The bamboozled white residents of a southern town can't figure out why its African-American population is leaving.
It's 1957, deep south America. In a small town the entire African-American population has pulled up stumps and decided to leave. It's a mass exodus. The person who seems to have set these events in motion in a young man named Tucker Caliban. He has until recently worked for the Willson family, the descendants of slave owners. Caliban himself is the descendant of a slave simply named “the African”, a man of mighty strength, once a leader of men, eventually shot dead by white slave traders.
Tucker Caliban asks his employer, David Willson, if he can buy a plot of land, the same land his slave ancestors once worked. He tells David Willson he intends to start farming. But once he owns the land, he shoots his animals, burns the farmhouse and spreads salt over his fields, destroying the soil. He and his wife and child then leave town.
The white people of the town are mystified by these events. What could it mean? Why would the town's Black folk want to leave? Theories are proposed – it's suggested that Tucker Caliban has the rebellious blood of “the African” in him – until eventually the townsfolk grow fed up, disgruntled and even angry.
A Different Drummer was William Melvin Kelley's debut novel, published in 1962. He was only twenty-five at the time. The story, while in large part a satire on white ignorance, traces two interweaving lineages, that of the Willsons and the Calibans. We learn of the horrific circumstances of slave trading and owning, and how attitudes to African-Americans slowly changed over generations. A large part of the narration concentrates on David Willson's shame at his own moral failings, his inability to make sacrifices and take a stand against racism and inequality. Kelley here critiques progressive liberals for not doing enough. By the book's end we see this inability to create a bulwark against a riding tide of racism lead to tragedy – a tragedy white people fail to see, even though they are the cause of it.
Written in crystal clear language, A Different Drummer elucidates how deeply ingrained racism is, so ingrained that even those who are trying to resist it are nonetheless its unconscious proponents. William Melvin Kelley published novels and stories for another decade, moved to Jamaica, and finally returned to the United States to teach. He wrote two unpublished novels in that time. Hopefully one day we'll see them in print.
A Different Drummer, by William Melvin Kelley. Riverrun. $22.99
North Melbourne Books