Although he does not record CDs, Robin Kelley may well be the hippest intellectual in the land. There is plenty of substance to ground the style. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe and Race Rebels are two of the defining works on American labor struggle, black resistance and the left. His studies of the past resonate in the present; Kelley sifts through archives as he keeps his ear to the ground. As if this alone did not make Kelley an academic rarity, his occasional writings in the New York Times reveal a distinctive flair. Kelley called upon the “pimp aesthetic” to capture the essence of Miles Davis, and unforgettably counseled his readers: “Next time you’re on the road digging ‘Kind of Blue’ or ‘Bitches Brew’ and feel the urge to lean to the side and tilt your head back just so…check yourself in the rear-view–it’s probably the pimp in you.” Time and again, Kelley finds profundity where few even thought to look.
In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the protagonist’s dying grandfather implores him to overcome with yeses, undermine with grins. Kelley’s Race Rebels (1994) probed a facade of yeses and grins and found that “beneath the veil of consent lies a hidden history of unorganized, everyday conflict waged by African-American working people.” The rebels included Birmingham bus-riders who resisted racist drivers in the 1940s, a youthful Malcolm X and his cultural forays, and female workers whose hymns echoed through a North Carolina tobacco factory. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe (1990) chronicled Alabama workers and farmers who embraced Communism during the 1920s and ’30s, the organizations they formed, the culture of opposition they forged and the legacies they left. Kelley’s latest book, Freedom Dreams, navigates an idiosyncratic tour of black radicalism in the twentieth century. Kelley writes unflinchingly of freedom and love, dreams and visions, revolts of the mind. The world can still be won, he believes, and the imagination is the struggle’s most potent weapon.
It is the rare child from Harlem who becomes a celebrated NYU professor, and Kelley does not cloak the uptown origins of his intellectual passions. His candor is alternately humorous and moving. In Hammer and Hoe Kelley mused about “black graduate students who must enter the academy through long, dark pipelines or sneak in through windows of opportunity.” While he did not quite sneak through a window, his path toward graduate school (which included a stint behind a McDonald’s counter) was hardly typical. Freedom Dreams sinks its roots in Kelley’s remembrances of his mother, who “simply wanted us to live through our third eyes, to see life as possibility.” This concept of the “third eye”–the one that gazes toward the future, that sees better tomorrows whatever the perils of the day–animates Kelley’s book.
Too often, Kelley argues, political and social movements became consumed by the quest to smash oppression. Freedom Dreams resurrects those movements that sought to create and not only destroy. It explores “many different cognitive maps of the future, of the world not yet born,” and points out that as social movements attempt to change political and economic realities, they also generate new ideas and foster novel ways of looking at the world. In Kelley’s conception, poetry is revolutionary; so are freedom and love, two words bandied about daily that intellectuals “have failed miserably to grapple with.” Freedom Dreams is Kelley’s effort to investigate such subjects through the lens of black radicalism’s history. In the blues and Communism, the Panthers and feminism, Kelley revives the diverse spirits of the past in his personal attempt to suggest a better day.
If the book is in part about the need to dream, it also enters into an age-old debate on the contours of American freedom. Many black radicals never believed they could achieve freedom in America–while some sought to change the nation, others planned to flee it. Escape loomed large in black radicals’ visions of liberty. “A long line of black thinkers…believed that to achieve freedom we first had to get out of Dodge,” Kelley writes. He chronicles various visions of flight, from the American Colonization Society in 1816 and the Kansas Exodusters during Reconstruction to Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement and Elijah Muhammad’s contemplations of space travel. Dreams of new Americas and impulses to escape it often mingled. These differing urges to fantasize and to flee even find powerful contemporary expression in hip-hop lyrics.
Of Communists, writes Kelley, “We can spot ’em a mile away.” While he once peddled Worker’s Viewpoint for the Communist Workers’ Party, Kelley is one of the few with firsthand experience able to muse about the party with a sense of levity. “They’re at every political forum, demonstration, panel discussion, and cultural event, hawking their papers…shouting people down, hogging the microphone,” Kelley writes. While still something of a believer, Kelley looks upon the cause with a sense of irony. (Such a sense led him to title a chapter of Race Rebels “Shiftless of the World Unite!”) Throughout Freedom Dreams, he argues that culture, art and spirit constitute much of the freedom struggle’s base, not its superstructure. Songs and ideals–not power and politics–can best answer the essential question that confronts any revolution: “What would we build after the storm?”
While African-American women were often relegated to secondary roles in black radical visions, they assume central places in Freedom Dreams. In the American left’s history, black women forever fell “somewhere in the cracks between the Negro Question and the Woman Question,” Kelley notes. He believes we should mine black feminism’s deeply liberating vision, for if black women–once considered the “slaves of the slaves”–could free themselves from inequities based on race, sex and class, they could liberate all humankind. “We might use our position at the bottom,” wrote members of the Combahee River Collective, “to make a clear leap into revolutionary action. If black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free.” Founded in 1974 amid the turmoil of the feminist movement, this collective speaks directly to one of Kelley’s main points–that freedom dreams not only produce radical movements, but movements themselves create new dreams: “The black radical imagination…is fundamentally a product of struggle, of victories and losses, crises and openings, and endless conversations circulating in a shared environment.”
It is puzzling that Kelley only briefly refers to two of black America’s most celebrated dreamers, W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps their relatively mainstream challenges fall outside the “radical” pantheon. Yet few so emphasized the black imagination as Du Bois. In the face of industrial education’s juggernaut, Du Bois clung to the power of the mind and the necessity to nourish it. “Only a firm adherence to…higher ideals and aspirations will ever keep those ideals within the realm of possibility,” Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). And in one of those bittersweet ironies of history, Du Bois died hours before King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. On the Washington Mall in 1963, it took little stretch of the imagination to see that thresholds had been crossed. A torch passed from one generation’s visionary to the next, as a society evolved from segregation to civil rights.
Few know the long and uneven struggle for freedom–and the extremes of hope and despair–as intimately as African-Americans. Feelings of freedom rose time and again–after the Revolutionary War, after slavery’s end, in the aftermath of the modern civil rights movement. Yet many saw their expectations shattered when Southern slavery intensified in the early nineteenth century, or when the Compromise of 1877 spelled Reconstruction’s end and Jim Crow’s rise; decades after the civil rights movement, America still trudges slowly toward racial equality.
In Robin Kelley, this history has found an author to match and capture its complexity and feeling. Yet dreams themselves are nothing fixed, and freedom is an end forever in transit. James Baldwin wrote, “it is only when a man is able, without bitterness…to surrender a dream…he has long possessed that he is set free–he has set himself free–for higher dreams, for greater privileges.” As one dream vanishes, another forms. It draws us forward, visible in the mind’s eye–and pushes us from behind, always there in the rearview.