Black Power, William Melvin Kelly, African American History, Black History, Civil Rights, KOLUMN Magazine, KOLUMN

If You’re Woke You Dig It: William Melvin Kelly – Public Books William Melvin Kelley, the experimental novelist and filmmaker—who mastered and reinvented a kind of midcentury literary style crafted from a colorful array of language and perspectives—died in Manhattan on February 1, 2017, at the age of 79.

For the past three decades, Kelley taught fiction at Sarah Lawrence College, where I enrolled in his seminar. We struck up a long dialogue about Jewish and African American literature and culture.

From his teaching and the dialogues that followed off and on for years afterwards, Willy inspired in me a self-reliance and will to originality, which seems to always pull me back to his surreal and carnivalesque view of American culture. Never predictable, Willy, when I asked him which novel might give my work a sharper, more distinct view of Jewish American culture, responded: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. That novel—in its Yiddish translation—became my doctoral dissertation’s keystone. Kelley’s work was always spiritual: he studied the Jewish tradition—as closely as he could without the benefit of an official conversion—calling himself a Child of Israel and a believer in the “True God.” He often said that as a poor reader, there were only two books in his life that he had read end-to-end: James Joyce’s Ulysses, and the Hebrew Bible.

Black Power, William Melvin Kelly, African American History, Black History, Civil Rights, KOLUMN Magazine, KOLUMN

Black Power, William Melvin Kelly, African American History, Black History, Civil Rights, KOLUMN Magazine, KOLUMN


Public Books was founded in 2012 by Sharon Marcus, a literary critic, and Caitlin Zaloom, an anthropologist. Their mission was simple: to create a diverse new home for intellectual debate online. (Website).