In this excerpt from his fascinating The Book of Forgotten Authors, Christopher Fowler discusses the neglected William Melvin Kelley, author of the remarkable forgotten classic, A Different Drummer
‘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 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.