A re­dis­cov­ered clas­sic of reimag­ined black his­tory

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - SARAH GILMARTIN

A DIF­FER­ENT DRUM­MER WIL­LIAM MELVIN KEL­LEY River­run, 336pp, £8.99

What would have hap­pened if black Amer­i­cans re­fused to ac­cept a sub­or­di­nated life in the South in the 1950s? This is the premise of Wil­liam Melvin Kel­ley’s su­perb de­but novel, first pub­lished in 1962. The New Yorker wrote the book aged 24 at the height of the civil rights move­ment in the US but chose to con­sider the strug­gle in an­other way, imag­in­ing a dif­fer­ent path to equal­ity for his fel­low African-Amer­i­cans.

Like John Wil­liams’s Stoner or Lu­cia Ber­lin’s A Man­ual for Clean­ing Women,A Dif­fer­ent Drum­mer is be­ing pub­lished as a re­dis­cov­ered clas­sic, whose re­turn into print is a fas­ci­nat­ing yarn in its own right.

The Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Kathryn Schulz hap­pened upon the novel after fol­low­ing road signs with ar­rows off the high­way to a jum­ble sale near Ch­e­sa­peake Bay. In an ex­cel­lent piece for the New Yorker ear­lier this year, she re­lates the find: “I went to browse, and spot­ted, first thing, a slen­der vol­ume that was shelved the wrong way round – bind­ing in, pages out. I pulled it down, turned it over and found my­self hold­ing a beau­ti­ful cloth­bound first edi­tion of Langston Hughes’s Ask Your Mama.” I flipped it open and there on the fron­tispiece it said: In­scribed es­pe­cially for Wil­liam Kel­ley – on your first visit to my house – wel­come!”

Thrilled with her lit­er­ary trea­sure, Schultz goes on to “fol­low more ar­rows” and hunts down a copy of Kel­ley’s de­but. It proves an­other great find, and a win for to­day’s read­ers across the world, who can delve into an imag­i­na­tive, bril­liantly ob­served world of the 20th-cen­tury Deep South in tur­moil.

The ti­tle of the novel comes from a quote from Henry David Thoreau: “If a man does not keep pace with his com­pan­ions, per­haps it is be­cause he hears a dif­fer­ent drum­mer. Let him step to the mu­sic which he hears, how­ever mea­sured or far away.” The tit­u­lar drum­mer is the book’s hero, Tucker Cal­iban, a young African-Amer­i­can man who in 1957 has just bought his first farm from the white landown­ing Will­sons. That the Will­sons have pre­vi­ously owned gen­er­a­tions of the Cal­iban fam­ily makes the sale all the more mean­ing­ful, as does the ex­act plot of land Tucker chooses: “It had once been the south­west bound­ary of the Will­son Plan­ta­tion, on which his great-grand­fa­ther and grand­fa­ther had been slaves and then work­ers. And it was told how the Gen­eral had rid­den out to this spot each day to watch the sun go down.”

This is no or­di­nary gen­eral but Con­fed­er­ate Gen­eral Dewey Will­son, born in the fic­tional town of Sut­ton in 1825, a man who rep­re­sents the bru­tal war waged by some south­ern states to keep the in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery. After a brave and fierce slave, known myth­i­cally as The African, es­capes at an auc­tion, the Gen­eral tracks him down and kills him. One of Kel­ley’s in­ge­nious lit­er­ary choices is to ren­der Will­son coura­geous and eth­i­cal in his own priv­i­leged white way, a man who re­grets the ne­far­i­ous means by which he tracked the African and who saves the man’s in­fant son from be­ing blud­geoned to death by his fa­ther with a rock with his last breath. This baby is chris­tened Cal­iban by Will­son, with a fit­ting nod to Shake­speare’s colonists and their claims, be­gin­ning a bond be­tween both fam­i­lies that blurs the lines be­tween slav­ery, kin­ship and love over the next cen­tury.

Bro­ken into 11 chap­ters, A Dif­fer­ent Drum­mer is fre­quently told from the per­spec­tive of white char­ac­ters, which in the hands of an­other writer could mean fur­ther marginal­i­sa­tion of a voice al­ready so sup­pressed in lit­er­a­ture, but Kel­ley de­lib­er­ately gives the book over to white nar­ra­tors – who range from bru­tally to ca­su­ally racist – to make the strug­gles of his own race all the more im­pact­ful. Lauded in his day for his satir­i­cal ex­plo­rations of race re­la­tions in Amer­ica – the OED cred­its him for coin­ing the term “woke” – Kel­ley de­liv­ers his ob­ser­va­tions with caus­tic hu­mour and sur­pris­ing com­pas­sion. The com­par­isons of his de­but to the books of James Bald­win and Faulkner are jus­ti­fied.

From the young white boy Mis­ter Le­land, who knows that Tucker is dif­fer­ent from him but who loves him any­way, to the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of Will­sons, Dewey III and Dym­phna, who con­sider the Cal­ibans near sib­lings, to the red­neck towns­man Bobby-Joe and his ugly, danger­ous logic, the men­tal­ity of the Amer­i­can south is in­tensely ex­am­ined.

The plot hinges on Tucker’s ex­tra­or­di­nary de­ci­sion to de­stroy the land and house he has just pur­chased after years of toil­ing. It is a shock­ing move that prompts a re­ac­tion of bib­li­cal pro­por­tions, an ex­o­dus of all African-Amer­i­cans that leaves the un­named state sym­bol­i­cally in tat­ters.

A Dif­fer­ent Drum­mer is a fas­ci­nat­ing ac­count of a man, weary of words and pol­i­tick­ing, who makes a seem­ingly non­sen­si­cal de­ci­sion in the eyes of so­ci­ety. And yet, as a re­sponse to cen­turies of in­jus­tice for his peo­ple, it proves an em­i­nently sen­si­ble ac­tion.

Wil­liam Melvin Kel­ley: “imag­i­na­tive, bril­liantly ob­served world of the 20th-cen­tury Deep South in tur­moil”

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