Hipsterism For Beginners

Reading & Writing

‘If you’re woke, you dig it.’ Well, that answers the question; the word ‘woke’ first appeared in 1962, after William Melvin Kelley said it in a New York Times article that suggested beatniks had appropriated slang from African-Americans.

Kelley was 24 at the time and lived ‘uptown, way uptown.’

He was interested in idiomatic language, and said his grandmother had told him that ‘ofay’, meaning a white man, was pig Latin for ‘foe’, so that black idiomatic language was primarily used for secrecy, exclusion and protection. Black slang, awkwardly placed in white mouths, sounds, he said, like white audiences clapping on the wrong jazz beat, first and third instead of two and four. Jazz was analogous to black writing, played first in all-black dancehalls and moving out to the white mainstream, finally reaching a point where ‘La La Land’ could let Ryan Gosling explain a black artform to us.

Kelley sounded Bronx rather than black, and impersonated Frank Sinatra for the local kids. He set his first novel ‘A Different Drummer’ (which appeared less than a month after his New York Times article) in the recent past, having had the idea for it in high school. The book has a killer hook; Tucker Caliban, the descendant of an African chief who once decapitated his captor with his chains, burns down his homestead, kills his livestock, salts his fields so that nothing can grow, and takes off with his family for parts unknown – followed, shortly after, by the entire disenfranchised black population.

The governor is glad. ‘We never needed them, never wanted them, and we’ll get along fine without them.’ The remaining white two-thirds are less angry than mystified. There’s a callback of sorts in the aftermath of 9/11; ‘Why do they hate us?’ It feels like an act of natural forces, something inevitable and unstoppable. There’s no anger in Tucker. ‘He accepted everything almost as if he knew it was going to happen.’

So, Kelley’s 24 and more than just woke, he’s on fire. He’s writing from different perspectives, multiple voices, he’s going tight into details and wide with apocalyptic events, controlled yet freeform. He’s called experimental, satirical, unique.

What next?

Kelley had grown up in a white Italian neighbourhood, the son of a former newspaper editor. Planning on a career as a civil rights lawyer, he left Harvard just before getting his degree. His problem? He had trouble reading. Years later he said he’d only finished two books, James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and the Bible, so I imagine they put him off. Either way, I don’t know if his dyslexia was diagnosed.

A collection of short stories and a second novel appeared in quick succession. ‘A Drop of Patience’ is jazz and colour and history. Kelley is confident and in control. His writing is pleasurable, not earnest, his short story ‘Not Exactly Lena Horne’ is a delight and his characters slip from one book to another because like most good writers Kelley is a world-builder. Meanwhile he’s hit by a series of life-changers, the assassination of Malcom X, black power, the start of the Black Arts Movement, the end of ‘integrationism’.

Kelley covered the Malcolm X trial for the Saturday Evening Post but, disillusioned by the judicial process, he moved to Paris, then Jamaica, and eventually converted to Judaism. His third novel is ‘Dem’, a luridly knowing soap-operatic satire that does its best to alienate readers with periodic crash-landings into wildly idiomatic language. His fourth, ‘dunfords travels everywheres’ uses an idea I’d first encountered in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s ‘The Visit’, in which clothes symbolise ideas. In ‘The Visit’, yellow shoes come to represent a form of fascism. In ‘Dunfords…’ segregation is based on the population’s choice of clothing. This is Kelley’s ‘Finnegans Wake’ novel, and storms ahead of his readers. Very few authors apart from Gore Vidal ever cemented an enduring reputation for themselves with satire. As far as I know his final novel, ‘Dis/Integration’, has never appeared.

By this time the author was using a language of his own devising, part-patois, part Standard English, that had the impact of a haunting if very strange dream. When he and his family finally returned to New York, Kelley found that the reading public had forgotten him. He couldn’t understand it; he knew he was a great writer producing fiction in a unique voice, so why would people ignore him?

The argument goes on. He wrote too many white characters for black readers, too much black patois for white readers, his vision of America was too bleak, his prose was too complex and fantastical. It’s more likely that times changed and while he was away new voices like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison were being heard. Readers can be disappointingly linear. Kelley was riffing on race, politics, love and life, and his audience just heard too many notes.

He carried on teaching and had a long life, but never published another book.

10 comments on “Hipsterism For Beginners”

  1. brooke says:

    After reading A Different Drummer for a class (back before dirt was born), I asked our literatiure teacher why we were reading a parody of Faulkner, whom I detested. The prof was a newly minted PhD who thought he was bringing us, students at an historically black college, the latest, hippest to counteract required traditional US/European readings. I should have apologized but didn’t.

    I tried Kelley again about 6 years ago when ADD was a “staff recommends” in our library; still didn’t like it. It’s not readers who are linear; ADD is full of stereotypes with a predictable, US South ending. Kelley’s riffs cannot stand up to the master, Ralph Ellison, whose Invisible Man (1952) is the ultimate jazz piece on race, politics, etc. And Balwin was there–writing with harrowing insights about sex, violence and politics. There were tremendous voices on the scene (real time) even before Walker and Morrison came along; Kelly just wasn’t there nor was his voice strong enough.

  2. kevin says:

    Thank you so much for this piece, Chris. YOU make me want to go back and skim this guy again but I don’t think I will. I’ve come across him – along the way – and just kept going and never looked back. Satire just doesn’t work for me, not even Ismael Reed who I’ve also tried and just couldn’t do it. I also think Brooke may be right that this guy just wasn’t that good as a novelist.

    Furthermore writers who try to distill jazz into language are an especially problematic lot for me. I can’t stand it. I even disliked Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz and I tried, I really did because I love Toni Morrison. Maybe I just haven’t listened to enough jazz.

  3. brooke says:

    @Kevin; Several posts back, Mr. Fowler discussed rhythm in language as fundamental to character. Jazz–cool to bebop and back– always has multiple rhythms going around the line–hard to translate into characters and language. Ellison’s Invisible Man is one of the best examples–clear clean line stated at the beginning when we first meet the hero and then complicated riffs on the main theme. Finally, a Miles Davis like birth of the cool ending. Ellison was a trained musician, hip Harlem dweller and had an ear for poetry.
    Btw, Ismael Reed is one of my favorites.

  4. snowy says:

    I was reading comments and listening to book reviews on t’wireless and they featured: ‘How We Fight for Our Lives’ by Saeed Jones, which seemed too good a fit not to mention.

    “Being black can get you killed.

    Being gay can get you killed.

    Being a black gay boy is a death wish.”

    “Haunted and haunting, How We Fight for Our Lives is a stunning coming-of-age memoir. Jones tells the story of a young, black, gay man from the South as he fights to carve out a place for himself, within his family, within his country, within his own hopes, desires, and fears. Through a series of vignettes that chart a course across the American landscape, Jones draws readers into his boyhood and adolescence—into tumultuous relationships with his family, into passing flings with lovers, friends, and strangers. Each piece builds into a larger examination of race and queerness, power and vulnerability, love and grief: a portrait of what we all do for one another—and to one another—as we fight to become ourselves.”

    [Quotes plucked from a longer piece by Gabino Iglesias for NPR.]

  5. kevin says:

    Snowy, as a Black gay man living in America, I will just say that the last quote you list, I assume from this author, is dishonest and reeks of self-hate. Your description of his tale, however, told musically, sounds rather nice. But I don’t think I’ll be reading him.

  6. brooke says:

    @snowy, dear friend, how are you? what kevin said about quotes. James Baldwin and many others survived–not easy–and fought to bring us to a better place. Baldwin said that “America” (US) hates its young and he meant all its young. Saeed Jones work picks up on that. Thanks for noting it.

    Btw–a better fit for ADD, which is about violence in response to human bid for freedom, is Baldwin’s Going to Meet the Man. Baldwin connects the dots from racism, sexism, self-hatred and violence. Damn good story but do not read if depressed.

  7. snowy says:

    Kevin, I’m thankful you could give me a better perspective, being on a small island just off the European continent, not everything filters across.

    It is a strange line, it comes as part of a triplet that feels like it has been pulled off the back of a book jacket. I get an overwhelming feeling of a ‘3 line setup’ for a 1930’s Noir pulp thriller.

    I did find it a little odd/uncomfortable, is it just hyperbole? Does it just pander to existing Northern prejudice about ‘The South’? I couldn’t fathom it out. [Probably over-analyzing, it’s really there just to sell copies of the book].

    Rolling the three lines around my tongue, I discovered it can be made to represent whatever you wish, just by changing the rhythm and tone.

    Give the lines to ‘Mid-Atlantic Voice-over Guy’, [over some bass heavy funk], it becomes the trailer for a 70s set thriller in the ‘Shaft’ mould.

    Or if you go completely the opposite direction and give it… more ‘Camp’ than a row of pink tents, it sounds like Ru Paul having a competitive ‘bitch-off’!

    [I think to resolve my own question I need to track down an interview where I can hear the author speak.]

  8. snowy says:

    Hi Brooke, as said above the intent of the quote is a bit hard to figure out, contrast it with another; said not by, but about Saeed Jones, [attributed to his college classmates]: “Saeed is so ‘out’, not even his clothes are in the closet.”

    [I really must track down some audio of his voice.]

  9. brooke says:

    Snowy. Saeed can definitely be found on YouTube. Kevin, try out his poetry. I’m not a fan of subjective intimate poetry but…

  10. snowy says:

    I did consider you tube, but a lot of it is jazz/poetry, [my black polo-neck is in the wash, and the last time I wore a beret it was presented to me with the words “It’s an ‘at it goes on yo’r ‘ed].

    I did eventually find something close to what I was looking for; an interview from the book tour on NPR, [linked above]. Having listened to his voice the lines don’t sound quite so menacing.

    [Plot a distribution from: ‘Ultra Butch and definitely denying it’ to ‘Camp as Christmas’, Saeed is somewhere just to the right of the mid-line.]

    It’s a nice interview, more like eavesdropping on friends talking than a hard sales pitch].

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