I didn’t know who William Kelley was when I found that book but, like millions of Americans, I knew a term he is credited with first committing to print. “If You’re Woke, You Dig It” read the headline of a 1962 Op-Ed that Kelley published in the New York Times, in which he pointed out that much of what passed for “beatnik” slang (“dig,” “chick,” “cool”) originated with African-Americans.
A fiction writer and occasional essayist, Kelley was, himself, notably woke. A half century before the poet Claudia Rankine used her MacArthur “genius” grant to establish an institute partly dedicated to the study of whiteness, Kelley turned his considerable intellect and imagination to the question of what it is like to be white in this country, and what it is like, for all Americans, to live under the conditions of white supremacy—not just the dramatic cross-burning, neo-Nazi manifestations of it common to his time and our own but also the everyday forms endemic to our national culture.
We call her Upstairs; she calls us Downstairs.
From our ground-floor apartment in Paris, my husband and I can look across the courtyard to her apartment on the top floor, with its large, curved windows.
“Downstairs,” she writes, “before drawing the curtain for the night, stepped out on the balcony, and saw your light on; which was good news.”
Each message from her is a treasure: “When next we meet, we’ll salute each other like two lamp-posts, lighting up at the same time. Have a lovely day without rain.”
Bad coffee is the best coffee. Or less cryptically: The lower you can set your standard for acceptable coffee, the happier you’ll be.
Look at this extraordinary American, Eggers’s attention says. And more to the point, look at him at this particular moment; give him some proper time; no story is more urgent.