Robin Kelley brings grass-roots movements to history’s grand narrative
BY ELAINE RAY
When a reader compliments historian Robin D. G. Kelley on the accessibility of his writing, the ever soft-spoken scholar's response betrays no false modesty.
"That's the biggest compliment, because that's the one thing I try to achieve, only because I can't understand academic writing myself. I'm just not that smart."
OK, so he earned a bachelor's degree in three years from California State University at Long Beach in 1983 despite the fact that he'd chosen four majors before settling on one in history. Back then, some of his professors were so taken with his intellect that they allowed him to forego bluebook exams. Instead, he wrote 120-page primary source research papers and accepted invitations to lecture in some of his undergraduate classes. Within four years after earning his B.A., Kelley got a master's in African history and doctorate in U.S. history, both from UCLA in 1985 and 1987, respectively. In 1994, at age 32, he became a full professor at New York University. Not that smart? Yeah, right.
Kelley, 36, recently spent an academic year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. His time there was devoted to promoting his latest book, Yo' Mama's Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America, which takes on popular notions of life in urban life. He also got started on his next project, a book on the late jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. In between, he gave a few campus lectures and served on some dissertation committees.
Kelley's accessibility is not limited to his writing. He is as comfortable talking to unemployed black workers in Yonkers as he is with white democratic socialists. He can rattle off the ideas of Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci and in the next breath dissect the lyrics of a rap artist.
"He immediately breaks down the barriers between the lecturer and the audience," says Clayborne Carson, professor of history and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project. "He's very in touch with young people. He's not very old, but he's also very aware of contemporary social trends."
Kelley's other books include Hammer and Hoe, on the experience of Communists in Depression-era Alabama; Into the Fire: African Americans Since 1970, part of the Young Oxford History of African Americans series; and Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class.
"He's in the middle ground between social history and kind of postmodern cultural analysis," Carson adds. "He certainly doesn't go in for the jargon of the postmodern literary scholars. But he's aware of some of the insights coming out of that work and is able to adapt them to his needs as a social historian." Carson, who has known Kelley for several years, appreciated the opportunities their families had to spend together on the Farm this year. "What was different this time was being able to spend time with his family, Diedra [Harris-Kelley] and Elleza [their daughter]."
Kelley spent the early years of his life in New York and later moved west to Seattle and ultimately to Pasadena. The difference between his Harlem and Southern California experiences was striking. In Harlem, Kelley remembers participating in the Black Panther Party's free breakfast program. At his elementary school, students routinely sang Lift Every Voice and Sing rather than The Star-Spangled Banner. The flag that stood in the auditorium at P.S. 28 was red, black and green, symbolizing black liberation.
"It was a very international kind of environment. You had a lot of West Indian families, Puerto Rican families, people trying to be African because that was both chic and politically important." By the time Kelley got to Pasadena, things were quite different. His focus, like that of other teenagers there, was on hair, cars and parties. "By the time I got to high school in the late '70s, there were political movements, but they weren't as pronounced," he says.
Kelley's political reawakening came during his years at Long Beach, where he started out as an industrial arts major. He abandoned those ambitions when he met Diedra, a visual artist. "I wanted to be a photographer, then I met an artist and realized that's not my vocation," he says. He then decided to pursue business because it was a popular major. In the meantime, he got involved in campus political organizations such as the All-African People's Revolutionary Party and the Communist Workers Party.
"It was the political experience which really informed my academic trajectory. It had nothing to do with academics per se. It had to do with the political connections I had," Kelley said. Those connections included professors who were long-time Jewish radicals as well as Afro-centric nationalists. "So, here I am in this bifurcated world, reading Egyptology on one hand and German ideology on the other. History allowed me to bridge those two gaps," says Kelley, who in addition to industrial arts and business tried out philosophy and political science before he realized his true calling.
Kelley went straight from Long Beach to graduate school at UCLA. He taught at Southeastern Massachusetts University, Emory University and the University of Michigan before joining the faculty in NYU's history department and Africana studies program four years ago. There, he teaches U.S. history, African American history and popular culture. His favorite course is one called "Black Revolt in the Modern World," which takes an international view of liberation struggles from the 17th century to the present.
"We look at North America, South America, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe. We look at the impact of things like the Haitian Revolution and black people's involvement in the American Revolution. We look at the end of slavery not just in the U.S., but all over the world to show that these free people reconstructed the state in places like Guyana, the United States, South Africa in making demands and redefining what freedom meant," Kelley says.
Unlike many of his colleagues, Kelley says he rarely teaches courses based on his own research. "I'm finding that students are having trouble getting a whole big picture," Kelley says. "Instead they're getting their professors' research interests."
Kelley's scholarship focuses on two central questions: How have black people, particularly in the New World, defined the notion of liberation, and what strategies have they developed to achieve it. Liberation struggles, according to Kelley, are varied and continual and fraught with conflict. The interests of one group inevitably clash with those of another, whether it's the black poor vs. the black middle class, blacks against other racial communities or men against women.
"I don't think there's going to be a moment when suddenly we're all going to get together and win. I think it's a constant battle, and it's always been sustained it's just that it ebbs and flows. That's why the kind of history I try to write is about those ebbs and flows on the one hand. On the other hand, it's about movements that we simply don't know anything about. Movements that actually made a difference that are not part of the general grand narrative."
To that end, Kelley has focused a lot of his attention on grass-roots protests and efforts. These include the network of organizations built and run mostly by women in Watts in the early 1960s before the community erupted in flames in 1965. They also include acts of resistance to Jim Crow waged by the South's black poor well before the black elite lifted the civil rights banner.
These protests don't always translate into movements, he says. They can range from work slowdowns at factories to employees pilfering items from their workplaces. By engaging in these acts, Kelley says, workers often feel that they have somehow righted an injustice. Because these actions are often not organized, scholars generally overlook them. Instead, he says, academics define liberation, then go out and try to find examples that fit their definitions.
Kelley views culture particularly popular culture as an expression of those desires for liberation. Hip-hop music, graffiti and other popular forms, for instance, are not simply venues for making money, he says, but have provided a creative outlet as well.
"It's not always about more money or more things to buy or even a better house or a better car. Sometimes it's intangible things like love or being able to create," Kelley says.
Acknowledging the importance of creativity in political expression is what has attracted Kelley to Surrealism, a body of political thought that recognizes that oppression is often rooted in capitalism, but that unleashing the imagination and being able to see beyond one's immediate circumstances is a big part of being free.
"If I were going to characterize my
politics, it would be Marxist Surrealist feminist who is not just
anti something but pro-emancipation, pro-liberation. Marxism is
anti-capitalist, feminism is anti-patriarchy. But it's also about
re-envisioning our lives in this world." SR