Robin DG Kelley is a Distinguished Professor and Gary B. Nash Professor of United States History at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of more than seven books, including Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional! : Fighting the culture wars in urban America (Beacon Press, 1997). The revised and expanded edition of his 2002 book, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imaginationwas published by Beacon Press on August 22. We spoke by phone on June 28.
Q: In the foreword to the new twentieth anniversary edition of your book dreams of freedom, writes the poet Aja Monet, “Twenty years later, the truths revealed remain relevant and necessary especially in the thick crippling despair of a global pandemic”. Where do you see the truths of today?
Robin DG Kelley: You and I talk shortly after the reversal of Roe vs. Wadein what looks like the start of a right-wing agenda, led by Christian fundamentalists.
If there is one main lesson in the book, it is that many of these dark moments of repression are actually responses to rebellion, opposition, [and] resistance to other types of possibilities.
In other words, what we are seeing now from the Supreme Court is its shift to the right in response to the opening up of democratic possibilities dating back to the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. In many ways, it’s almost as if the right is just capable of outmaneuvering a lot of us. They were trying to stop something.
Clarence Thomas has been in the field for a very long time, and it’s probably the most active he’s ever been. He was waiting for this moment. But keep in mind that when we use terms like rollback, [it] means that we have made progress somewhere. Something had to happen for them to back down. What we are currently witnessing is a step backwards. . . .
[Here] in the United States, no one could really [have] imagined twenty-six million people on the streets around the murder of a black man, who was himself a former prisoner. It was unimaginable.
What I always remind myself, and my students and fellow students, is that what is possible now is far more visionary and expansive than what we thought was possible. That’s what dreams of freedom is trying to imagine something beyond that, rather than trying to return to the status quo.
Q: You have called the Black Panther Party a model of successful organization that your students focus on. But it was really a response to the conditions. I think what you are talking about in dreams of freedom is something different. What does emancipation look like beyond the notion of non-enslavement?
Kelly: It’s all about perspective. I am a historian; that’s what I do. Sometimes we tend to look at history from the present backwards: we ask ourselves “How did we get here?” And when we ask that question, we tend to use tunnel vision, because what we’re trying to do is follow the path, and that almost assumes the path is inevitable.
What dreams of freedom tries to do is to ask the question “What does emancipation mean?” from the point of view of the moment, whether it was the 1870s and 1880s, when blacks were in search of land, or the 1930s, when communists actually thought they could gain state power and create revolution on a global scale, or whether it’s the 1960s or 1970s. In other words, when you stand in the moment and look ahead, what’s in front of you is what vast horizon of possibilities, not the inevitable end, which is by no means inevitable.
When we talk about “What does emancipation mean?” there are certain themes that come up again and again. These themes are a broader sense of what freedom means – that freedom is bodily autonomy, freedom is the land, freedom is not being able to be controlled and watched. It is not only about negative freedoms, but about positive freedoms: to create new commons, to take back the commons of which whole groups of people have been dispossessed. Freedom is decolonization. And that takes imagination.
We have such a limited imagination in terms of what democracy means. So there are many ways to imagine that future, but the only way to do that is not through think tanks and blogs and Twitter, but by actually being together and working together, and fighting.
If there is a major theme in dreams of freedom, is that none of these visions of emancipation were like light bulbs going out. They were really people in the trenches, people trying to build movements, people trying to escape forms of oppression to create the new world, the new land.
Q: You say in the book that you cannot separate the critical analysis of social movements from the notion of movements as not being limited to the accomplishment of a particular goal.
Kelly: I had to throw that review in there, because one of the weird ironies of the last twenty years is that we actually have more organizations than probably ever. We have more progressive organizations and more progressive language. But the problem is that almost all of them are funded by foundations that have a corporate mentality.
In this world of social media, you can pretty much be whatever you want to be. [and] say what you mean, and it has no bearing on the political landscape. . . . But now we have the criminalization of teachers. So here I’m saying something quite different, which is that we’ve actually moved to an even more reactionary stance, the kind of attacks on so-called critical race theory – this which isn’t really that, but those kind of attacks on the curriculum. We are in a place where people could be criminalized, could even lose their jobs, if not prosecuted.
What it means to be a revolutionary is to fight for those who may not be fighting for you. It’s about learning to fight for others.
State power is deployed in culture wars in ways I had not seen in the 1990s. I never imagined it would be this bad, and the tragedy in all of this is that despite the proliferation of the media, the 24-hour news cycle, the constant pursuit of controversy, there seems to be less engagement among the American population than there was, say, thirty years ago. And maybe it’s because everything exists on social networks, but if it exists on social networks, it doesn’t really have an impact. . . . It’s almost as if those explosive moments are more like Snapchat. You have this image, this protest, [and] then he disappears. And everyone goes back to the mall.
[We should] think of the culture wars not just in terms of the entrenchment of right-wing values, but rather, literally, as the cultural terrain where we fight for life, for people’s needs, for a new world. If the cultural terrain is social media, television, [and] movie – if that’s it, then we’re losing more now than I think we lost in the 1990s.
Q: In Yo ‘Mama’s Disfunktional!, you write: “As the global economy expands, the terrain of culture becomes even more crucial as a terrain of struggle. I want to take this idea of a global culture war back to dreams of freedom and ask you to talk about the notion of “dreams of freedom” which turns from an adjective and a noun into a noun and a verb. How do we turn our dreams of freedom from noun status to verb status?
Kelly: I talk about various photographers, filmmakers and artists, and the way the street and public art they do is not only a critique of the horrific conditions we face, it’s also a new map to a future different. Dreaming of collective freedom, these are the terms that have also been taken up by various artists and musicians.
I give the example in the epilogue of how it manifests in practice, especially in the towns of Jackson [Mississippi] and Detroit [Michigan], where you see artists, high school students and community activists working together to create new forms of social life. There are all these efforts where artists and people in the community come together in a fight. They fight to create. . . to stage, should I say, this world that the “dreams of freedom” would look like, these kinds of spaces, of liberated zones.
Q: Talking more about this idea of poetry, culture and imagination being part of a revolutionary practice, people tend to think that revolutionary movements are just competing for space in political arenas. But you say it’s really the “dream” part that makes this revolutionary project a reality.
Kelly: That’s exactly the point, because that’s the part of dreams that I don’t think is a new thing. It has always been the glue that holds the movements together. I’m trying to demonstrate that if we measure moves in terms of wins and losses, in terms of actual gains versus losses, then we’re going to miss the dreaming part. And we’re also going to miss how the part of the dream, the vision, isn’t a fixed thing. It’s always dynamic, always moving, always changing, as the movements change, people come in and out and try to figure out where we’re going. It is therefore extremely important to try to capture this dynamic.
Q: You are closing the introduction to the new revised and expanded edition of dreams of freedom with a quote from your daughter Eliza: “The power of the love letter is that it is written without the guarantee of a response.” Talk about radical social movements as love letters.
Kelly: The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. To truly love, to love a people, to love a movement, to love freedom, is to love without expectation of reciprocity.
We live in a political era where everything is based on exchange – solidarity is in a way supposed to resemble a market economy. What it means to be a revolutionary is to fight for those who may not be fighting for you. It’s about learning to fight for others. And I know that’s a hard thing to do in this age of pessimism, but we have a long history, and hopefully the book demonstrates it, that we have a long history of fighting for others, even people we’ve never seen before. . If we could learn to do that, then we could really learn to love. The policy should be based on that, not on reciprocity.