Themes and Meanings
Kelley has borrowed his title and epigraph from philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854): “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” The role of the individual in society and the importance of self-reliance are central themes of this novel. As Tucker tells David, “You tried to free us once, but we didn’t go and now we got to free ourselves.”
The strongest individual, who steps to no music but his own, is the African, and that trait emerges again in Tucker, the true revolutionary who refuses to join the National Society for Colored Affairs or any other group. He does not wish to destroy his society but only to change it, and he does that by renouncing or obliterating all connections with his family’s slave past, except for the small white stone that formed part of the African’s makeshift altar more than a century ago. He and the African Americans who leave the state are the real marchers.
Others try to march, but fail. The young Bennett Bradshaw, fired with enthusiasm, “walked as if to some music, a march, his arms swinging at his sides.” Later, though, he is sidetracked by greed and a desire for power, and sells out by creating his own fanatical group of followers. Young David Willson, fired from the newspaper for which he works, regrets that he lacks the courage to continue...
(The entire section is 436 words.)