Redefining Freedom With Robin Kelley

Redefining Freedom With Robin Kelley

A conversation with the historian about the 20th-anniversary of his seminal book Freedom Dreams, how the meaning of freedom has changed in the intervening years, the reparations debate, and more.


Even when African Americans have been actively denied time and space to dream, we have imagined other possibilities for the world around us. Jupiter Hammon, one of the first African Americans to publish poetry in the 18th century, envisaged a future in heaven that would make navigating the atrocities of being enslaved less absolutely crushing. Some 200 years later, the legendary poet and intergalactic recording artist Sun Ra would declare that outer space is the place for Black people to live and thrive outside of the strictures of white and Western dominance. All the while, Black radical movements have manifested visions of the new worlds, the improved material conditions and healthier social relations that would emerge if Black people were finally free to determine our own trajectories.

Robin D.G. Kelley has been at the forefront of chronicling the radical history of Black people. With wide-ranging work on the Alabama Communist Party, Thelonious Monk and modern jazz in the African diaspora, the Black working class, surrealism, and more, Kelley has tracked the revolutionary impulses of Black Americans across centuries, locales, and continents. In Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Tradition, Kelley mines the depths of Black political theory and praxis to show how Black people imagined new visions of what the world could be in their everyday lives, their activism, and their aesthetic practice. As the poet Aja Monet writes in a new forward for the 20th-anniversary edition of Freedom Dreams, “Kelley’s book offers us our history so we can create with a clearer vision for our future.” In the following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Kelley reflects on what this book’s reach has been since its original publication and how, perhaps, the idea of freedom has mutated under the various American regimes that have come into power since.

—Omari Weekes

Omari Weekes: In the book’s new introduction, you write that it was “never meant to be a manifesto or a road map.… Instead, it humbly offered a different take on histories of social movements by centering their vision of the future.” When my students read excerpts from Freedom Dreams, they treat it much like a manifesto and an invitation to do radical thinking and imagining. I wonder if you wish you had thought about it more in those terms?

Robin Kelley: Not at all. In fact, I’m even more convinced that it shouldn’t be a manifesto or a road map. The word you used just now, “invitation,” is perfect. It should be an invitation for us not just to study our history but also not to be locked in or bound by it either. And sometimes we’re looking for models when in fact that gets in the way of the work. The work is a struggle. That’s what movements do. Social engagement, participation, and struggle create the grounds for envisioning both the immediate and the future. When you’re engaged in social movements, you know when it’s time to throw away your manifesto, to revise it or rethink the way forward.. Because we’ve got to always be in a mode of improvisation, and I actually think there’s a relationship between improvisation and fugitivity. Improvisation is the most important tool you have to navigate both the catastrophe we’re facing and the counter-planning needed to move beyond that catastrophe.

OW: Could you talk a little bit more about what kind of impact you wanted this book to have?

RK: I wanted to create an alternative history of Black movements that are future-oriented and I chose struggles that may not be identified as successful and, in fact, reject the notion of success altogether. I wanted to write a history of movements that are demanding reparations, that are trying to get out of Dodge and are trying to find an alternative to the reality we have by leaving, whatever leaving may mean. I wanted to try to free a new generation of activists from the bonds of history and to show them that they have the right to make mistakes. We don’t give ourselves permission to make mistakes. Funders don’t give us permission to make mistakes. But we don’t always know; we figure it out together and make mistakes along the line. Part of my assessment of these movements was to recognize the mistakes, to recognize the limitations, and in fact, part of the new introduction and epilogue is also about the recognition of my own limitations in writing it.

One of the things that I learned over the last 20 years was even how that conception of what it means to create a transformative politics around the question of identity and identification was still limited because we’re only talking about, as Indigenous groups might say, the human nation. This whole planet and all of life are relations. And when you start to think that way, then you are way beyond it. We see in the flowering of movements new visions coming forward for what the future can look like, what emancipation can look like, what abolition can actually look like. None of those terms can ever be codified. You can’t come up with a definition of abolition and then stick with it for the rest of your life. That’s impossible. But that’s our job as intellectuals, we’re supposed to define our terms, and I’m like, Why can’t they be more elastic?

In that vein, I should add: Someone one day should go back and read all of the introductions and acknowledgements written by white left cultural studies people from 1990 until about 2000. Or even go beyond 2000 to right now. It’s amazing how even if they don’t name feminists of color or queer movements, they feel a sense of displacement, a sense of irrelevance. And that is exactly the problem. They have defined the center, and if they could just get out of themselves at the center then they’re going to recognize that their own subjectivity is part of what they have to grapple with.

OW: I’ve always been struck by the first chapter of Freedom Dreams, “‘When History Sleeps’: A Beginning,” and the way you use your childhood memories in Harlem and Washington Heights as a way of opening an aperture to this history of the Black radical tradition. Could you talk a bit about why you decided to begin your historical analysis here with the deeply personal?

RK: There was no other place to begin. To put it very simply, our mother was our first revolutionary teacher both in her practice and pedagogy. The whole framing of the book as a kind of third-eye view comes directly from her; there’s no other source. Political imagination requires praxis, the application of theory to, if not movements, then to everyday life. And my mother was engaged in praxis with us every single day in terms of what she made us look at, how she saw things, how she described things. Her spiritual practice was what drove her. A lot of people would have wanted me to talk about her growing up in Jamaica and how this shaped her politics. But, actually, it was strictly her discovery of Paramahansa Yogananda and her reading of the Bhagavad-Gita and the way in which she wanted to actually model a spiritual practice that all came from there.

Part of what she was trying to convey to us was a definition of freedom that does not depend on citizenship or the state to authorize it. It’s possible to seize freedom, to enjoy it, to create space for it, without necessarily overthrowing the government. We think of freedom as this elusive thing, but what she was saying is that there are ways to achieve it that we need to seize and embrace, even if they are momentary. And when we do that, it’s not the end of history. It’s the beginnings in many ways, because it provides that vision of what’s possible. It’s not the same as hope, but if you don’t believe that this other world is possible, then there’s no reason for you to get up in the morning and fight or love or actually try to see the beauty in the midst of the ghetto.

OW: I’m reminded of bell hooks and her essay “Theory as a Liberatory Practice,” and how critical theory, for her, was not unlike the way she was talking with her mother and the kinds of everyday conversations they were having about what it means to live in the world.

RK: That’s the beauty of the deeply radical politics envisioned in Black feminism. My colleague and friend Elsa Barkley Brown was one of the first historians to really draw on the lessons of her mother, the lessons of family, to use stories as a way of getting deep theoretical interventions in historical practice. She’s just one of many. bell hooks is also a great example; I mean, she walked the walk.

OW: To move a little bit within this, I wanted to talk about the style of the text. The book, which is definitely not colloquial, has the rigor and warmth of a discussion among colleagues, peers, and friends. When you were writing, how did you decide on this intimate style and this approach to tell these stories about freedom dreaming?

RK: Every single one of those chapters were talks that were not meant to be published. And I think that’s important. The framing of the whole book began with a talk that I gave at Dartmouth. It was for a Dr. MLK celebration, and my daughter came with me. This would have been about 2000, so she would have been about 10 years old. I give this talk, and Elleza has this assignment to write something about Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at school, and we come back and she’s like, “I don’t really want to do this.” So, I say, “I’ll tell you what: Don’t turn in your assignment. But I’m going to interview you right now, and I want you to say to your teacher why you won’t do the assignment.” And I turn on the tape recorder (cassette!) and she said, “It’s not relevant to my generation.” And I’m like, That’s a damn good answer! I give the cassette to her teacher, and as a result of that, her teacher brought me into the class. We did this exercise where we got all the kids to talk about what is actually relevant to their generation. And the top issue turned out to be gun violence.

OW: Ten-year-olds saying that!

RK: Yeah, fourth grade. It was gun violence, number one. The kids ended up writing a beautiful letter, collectively written, to then-President Bill Clinton basically saying, “Do something about gun violence.” So, we took what was essentially this moment of “I’m bored. This is terrible. I don’t like Dr. King” to “OK, well what’s your dream?” That exercise was in the back of my head as I began thinking about Freedom Dreams.

All of these things were coming to a head: the killing of Amadou Diallo, the protests around that, the fact that once again we’re out here dealing with state violence again and again and again and again and it doesn’t seem like things are changing. And when something changes, there are more Black people killed. The combination of all this, stylistically, compelled me to write a book that didn’t have footnotes, that didn’t have academic authorizations but simply was an alternative history for all of us to think about as I’m having this chat with you. I’m happy with how it came out stylistically. It wasn’t conscious, but it really was shaped by those forces and shaped so much by my daughter. I can’t even tell you how important it was just to have her as an interlocutor. Because everything I wrote I was writing for her.

OW: There’s this amazing chapter in the book about reparations, and my question is, What are your thoughts on contemporary reparations discourse both happening by theorists and activists on the ground and that which very shortly made its way into the 2020 presidential discourse?

RK: The current discourse on reparations is really disturbing for me. So much of the emphasis is on paying a debt monetarily. I can give you three problems. One: The idea that African descendants of slavery should be the ones to receive reparations as if somehow the crime of human kidnapping and enforced labor can be bound up in the nation-state and that only the people who have enough money to pay for a subscription to are the ones who can apply. This is a triumph of neoliberal thinking. Two: The focus on monetary settlement is a way to turn what could potentially be a radical movement into a movement for property. In Evanston, Illinois, the people who got cheated by the real estate industry and finance capital are going to get money to buy a house, and the value of the house is not going to change because they’re still Black. So, even if you believe in property, the fact that we’re not even addressing the question of structural racism is a concern. Three: We cannot separate the question of reparations from decolonization. What good is a transfer of stolen land from settlers to victims of kidnapping? We have to return to a transformative vision that sees reparations discourse as diagnostic—that is, a way of understanding our history, how wealth is created, accumulated, and concentrated, and the consequences of dispossession. Reparations can never be an end-all. The dismantling of racial capitalism for good is the goal. We have to struggle to end all forms of oppression if we’re going to create the freedom dreams that we not only deserve, but those the planet needs if we’re going to survive.

OW: How has the meaning of freedom changed for you since this book came out?

RK: Freedom is still deeply spiritual; it is bodily; it is rooted not just in love but pleasure, which is not always the same thing. I think it’s worth remembering that the collective and the individual are not foes. In fact, if done right, they are two sides of the same experience and process. Practicing freedom in Detroit, for example, means taking the power grid into the collective’s hands. It means ending the presence of police by creating new forms of social safety. It means creating forums for people to talk, work, and learn together, but also grow things. It means reimagining and reshaping the urban landscape. Those engaged in the struggle are practicing freedom everywhere, and so to me, I can sit back and just watch freedom unfold right before our eyes.

OW: Implicit in your definition of freedom is a critique of liberalism, no?

RK: Yes! The redefinition of freedom is one that is against liberalism. The liberal framework has been a disaster because liberalism is that which was used against radical abolitionist movements to get them to shut up and get Biden and Harris elected. Liberalism is used as a framing of history—that is, the idea that history is continual progress. The idea that there is a “real America” and these other dark moments are an aberration is based on a liberal conception that progress is inevitable if you wait. Part of what I’m hoping that this 20th-anniversary edition can do is remind us that fascism has always been a threat, but this country is built on fascism. Fascism is the use of the state to force people into subjugation and to extract wealth for a class. And if fascism is based on nationalism, and especially a racialized nationalism, then America is fascist. But liberalism underwrites it.

And I hope the book will remind us that at no point in our history has a liberal regime actually improved conditions for Black people. Liberalism gives us carceral feminism. Liberalism gives us a war on poverty that’s about policing Black people. Liberalism gives us civil rights legislation that is designed to deliver votes to Democrats but not to achieve anything like freedom. We cannot be bought or convinced or tricked into thinking that liberalism equals freedom because that is the lie that we have been told since the days of John Locke.

OW: One of the things that the book does so well is think about how the problem of liberalism gets deployed against Black people to negate what Black freedom could possibly be. But also you talk about the history of socialism and communism and how, as political ideologies and systems, they don’t automatically bring race to the forefront. They don’t automatically come with everything that Black people need in order to have freedom or anything like it come to fruition.

RK: And that has been the lie that some elements on the Marxist-Leninist left have tried to impose. Just shut up, because once socialism comes, all this other stuff will be resolved. This is where we get these tricky problems where, on the one hand, the Cuban Revolution is a great achievement, but don’t talk about the inability of the Cuban Revolution to resolve the issue of racism and racial inequality. Because if you do, then, you’re going to undermine the Cuban Revolution. Or the flip side is that people then use what you say to say, “See? Socialism will never work!” And we can do better.

I’m really inspired by what I’ve seen over the last 20 years. Life might have gotten worse but movements and the visions of movements have not. The deeper the misery, the sharper the catastrophe, the more visionary the movements. And they’re the ones that end up being the casualties of the state, because the state and those in power cannot tolerate them. They can only tolerate liberal multiculturalism. They can make everyone in the State Department queer and a person of color and it’s the same policies. When you start thinking about freedom in the way that this new generation is thinking about it, it’s dangerous.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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