The first officially recorded use of “woke” as a political term was in 1962, in an article by young African-American writer and teacher William Melvin Kelley. In the same year, he published his debut, A Different Drummer. It won him comparisons with Faulkner, then slipped into obscurity until this year, when a New Yorker article brought it back into the public eye, and sparked a bidding war.
It begins with Tucker Caliban, who shoots his livestock, sets fire to his house and leaves the fictional deep south state he calls home without a backward glance. Soon every other black man and woman in the state has gone, filing on to buses and into cars with carefully blank faces.
Kelley boldly tells his story from the perspective of the white residents, who spin stories of Confederate generals and formidable slaves, speak of their dreams and their youth and try to rationalise this modern exodus. This fierce and brilliant novel is written with sympathy as well as sorrow. It’s a myth packed with real-world resonance, as hope and decency wither in a community that’s as woke as a corpse.
• A Different Drummer is published by Riverrun. To order a copy for £7.91 (RRP £8.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.