the current Mr. Willson to sell him a plot of land and farms it. Like many of his race, he hates the South (this is pre-desegregation) and one day, without warning, he pours salt on his land, kills his livestock, burns his house, takes his family and leaves. For no apparent reason, the other African-Americans in the state follow him. The whites have no explanation, though it is clear that the huge burden of institutionalised racism is the deciding factor and that Kelley’s novel is an indictment of Southern racism.

The story is simple but the different perspectives make it interesting. The Willson family is involved. David, Tucker’s employer, worked with Benjamin Bradshaw, an African-American whom he met at Harvard, to fight racism but when Willson is fired from his newspaper job for his views and joins the family firm, they lose touch. Bradshaw goes on to found a religion and appears at the end, apparently as mystified as the whites by the exodus. Despite the broad portraits of other spectators it is the somewhat mysterious and silent Tucker that is the key and, more particularly, his power over the others of his race, deliberately and cleverly never really explained by Kelley, merely shown as something that is right and inevitable. As a damning indictment of Southern racism, this book deserves a lot more attention.

Publishing history

First published 1962 by Doubleday