Announcer: This is The Takeaway with Melissa Harris-Perry from WNYC and PRX in collaboration with GBH News in Boston.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Writing last year for the LA Times, New Yorker staff writer Vinson Cunningham described Robin D. G. Kelley as one of the great historians of our era. Indeed, Professor Kelley is likely to be remembered as one of the great historians of any era. Serving now as the Gary B. Nash professor of American history at UCLA. Kelley is a prolific writer, careful thinker, and truly gifted teacher.
Back in 1978, he was a teenager working at the Pasadena McDonald's and he opens his 1994 text Race Rebels by writing about it. He explains that back in his day the milkshakes did not come ready mixed, so the young people had to mix them in a paper cup, adding flavored syrup and that sometimes they would not attach the mixer blade exactly right. What it would do, create a big mess but also meant that everybody who was working got a little bit of milkshake.
Kelley writes, "Because we were underpaid and overworked, we accepted consumption as just compensation." You see, these are the insights that distinguish Robin Kelley. His books reveal how presumably ordinary Black Folk leading lives of labor are nonetheless crafting meaningful social and political actions that lay the groundwork for those explosive moments we later understand as social movements.
In Hammer and Hoe, he writes about Alabama sharecroppers who joined the Communist Party. In Race Rebels, he explains how the Zoot suits of Malcolm X's youth revealed his emerging Black pride politics. In 2002, Robin D. G. Kelley penned Freedom Dreams capturing the power of Black radical imagination to recreate the world, Freedom Dreams, which have come to life in the 20 years since the book's publication.
[start of audio playback]
Crowd: Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. George Floyd. Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter.
[end of audio playback]
Melissa Harris-Perry: I sat down with Robin D. G. Kelley and asked him how those Alabama communists and milkshake machine breakers are predecessors of the great resignation.
Robin D. G. Kelley: Let's talk about the communists. Right now, there's two or three different debates going on, one having to do with what work is, what work does to us, and what does it mean to fight back? A lot of times, we think of work as only the wages we take home and the benefits, not the conditions, not the question of dignity, not the physical impact it has on our bodies. Both Race Rebels and the book on the communists of Alabama shows us is that there's something deeper than just physical work, there's people's spiritual wholeness, there's people's quest for dignity, for power to control their own time, for example.
One of the things that I learned studying these basically almost unknown, mostly Black people in the south and Alabama, many of whom couldn't read or write, the kinds of things they fought for are not the things that we always think of, they're fighting for things like making sure that you can have electricity when your electricity's turned off by using jumper cables, they were making sure that people weren't evicted from their homes. They were also making sure that they could hold onto this dream of a world beyond Jim Crow, beyond capitalism, one in which the kinds of racial and exploitative systems that they grew up in would disappear and be replaced by something else and what that's something else for them at least came from the Bible.
It was like, Jesus Christ's sermon on the mountain for them and they were communists. With Race Rebels, I opened up talking about my experience working at McDonald's and we're younger people, this is the late 1970s, so I'm dating myself and for a lot of us, dignity, fun, being able to use our time in ways that we have some control, that was way more important than getting that minimum wage up from 265 to 270. [chuckles]
Not to say it wasn't important, but it's like, we're all whole human beings and whole human beings mean that our life doesn't begin and end at work, and we bring that life to our jobs, you bring that life to organizing, we bring that life to struggle so that when we think about, " What do we fight for?" What we fight for is much bigger than just money and it's much bigger than trying to change the system we have and just adjust it and tweak it to make it more inclusive.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's been 20 years since you first publish Freedom Dreams and this book really does reveal to us a long trajectory of radical imagining, as you frame it, this radical imagination of human freedom that lives within the particular history of Black Folks in the US. What is some of that history? What are some of the key stopping points?
Robin D. G. Kelley: The way I organized the book and I only realized this after the fact was very autobiographical and so in some ways, it tracks my own personal trajectory politically. I just want to be clear that each one of these tracks I don't leave behind, so I open up by talking about the importance of land and whether that land is returning to Africa, or whether that land is 40 acres and a mule. The idea of land and creating autonomous communities where people really could control their relationships, their worship, their food that they produce and not be beholden to a system that treats them like slaves.
The question of land is tied to nationalism and so I came up politically as a nationalist, everything they had African people in it I was in it, [chuckles] every organization, and yet one of the things that I try to emphasize in that chapter is that that kind of nationalism was never exclusionary, it was actually inclusion. Inclusion was driving the new African movement, things like that because the belief was, we want to build a world where we as Black people are free first and anyone who wants to join us they can as long as they understand that they have to respect our freedom, and I eventually became involved in left organizations, became a communist.
I write about the left and how, in many ways, it was a relationship that led to certain kinds of breakups, where you're drawn in by the ideas of Marx and Lenin, and this idea of revolution and in socialism, but then you're surrounded by mostly male white leftists whose imagination is constricted. For them politically it's the dream of eliminating difference, that is like, "Don't talk about race, don't talk about gender, don't talk about queerness, don't talk about disability, let's just talk about us as a class and live all this stuff behind." When we do that and we could win, then all the different kinds of oppressions and expectations will just wither away, that's just simply not true.
Part of what I tried to argue in those chapters was that there was a Black left tradition that critiqued that idea, that actually was far more inclusion area, far more visionary than what the mainstream leftists were pushing forward and it moves into thorough liberation movements. Then from there, I talked about the reparations movements, but think about reparations not simply as a payment to shut us up, but reparations as a massive infusion of resources and money, to social movements, to fight to transform this planet.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Are radical social movement still possible?
Robin D. G. Kelley: They have to be. [chuckles] They really have to be because right now if we don't change the direction we are going, we're not going to have a planet. I don't just mean that in terms of the existential threat of climate catastrophe, that's real, that's the most important thing we're dealing with right now, but we're seeing whatever vestiges of democracy that exist in the West. Vestiges because they never really worked out fully as you know, you know better than me, but we're seeing the collapse of whatever's left and moving toward authoritarianism.
We need radical social movements in order to hedge against that, in order to reverse the process of the capital scene, that is the climate catastrophe produced by fossil fuels, by exploitation of land, and we need to decolonize. Because at the source of all this, all this crisis, all this struggle is the expansion of the colonial structures from Europe, all the way around the world and subjugating people, moving human beings, taking land and labor, and then creating this wealth for a few.
We have to do this for our own survival and we shouldn't be afraid of the radical part because what we've been living through is this different radicalism, the radicalism of neoliberalism, the radicalism of the far right, the radicalism of a capitalism that says we really don't care about people, we care about profits. That's radical, but not in a good way.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The surrealism, the imagined, the maroon poets, I wonder about the ways that we can nurture creativity. I worry a little bit as the parent of school-aged child and a college-aged child, but a third grader who, in her privileged school, gets art class and has a chance to learn a musical instrument and just has those other parts of her brain unlocked, so that she can make up stories and think about what the world might look like.
She tells me all the time, if the world were made of Legos, she would take it all apart and then put it back together better. We're concerned, as we should be, with the anti-CRT movement and all that, but I wonder a lot about just the basic tools of creativity that allow us to have an imagination of any kind.
Robin D. G. Kelley: You're so right about this because in our scramble just to restore basic literature that the anti-CRT, these really fascist attacks on education, what we end up doing is restoring back the status quo. The status quo was actually moving away from creativity, from art to this belief that STEM, not saying STEM isn't creative, it can be, but that STEM, that knowing about science and engineering and mathematics is all we really need. Why? For the same reasons they said that during the Cold War, to be competitive. Who wants to make competitive children? For real? We're just cogs in the wheel.
We need to nurture that creativity because that is the source of politics, of vision. That's a source of remaking the world and so there is a class disconnect between those children who are dealing with overcrowded schools in urban and rural areas, sometimes underfunded, and always being told that what you need to do is college prep, what you need to do is learn math, what you need to do is learn skill.
One of the things I could say about this empirically is that when we talk about the 1960s, the late '60s as this radical moment, if you look at what's happening in public education, especially-- I grew up in New York. Public education was opening up in a way. It was quite experimental. The struggle for community control, for example, was about changing curriculum. It's about connecting kids to the neighborhoods they live in. It's about creating more art, more music, and more infusion of creativity in those days. It is no accident that that's a period of revolutionary insurgency.
The Black Panther Party led the way in saying we need to feed our kids in the morning to make sure that they have nutrition, but they were doing other things like comic books, drawing, talking about politics, talking about life, sharing stories. That's the thing that created the conditions for what terrorized the US state, which expanded COINTELPRO, which led to the repression of these movements. We need to go back to that and it shouldn't be the privileged schools alone that encourage creativity. We need to go back to that. We need to be much bolder in our defense of education than we are right now, I think.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is there one takeaway that you have from the 20 years between the first edition of Freedom Dreams and this one?
Robin D. G. Kelley: Wow, one takeaway. Well, I won't talk about all the things I would have done differently. I write about that in the new introduction, things I would have changed. I suppose the one takeaway is probably that we need to continue to create these cognitive roadmaps and that the way we think about remaking the future has to always be connected to social movements, has to always be connected to struggle. One of my concerns about the moment we're in today, even though we had 26 million people in the streets, is that in this era of blogging and pundits, there's a way in which there are people who speak for us who are disconnected from us.
This is one of the beautiful things about your own work, the fact that you would go into places like barbershops and beauty parlors and places like that, to talk to people about politics. They're thinking. Political discourse takes place in these spaces with other people, not necessarily something that we download. To me, that's the takeaway, that we need to continue to connect with one another because together we make better politics a better future.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Robin D. G. Kelley is the author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Thank you for joining us.
Robin D. G. Kelley: Thank you.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.