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A Different Drummer

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The stunning, thought-provoking first novel by a "lost giant of American literature" (The New Yorker)

June, 1957. One hot afternoon in the backwaters of the Deep South, a young black farmer named Tucker Caliban salts his fields, shoots his horse, burns his house, and heads north with his wife and child. His departure sets off an exodus of the state’s entire black population, throwing the established order into brilliant disarray. Told from the points of view of the white residents who remained, A Different Drummer stands, decades after its first publication in 1962, as an extraordinary and prescient triumph of satire and spirit.

ISBN-13: 9780385413909

Media Type: Paperback(Reprint)

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Publication Date: 05-01-1990

Pages: 224

Product Dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.51(d)

William Melvin Kelley was born in New York City in 1937 and attended the Fieldston School and Harvard. The author of four novels and a short story collection, he was a writer in residence at the State University of New York at Geneseo and also taught at the New School and Sarah Lawrence College. He was awarded the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for lifetime achievement and the Dana Reed Prize for creative writing. He died in 2017.

Read an Excerpt

The State


An East South Central state in the Deep South, it is bounded on the north by Tennessee; east by Alabama; south by the Gulf of Mexico; west by Mississippi.

CAPITAL: Willson City. AREA: 50,163 square miles. POPULATION: (1960 Census, preliminary) 1,802,268. MOTTO: With Honor and Arms We Dare Defend Our Rights. ADMITTED TO UNION: 1818


Although the state’s history is a rich and varied one, it is known predominately as the home of Confederate General Dewey Willson, who, in 1825, was born in Sutton, a small town 27 miles north of the Gulfport city of New Marsails. Willson matriculated at the United States Military Academy at West Point (class of 1842), rose to the rank of colonel in the Federal Army before the outbreak of the Civil War. Upon the state’s secession in 1861, he resigned his commission and was given the rank of General of the Confederate Army. He was the chief architect of the two well-known southern victories at Bull’s Horn Creek and at Harmon’s Draw, the latter fought less than 3 miles from his birthplace. His victory at Harmon’s Draw permanently frustrated northern attempts to reach and capture New Marsails.

In 1870, with the state’s re-admittance to the Union, Willson became its governor. Shortly thereafter, he chose the site, initiated construction, and, in large part, designed the new state capital which now bears his name. Upon his retirement from public life in 1878, he returned to Sutton. On April 5, 1889, having just returned from the dedication of a ten-foot bronze likeness of himself which the townspeople of Sutton had erected in their Square, he was stricken and died. He is considered by most historians to have been, after Lee, the Confederacy’s greatest general.


In June 1957, for reasons yet to be determined, all the state’s Negro inhabitants departed. Today, it is unique in being the only state in the Union that cannot count even one member of the Negro race among its citizens.

* * *

It was over now. Most of the men standing, slouching, or sitting on the porch of the Thomason Grocery Company had been at Tucker Caliban’s farm on Thursday when it all started, though, with the possible exception of Mister Harper, none of them had known it was the start of anything. All during Friday and most of Saturday they had watched the Negroes of Sutton, with suitcases or empty-handed, waiting at the end of the porch for the hourly bus which would carry them up Eastern Ridge, through Harmon’s Draw, to New Marsails and the Municipal Railroad Depot. From the radio and the newspapers they knew Sutton was not the only town, knew that all the Negroes in all the cities, towns, and crossroads in the state had been using any means of transportation available, including their own two legs to journey toward the state’s borders, to cross over into Mississippi or Alabama or Tennessee, even if some (most did not) stopped right there and began looking for shelter and work. They knew most would not stop just over the borders, would go on until they came to a place where they had merely the smallest opportunity to live, or die decently, for the men had seen pictures of the depot jammed with black people, and being on the Highway between New Marsails and Willson City, had watched the line of cars crammed with Negroes and enough belongings to convince the men that the Negroes had not gone to all this trouble to move a mere hundred miles or so. And they all read the governor’s statement: “There ain’t nothing to worry about. We never needed them, never wanted them, and we’ll get along fine without them; the South’ll get along fine without them. Even though our population’s been cut by a third, we’ll fare all right. There’s still lots of good men left.”

They all wanted to believe this. They had not lived long enough in a world without black faces to know anything for certain, but hoped everything would be all right, tried to convince themselves it was really over, but sensed, that for them, it was just beginning.

Though they had been present at the very start, they had fallen behind the rest of the state, for they had not yet experienced the anger and bitter resentment which they read about in the papers, had not tried to stop the Negroes from leaving, as had other white men in other towns, feeling it was their right and duty to tear suitcases from any black hands which held them; or thrown any punches. They had been spared the disheartening discovery that such gestures were futile or had been barred from such demonstrations of righteous anger—Mister Harper had made them see that the Negroes could not be stopped; Harry Leland had gone so far as to express the idea that the Negroes had the right to leave—and so, now, late Saturday afternoon, as the sun swooped behind the flat-faced, unpainted buildings across the Highway, they turned back to Mister Harper and tried for the thousandth time in three days to discover how it ever began in the first place. They could not know it all, but what they did know might give them some part of an answer and they wondered if what Mister Harper said about “blood” could possibly be true.

Mister Harper usually appeared on the porch at eight in the morning, where for twenty years he had held court in a wheel chair as old and awkward as a throne. He was a retired army man, who had gone North to West Point, having been nominated to the Academy by the General himself, Dewey Willson. At West Point, Mister Harper had learned to wage the wars he would never have the opportunity to fight: he was too young for the War Between the States, did not arrive in Cuba until long after the Spanish-American War had ended, and was too old for World War I, which had taken his son from him. War had given him nothing, but had deprived him of everything, and so, thirty years before, he decided life was not worth meeting on foot, since it always knocked you down, and seated himself in a wheel chair to view the world from the porch, explaining its chaotic pattern to the men who clustered around him each day.

In all those thirty years, when the world could see it, he had climbed from the wheel chair only once—on Thursday, to go to Tucker Caliban’s farm. Now he was again rooted as firmly as though he had never left it, his limp white hair, parted in the middle and long, falling almost like a woman’s on either side of his face. His hands were folded over a small but protruding stomach.

Thomason, who, because he did so little business, was hardly ever in his store, stood just behind Mister Harper, his back pressed against the dirty plate glass of his show window. Bobby-Joe McCollum, the youngest member of the group, barely twenty, sat on the porch steps with his feet in the gutter, smoking a cigar. Loomis, a habitual member of the group, was in a chair, reared back on its two hind legs. He had been upstate to the university at Willson, though he had lasted only three weeks, and thought Mister Harper’s explanation of the happenings too fantastic, too simple. “Now, I just can’t believe this here blood business.”

“What else can it be?” Mister Harper turned to Loomis and squinted through his hair. He spoke differently from the rest of the men; his voice, high, breathy, dry, distinct, like a New Englander’s. “Mind you, I’m not one of these superstitious folks; I don’t take account of ghosts and such. But the way I see it, it’s pure genetics: something special in the blood. And if anybody in this world got something special in his blood, his name is Tucker Caliban.” He lowered his voice, spoke almost in a whisper. “I can see whatever was in his blood just a-laying there sleeping, waiting, and then one day waking up, making Tucker do what he did. Can’t be no other reason. We never had no trouble with him, nor him with us. But all at once his blood started to itch in his veins, and he started this here . . . this here revolution. And I know all about revolution; that’s one of the things we studied at the Point. Why d’you reckon I thought it was important enough to get up out of my chair?” He stared across the street. “It’s got to be the African’s blood! That’s simple!”

Bobby-Joe’s chin was cupped in his hands. He did not turn around to look at the old man, and so Mister Harper did not realize immediately the boy was making fun of him. “I hear tell about this African, and can even remember somebody telling the story to me a long time ago, but I just can’t seem to remember how it went.” Mister Harper had told the story the day before, and many times before that. “Why don’t you tell it, Mister Harper, and let us see how it got something to do with all this. How about that?”

By now Mister Harper realized what was going on, but it did not matter. He knew too some of the men thought he was too old and ought to be dead instead of coming to the porch each morning. But he liked to tell the story. Even so, they would have to coax him. “You all know that story as well as me.”

“Awh now, Mister Harper, we just want to hear you tell it again.” Bobby-Joe tried to make the man a child by the coddling tone in his voice. Someone behind Mister Harper laughed.

“Hell! I don’t care. I’ll tell it even if you don’t want to hear it—just for spite!” He leaned back and took a deep breath. “Now, ain’t nobody claiming this here story is all true.”

“That’s true if nothing else is.” Bobby-Joe drew on his cigar and spat.

“All right, suppose you just let me tell this story.”

“Yes, sir.” Bobby-Joe exaggerated his apology, but turning, found no approval on the other men’s shadowed faces; Mister Harper had captured them already. “Yes, sir.” This time Bobby-Joe meant it.

Like I said, nobody’s claiming this story is all truth. It must-a started out that way, but somebody along the way or a whole parcel of somebodies must-a figured they could improve on the truth. And they did. It’s a damn sight better story for being half lies. Can’t a story be good without some lies. You take the story of Samson. Might not all be true as you read it in the Bible; folks must-a figured if you got a man just a little bit stronger than most, it couldn’t do no real harm if you make him a whole lot stronger. So that’s probably what folks hereabouts did; take the African, who must-a been pretty big and strong to start and make him even bigger and stronger.

I reckon they wanted to make certain we’d remember him. But when you think on it, there’s no reason why we’d ever forget the African, even though this all happened a long time ago, because just like Tucker Caliban, the African was working for the Willsons, who was the most important folks around these parts. Only folks liked those Willsons a hell of a lot more in them days than we do now. They weren’t so uppity as our Willsons.

But we’re not talking about the Willsons of nowadays; we’re talking about the African, who was owned by the General’s father, Dewitt Willson, even though Dewitt never got no work out of him. But he owned him all the same.

Now the first time New Marsails (it was still New Marseilles then, after the French city) ever saw the African was in the morning, just after the slave ship he was riding pulled into the harbor. In them days, a boat coming was always a big occasion and folks used to walk down to the dock to greet it; it wasn’t a far piece since the town wasn’t no bigger than Sutton is today.

The slaver came up, her sails all plump, and tied up, and let fall her gangplank. And the ship’s owner, who was also the leading slave auctioneer in New Marsails—he talked so good and so fast he could sell a one-armed, one-legged, half-witted Negro for a premium price—he ambled up the gangplank. I’m told he was a spindly fellow, with no muscles whatever. He had hard-bargain-driving eyes and a nose all round and puffy and pocked like a rotten orange, and he always wore a blue old-time suit with lace at the collar, and a sort of derby of green felt. And following him, exactly three paces behind, was a Negro. Some folks said this was the auctioneer’s son by a colored woman. I don’t know that for certain, but I do know this here Negro looked, walked, and talked just like his master. He had that same build, and the same crafty eyes, and dressed just like him too—green derby and all—so that the two of them looked like a print and a negative of the same photograph, since the Negro was brown and had kinky hair. This Negro was the auctioneer’s bookkeeper and overseer and anything else you can think of. So then these two went up on deck, and while the Negro stood by, the auctioneer shook hands with the captain, who was standing on deck watching his men do their chores. You understand, they spoke different in them days, so I can’t be certain exactly what they said, but I reckon it was something like: “How do. How was the trip?”

Already some folks standing on the dock could see the captain looked kind of sick. “Fine, excepting we had one real ornery son of a bitch. Had to chain him up, alone, away by himself.”

“Let’s have a look at him,” said the auctioneer. The Negro behind him nodded, which he did every time the auctioneer spoke, so that he looked like he was a ventriloquist, and the auctioneer was his dummy, either that way or the other way around.

“Not yet. God damn! I’ll bring him up after the rest of them niggers is off the boat. Then we can all hold him down. Damn!” He put his hand up to his brow, and that’s when folks with good eyes could see the oily blue mark on his head like somebody spat axle grease on him and he hadn’t had time yet to wipe it off. “God damn!” he said again.

Well, of course folks was getting real anxious, not just out of common interest like usual, but to see this son of a bitch that was causing all the trouble.

Dewitt Willson was there too. He hadn’t come to see the boat, or even to buy slaves. He was there to pick up a grandfather clock. He was building himself a new house outside of Sutton and he’d ordered this clock from Europe and he wanted it to come as fast as possible, and the fastest way was for it to come by slaver. He’d heard how carrying things on a slaver was seven kinds of bad luck, but still, because he was so anxious to get the clock, he let them send it that way. The clock rode in the captain’s cabin and was all padded up with cotton, and boxed in, and crated around, and wadded secure. And he’d come to get it, bringing in a wagon to carry it out to his house and surprise his wife with it.