Book Review: William Melvin Kelley ~ A Different Drummer (1962)

A Different Drummer is set in America’s deep south in the segregation era. The principal black character is Tucker Caliban working for the family that had, generations previously, owned slaves including Tucker’s great grand-father. The central white family stills owns the land in Sutton (not a geographical place).

Tucker’s story is a classic of American Rugged Individualism. Tucker horrifies his college educated wife with his contemptuous rejection of the NAACP. Tucker’s plan is to destroy white supremacy by the simple expedient of there being no black Americans to be superior over. A form of reverse ethnic cleansing.

First though Tucker produces a coup de theatre. After years of accruing savings he persuades Dewey Willson to sell seven acres of land to him on the pretext that he will become a farmer even though he has no knowledge of farming. This land is plantation land. This land was farmed by slaves including Tucker’s ancestors. Tucker then salts the land so that it will never be farmed by anyone. It’s also a clear metaphor for the tears of slaves. He goes further and burns down his house.

Kelley’s novel accelerates. Every black American in the state departs. The whites with their vicious white supremacy are negated at a stroke. There’s no-one to be superior over. White trash now have no-one to look down on and their position is revealed for all to see.

I just ain’t sure it’s all to the good. You never had no WHITE folks sweeping around in the stores, only coloured. You getting a job sweeping now, Stewart? That’s the only job you really good for. (p272)

Kelley’s novel’s denouement is so wonderful I can’t spoil it.

This is a novel by someone new to me and is utterly brilliant.


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