In the first of his three-part “Origin of Woke” series, Elijah Watson highlights William Melvin Kelley, the Harlem author credited with coining the word. Read the whole series here.
I arrive on W 150th Street in Harlem. The afternoon sun on July 5 has my chest drenched in sweat as I seek shade underneath a door canopy to call Jesi Kelley. She answers and I tell her that I’m outside her apartment. I go through the door and enter an elevator to go to the building’s fifth floor. The elevator opens and as I turn to my left I see Jesi standing outside of her apartment door. “Please take off your shoes,” she says. I comply, place them near a collection of other shoes and follow behind her as she leads us into a ventilated living room where her mother, Karen Aiki Kelley, and an ice-cold pitcher of lemonade await. I introduce myself to Karen and take a seat on a couch.
“Poppy used to sit exactly where you’re sitting,” Jesi says, referring to her father, William Melvin Kelley, who died at the age of 79 in February of this year. I’m here to learn about William from the people that knew him best, his daughter and wife. But I’m also here to learn how he discovered a word that is so integral to the lexicon of the Internet age and that the Oxford English Dictionary credits him with coining — woke.
Woke. You know the woke I’m talking about. The woke that Childish Gambino sings about on “Redbone.” The woke that Erykah Badu sings about on “Master Teacher.” The word is ubiquitous now, used to describe everything from films to chefs. This has culminated into the Oxford English Dictionary extending the definition of woke as not only a verb but now an adjective, with the latter meaning “Alert to injustice in society, especially racism.”
The origins of the word were attributed to Badu for nearly a decade when she first sang the word on 2008’s “Master Teacher“: “What if it were no niggas/Only master teachers?/ I stay woke (dreams dreams).” However, late last year woke was revealed to be a part of the Black Vernacular since at least the 1960s, used by William in his New York Times essay “If You’re Woke You Dig It.” Published in 1962, the essay talks about black slang and its invention and reinvention in retaliation to its appropriation by white people. William’s essay doesn’t use the word ‘woke’ beyond its title, but it’s worthy of being described as such, William offering a prophetic commentary that is just as sobering now as it was then, considering woke’s worldwide appropriation.
In researching William I made an unfortunate discovery — he had passed away. However, he is survived by his wife Karen; daughters Jesi and Cira; three grandchildren and a great-grandson. Hoping to learn more about William and his ties to woke I contacted Karen and Jesi, who enthusiastically accepted my request to speak with them. However, upon hearing the two talk about William, I realized that he was so much more than the word he coined — an integral black voice who was ahead of his time.
Born in Staten Island on November 1, 1937, William was the son of William Melvin Kelley Sr., an editor at the African American newspaper the Amsterdam News, and Narcissa Agatha Garcia, a homemaker, and devout Catholic. William grew up in a working-class area of the North Bronx surrounded by Italian-Americans and attended the private Fieldston School in Riverdale, a predominantly Jewish school where he had his first experiences of prejudice and racism. He then attended Harvard in 1956 with intentions of becoming a civil rights lawyer but instead switched his major to English. William ultimately left Harvard without a degree, but he did benefit from the instruction of two prominent authors, John Hawkes and Archibald MacLeish, and received Harvard’s best-story award for his short story The Poker Party, a foreshadowing of William’s gift of storytelling.
Prior to writing “If You’re Woke You Dig It,” William published his first novel A Different Drummer, which tells the story of a mythical southern state that loses its entire black population after one black man, Tucker Caliban, spreads salt on his land, burns down his house, and heads North to start a new life with his family. The book was unlike anything written by William’s peers and predecessors; rather than tell the story through one point of view, he uses numerous white characters to narrate the disappearance of the state’s black population. Ultimately, A Different Drummer provides a commentary on race relations in America but with a satirical twist often not present in books by black authors at the time, as William highlights white America’s dependence on both white supremacy and the presence and labor of black people to define themselves. Overall, A Different Drummer offers a commentary that is defiant and empowering — white people need us more than they would like to admit.
Around the ’60s came the rise of the Black Arts Movement, the spiritual successor to the Harlem Renaissance and the artistic movement that came out of the Black Power movement. By now, William lived in Harlem with Karen alongside his acquaintances, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Ishmael Reed, and other authors. And although William participated in numerous panels with his peers he primarily kept to himself, championing blackness but never really associating with any group or organization.
“All he wanted to do was write,” Karen says. “He was so into his culture and into his work.” For William, Harlem was his culture. Living on 149th Street between Amsterdam Avenue and St. Nicholas Avenue, he discovered himself in the Black Capital of America. Attending events at Maketa Dorothy White‘s D’Zora House; walking to the now-defunct Sherman’s BBQ for food — William lived in many places but only called some home, one of them being Harlem. He lived and died here, a place that is such an integral part of black America’s history and having possibly birthed the most important black colloquialism of the 21st century — woke.