the minnesota review n.s. 58-60 (2003)

Robin D. G. Kelley with Jeffrey J. Williams

History and Hope: An Interview with Robin D. G. Kelley

Robin D. G. Kelley has been hailed as a leading African American historian of the modern era, investigating black working-class history, notably in his precocious Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression, and the history of black radicalism from Aimé Césaire to Cedric Robinson. More recently, he has also turned to comment on contemporary black culture and politics in extra-academic venues such as The New York Times.

Kelley uncovered the largely invisible history of the Communist Party in Alabama and the work of African Americans in it during the 1930s in his first book Hammer and Hoe (U of North Carolina P, 1990). Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (Free Press, 1994) marked a turn to crossover writing and extended the span of his historical research, ranging from African Americans in the Spanish Civil War to contemporary hip-hop culture. Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional! Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (Beacon, 1997) disabuses the construction of "ghetto culture" in academic and political discourse and foregrounds the hope of working class social movements to redeem urban America. Freedom Dreams (Beacon, 2002), drawing on black, feminist, and socialist radical traditions, stakes out the terms of hope for future politics. Kelley is currently finishing a biography Misteriosos: The Art of Thelonius Monk.

This interview took place on 7 February 2003 in Robin Kelley's office at NYU. It was conducted by Jeffrey Williams and transcribed by Laura Rotunno, managing editor of the minnesota review while a PhD student at the University of Missouri.

Williams: Your discipline is history, but people who come upon your work now would probably know you through Freedom Dreams or Yo' Mama's Disfunktional!, and stuff in the Village Voice and the New York Times. Your first book, of course, is Hammer and Hoe, which looks at the fact, unexpectedly, that there were a good many Communists in Alabama in the 1920s or 30s, and many of them were African Americans. How did you come to do this project? How did you start out?

Kelley: It's funny because I didn't study history to be a historian. I studied history to attempt to solve a series of political problems. When I was an undergraduate, I chose history as a discipline that would allow me to look at social movements in the most holistic way. I studied political science and was a political science major, I was a philosophy major, but I was interested in social movements.

So I went to graduate school to study history not to be a history professor, but to be a professional Communist. That was my thing, and I was a member of the Communist Workers' Party. I chose to go back to the period of Stalinism to figure out what happened when you build a movement around the notion of the self-determination of African Americans. What happens when you say that African Americans in the Black Belt counties of the South constitute a nation, and your politics are built around that? Did they actually try to achieve self-determination? Were they struggling for land?

The original conception of the project was not just to look at the South but to look at South Africa. I went to graduate school to study African history. Actually my MA is in African history and my PhD would have been, but I had to switch fields. The only reason that South Africa didn't come into the equation was strictly political—with the state of emergency in 1986, I couldn't get into the country. So Alabama became the focal point ...

Williams: Why couldn't you get into the country?

Kelley: Because with the state of emergency in '86, no one was getting in, and I was foolish enough (I say foolish in quotes) to have protested, along with my comrades, at the South African consulate the day before I turned in my paperwork for my visa.

Williams: They knew who you were?

Kelley: Oh yeah, they remembered me. I was hassled by a police officer up there—the South African consulate was in Beverly Hills, in a building that was unmarked, but we knew where it was.

Anyway, the study on Alabama became a way to test the thesis about self-determination. But once I got to the archives and once I began to interview people I realized I was asking the wrong questions.

Williams: What were the questions that you asked?

Kelley: Well, the questions that I started out with were: were these black people in the South fighting for self-determination? What did they do to implement what was called the Black Nation thesis—the idea of self-determination of the Black Belt? In fact, the question I should have been asking and that I ended up asking was: what happened when these home-grown, rural and urban African American workers and sharecroppers confronted an international movement? How did they transform that movement? What are the kinds of cultural baggage they brought to the movement? Suddenly I had something much more exciting.

It was a critical lesson in terms of the importance of archival research, in terms of being open to new sources and reading sources in new ways. I'm not saying that my politics weren't fundamentally driving me to study the Communist party in Alabama. They were fundamental in raising the questions, but I realized that sometimes when you get inside of a movement the questions arise from the movement. That was exciting to me, and Hammer and Hoe is still my favorite book.

It was a kind of detective project because it meant methodologically trying to write a history of a movement which purposefully left no traces. It was too dangerous to keep records and minutes. This was a movement that did everything they could to erase every evidence of their existence because they were constantly being chased by the police, and to try to reconstruct that history required an enormous amount of work but also creativity and imagination in terms of how to find sources.

Williams: So you interviewed a lot of people? It's kind of poignant when you talk about the people that you talked to, like Lemon Johnson.

Kelley: Yeah, I interviewed quite a few people, like Lemon Johnson and Charles Smith and Hosea Hudson. These are people who luckily survived long enough for me to write the book. Had I tried to write it ten years later, they would have all been gone. But then a lot of it was archival work. Besides the party newspapers, the police were very good about keeping tabs on people. You go through the Governor's files and they have all these little mimeographed leaflets and handbills that they passed out. There are a lot of gaps, but I got enough to be able to tell the story.

Another thing about Hammer and Hoe is that in some ways it is not really African American history. Some of the key figures were white, many of whom were second, third-generation Jews who migrated to the South and who ended up as central figures in the Communist movement in Montgomery, Alabama. It forced me to learn a lot about twentieth-century American history. It was a very exciting project.

Williams: You went to grad school in California, and you mention in one of your books that you worked at McDonald's in Pasadena when you were a teenager. I also read that you lived in Seattle, but it seems clear you’re a New Yorker, and you've written about growing up in Harlem in the 60s. Could you tell me about your background?

Kelley: Sure. The first nine years of my life I spent in Harlem, in Washington Heights. My mom, for the most part, was single. We lived in a low-income community, as they say. Growing up in Harlem in that period—we're talking about roughly the mid-60s to 1971—was an exciting time for our generation, because the streets were very politicized. There was a very strong presence of Black Nationalism. Third World liberation movements were present. There was a certain language of the street, where everyone talked about freedom—"Freedom Now," "Free the land." So I grew up in a generation that really believed that freedom was at hand, and that freedom was not a national project but an international one.

As a little kid, I remember being at a Black Panther Party breakfast program once or twice. It was just being involved in demonstrations or walking down the street and watching exchanges between people or going to the store. All of us grew up knowing that black people were part of a world majority. We were not minorities; every person of color was claimed as part of this world majority. We identified with the Chinese, with people from Latin America. All those struggles became part of the discourse, and living in Harlem, which was predominantly black and, at that time, Puerto Rican, also gave us a sense of a world majority. Then I ended up moving to Seattle ...

Williams: Why did you move to Seattle?

Kelley: Basically I was kidnapped by my father. He remarried, and they convinced my sister and me to visit and kept us pretty much in captivity for five years. My mother, who was very poor, couldn't afford a lawyer. She had legal custody. I'll never forget the day when she actually raised enough money to take a bus from New York to Seattle. She arrived on Christmas day, after we had been there for about three months, to get her children. And my father pulls out a gun and sticks it to her head and says, "You're not getting these kids. You might as well go back." My mom ended up moving to California in order to be closer to us, and she had relatives in California. The way that we ended up leaving my father and his wife was by running away from home.

Williams: My god ... you were about twelve or thirteen?

Kelley: We were older than that. Let's see, I left New York when I was nine to live in Seattle. Fifteen. Two weeks after my fifteenth birthday, I got out.

Moving from New York to Seattle threw me into a black community but a predominantly white world. We were part of the busing program, so suddenly I was bused out to a predominantly white school in the suburbs. There were like twenty-three of us, and we all rode the bus together. There wasn't a single person of color, whether they were Asian, Latino, or black, who went to this school in a city that had a very large Asian population. So that was a shock. I suddenly had to deal with a majority white world in a way that I was insulated from. Politically it had a huge impact on me just in terms of dealing with racism in a direct way.

So we left for California, and we were thrown into a somewhat similar situation. Pasadena, at least the community I lived in, was predominantly Chicano and black. We lived on this small street called Penn Street, and there was a lot of drug dealing and gang activity. We ended up moving to Altadena right afterward. It was still predominantly black. You could walk from my old house to the new place in twenty-five minutes, going uphill.

Williams: So from there you went to Cal State-Long Beach?

Kelley: Yeah. Cal State-Long Beach was a basically a third-tier state university, and in those days, in the 1980s when I entered college, the tuition was like ninety dollars a semester. And I had financial aid; it was a great deal!

Williams: When I went to Stony Brook in the early 80s, I got TAP (Tuition Assistance) and had to pay something like a hundred dollars a semester for fees. That was when there was still a liberal welfare state and college, especially at state universities, was actually affordable.

Kelley: Absolutely. Cal State-Long Beach turned out to be a very important decision because it had a significant group of activists, many of whom were in the Black Student Union. I was immediately drawn to that group. I went from major to major until I settled on history and black studies. I came to love black studies because of politics, not because, like a lot of students, I took a class here and there that I liked. My first response, like a lot of African American students, was "I've been robbed! All this information I should know! I should know about African slave trade! I should know about the great pyramids of Gaza! I should know about the great accomplishments that the history books omitted!" So these courses radicalized my generation. They introduced us to texts as disparate as George E. M. James's Stolen Legacy, which is about the way that the Egyptians stole ideas from the Greeks. We read Cheikh Anta Diop's The African Origins of Civilization. We read C. L. R. James. We read W. E. B. Du Bois. These things blew our minds!

From there I became involved in study groups, because in those days, in the 80s, if you were involved in politics, you had a study group too. Politics wasn't just leaflets or having a program or being a speaker. It was study, study, study, and I spent so much time in the library. I spent time in the study groups debating these texts and became an intellectual, really, outside the classroom moreso than inside. It was a milieu you would not expect because these were working-class students. We all met in remedial classes. I was in remedial English because anyone who got Cal grant money was automatically put in remedial English. It didn't matter if you were a star in high school; if you got Cal grant money, which is minority money for the most part, they assumed that you had to take remedial English.

I never ever took a course in English literature in college. They felt remedial writing, technical writing, was the curriculum that was appropriate for poor, underprivileged minority students. And yet there was this intellectual core, with a vibrant intellectual culture centered around reading texts about struggle, from Du Bois and James to Walter Rodney's How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. We began to follow the footnotes and it was through the footnotes that we began to read Marx, Engels, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky. We were reading everything.

You know, I tell this story because there's this presumption that there's multiple political worlds that just don't meet. There's the Black Nationalists, unreconstructed nationalists, cultural essentialist group of folk, which was my entrée. And then there's the serious Marxist-Leninists. It was through that circle that I came to Marxism—not through being recruited by the Spartacus Youth League, and not from a class I took—and that training I brought into the classroom. My cohort, my friends and I, would go into the classroom and wage war on the professor.

Williams: How did that work?

Kelley: It was hilarious. We would strategize before class. It didn't matter who it was. We had no sympathy for African American or African professors who we thought were just reactionary running dogs. None. We had one professor, a West African scholar, and we thought her course was horrible. It was about African nationalism, so for every book she'd assign, we'd go to the library and read five or six more books, and we'd come in armed with information. We'd stand up in the back of the class and say "Well, you know, Professor, what about the fact that fifty percent of the gross national product of such and such a country is going to pay for the bureaucratic bourgeoisie? The state is not doing anything but oppressing people." These are the kinds of issues we'd raise, and it was fun, it was great to treat your professors as adversaries as opposed to all-knowing.

And we weren't always right. But it was in the engagement and struggle and debate that we actually learned something.

Williams: Did they ever prove you wrong?

Kelley: Sure. A couple times I remember being embarrassed and being wrong about information because we just didn't know enough, but every time you can't respond to a query or critique, you run back to the library. And that's what we did. We ran back to the library and got some more information and more books.

As a result of some of those classes, I had a couple of professors who took me under their wing. Not black professors. Two old Lefties, Jack Stuart, who was an old Trotskyite from the early 60s, and Leo Rifkin, who since passed, who was a Young Communist Leaguer back in the 30s and became a kind of Rockefeller Republican, but still had left-wing leanings. He said, "You should go to graduate school. You should get a PhD." I didn't know what graduate school was. I thought you just go to college, get a degree, and go get a job. But he was saying that you should be an intellectual, you should go get a PhD. I said, "What, be a teacher?" It took a long time for me to figure out that to be a scholar is so much more than standing in front of a classroom and lecturing. You are part of what you do, and that was the most amazing, eye-opening thing to me. They really supported me, allowed me to write additional papers ...

Williams: So that was in—let's see, you were born in 1962—'83 or '84? Then you went to UCLA.

Kelley: In '83. I finished my BA in three years because I was anxious to get out. Once I became an activist, I was anxious to get on with the work of making revolution. I felt that I can’t just be in school all the time because there is a revolution to make.

And then I also wanted to get married. My fiancée at the time, who is my wife now, told me when I finished my degree, then we could go forward, so I ended up taking courses in summer school in order to finish in three years.

Williams: How did you end up at UCLA? Was it a natural progression from Long Beach?

Kelley: It's a good question. I wanted to go to place with a strong African history program and I did not want to leave southern California. And UCLA had the best program. I kind of hustled my way in because the word on the streets was the UC system does not admit Cal State students. That's not universal, but Cal State was considered a notch above a community college, especially Cal State-Long Beach and Cal State-LA. So I knew that I had a disadvantage, and in my last year of college I went up to UCLA almost every week to attend various open lectures and seminars—anything having to do with African history or African studies. And I'd always ask a question. I'd introduce myself, "I'm Robin Kelley. I'm an undergrad at Cal State-Long Beach, and I'd like to know blah-blah-blah," and ask my question. Sometimes I'd have really good questions, sometimes they weren't so good, but I made them know me.

After doing this for about three months, then I started making appointments with the faculty. I remember meeting the person who became my graduate advisor: I'd show up and bring papers I was writing, hundred-and-fifty-page papers on the Mozambican revolution or the revolution in the Congo, huge things. There was no honors thesis at Long Beach, so I’d write these papers based on primary research, teaching myself French to read the documents. Then I handed these big papers to bigtime faculty saying, "I really want to come to UCLA, but, you know, I’m being recruited by Boston University and the University of Wisconsin." I was lying! I didn't even apply to those places! I only applied to UCLA, but I wanted to make sure that they knew that I was worthy. And it worked; they remembered me when my name came up in the admissions committee. That's how I got into graduate school.

Williams: That's a great story, but I don't know if you'd want to tell it to your students.

Kelley: Well, my sister and I are both first-generation college students. We knew nothing about the culture. It was so important for me to get in that I just used what I would call my hustling instinct. Yet the work had to prove itself. I did a lot of work to demonstrate how serious I was about it, and I had great mentors.

Williams: What was UCLA like?

Kelley: Again, as soon as I got to UCLA, I got involved in politics. I got involved in the African Activists Association, and a lot of the work we did was around anti-imperialism, which drove my scholarship. I was less interested in social movements and more interested in the history of capitalism in Africa. I thought I was going to be an economic historian and write books about cashews and ground nuts and railroads, and I was loving that.

Williams: Just to keep the timeline straight, that was around 1985.

Kelley: I went in '83, so I was in graduate school from '83 to '87. I completed my PhD in 1987.

Williams: And you got your Master's in African history and then you switched to American history?

Kelley: Yeah, basically what happened was that I took my qualifying exams in African history and then, when I realized I couldn't get into South Africa, I petitioned to switch fields. So I took the U.S. history exams having taken only one U.S. history course. I'm a U.S. historian with a PhD in U.S. history and only took one American history course at UCLA! And that was with John Laslett. I'm proud of the fact that, when I petitioned to take the exams in U.S. history, they said, "Well, you're going to fail it anyway," but, of the five people who took it, only three passed and I was one.

I'm basically an autodidact, which means that the various strategies that got me through elementary school, junior high and high school, and through college required individual initiative and self-training. When I decided that U.S. history would be my field, I got everyone's syllabus in the whole department. I read Reviews in American History, made a massive list of about four hundred books, and decided I'm going to master this field on my own.

Williams: How long did it take you?

Kelley: Oh, about a year. I was a reading fool. I was reading everything. I remember so vividly how I was concerned that my advisors, at least in the U.S. field, would treat me as someone who only did African American history. I'd already been reading African American history so I said, "I need to be prepared, I need to read the mainstream stuff." I was reading Richard Hofstadter, Vernon Parrington, the major works in American history.

I'll never forget the day when I took my exams and they had a question about a major U.S. historian; I remember asking the proctor, who was my advisor, "Would W. E. B. Du Bois count?" And he said no! Of course this was 1985. So I wrote about U. B. Phillips, who was an unreconstructed racist but a great scholar of slavery and plantation life. They were impressed with the essay because I had read everything by Phillips, not only the major stuff but also The History of Transportation in the Southeast in the Eastern Cotton Belt to 1860, which I think was published in 1907. I was reading just mad, crazy stuff and wrote this essay about whether or not U. B. Phillips could fall within the framework of a progressive historian. They assumed I was going to fail the exam and were so pissed off that I passed, the next year they changed the whole structure.

Williams: That's when you started working on the South and the stuff that became Hammer and Hoe?

Kelley: Yeah, Hammer and Hoe was my dissertation, but before I switched fields, I'd already conceived of a project that was comparative. My original idea was to study Johannesburg, South Africa and Birmingham, Alabama—which was a bad project, a bad idea. I'm glad I didn't do it; the best thing that ever happened to me was being denied access to South Africa.

I ended up publishing some stuff on South Africa anyway, but I was able to focus on Alabama and write this dissertation with very little guidance. John Laslett was somewhat interested in my project, but he wasn't overly enthusiastic about it. The only person who really gave me guidance was not an historian and he wasn't at UCLA. It was Cedric Robinson at Santa Barbara. He had just published Black Marxism and I'd reviewed it. No, actually I didn't review it; I tried to review it, but it was too difficult. It was such a challenge for me, that book, that I sought him out and begged him to be on my dissertation committee, and I've been working with him ever since. I ended up getting it reprinted through North Carolina and I wrote the foreword.

After I finished the dissertation, I reached out to other people in the academy who didn't know me from Adam, Nell Painter and Mark Naison. I'd never met them, but I knew their work; their work was liberally cited in my own work. I sent them my dissertation, which was almost seven hundred pages, and they both read it. They both cursed me out, but they gave me wonderful feedback and were mentors to me in a kind of post-graduate situation. Whereas most people have a very clear division between their graduate education and after, for me finishing the degree wasn't the end. After the degree I was still a graduate of these people—Naison, Nell Painter, and George Lipsitz, who mentored me after I finished. I needed it because I was twenty-five years old.

Williams: Most of the literature on professionalism is about the formation in graduate school and the formal protocols you have to go through. But I think that your first job, or whatever else you do after you graduate, is just as formative.

Kelley: That's true for me. And my first job wasn't even tenure track. It was a one-year non-tenure track visiting position at Southeastern Massachusetts University, and then I got a post-doc at UNC and a job at Emory ...

Williams: Then you went to Michigan ...

Kelley: Which was great. In fact, in terms of the development of my thinking, Michigan became like a second graduate school. Books like Race Rebels and all the articles I published around that time were significantly influenced by my colleagues at Michigan, not just in history but across the board—anthropology, Afro-American studies, American culture. It was a very vibrant intellectual environment where people talked to each other. There were a lot of study groups; I was part of a group called MSG, which was the Marxist Study Group. Every once in a while it did give you the sense that you had MSG, you got kind of sleepy and had a headache, but I learned a lot in that group, and it really shaped my work.

Williams: You were at Michigan until '94, and you've been at NYU for nine years?

Kelley: That's right. I was at Emory from '88 to '90, but in '88 I was on leave, and I arrived at Michigan in '91, because I was off my first year. Michigan institutionally was and still is my best academic experience. I learned a lot from other people reading my work and being introduced to other scholarship there—subaltern studies was introduced to me through colleagues at Michigan; a lot of critical theory that became sublimated but is still present in some of my work was there. So in some ways my work became more interdisciplinary as a result of being at Michigan.

The New York transition had more to do with my work becoming more accessible and writing for a general public. That’s what the move to New York was about.

Williams: That's a convenient marker for me. Around the mid-90s, the time of Race Rebels, you made a shift. I think I started seeing some of your pieces in the Nation and the Voice around then. Even though you have plenty of scholarly footnotes in your recent trade books, it seems to me that you deliberately turned to do more accessible, public, political writing. In another way, it's almost a kind of Horatio Alger story: with hustle, hard work, gumption or pluck, you've actually built a successful American career.

Kelley: There's a few things to say about that. One is when I wrote Hammer and Hoe accessibility was very important to me. That's why much of the theory was actually hidden in the footnotes, or just not mentioned.

Williams: I did notice there are serious footnotes in that book—something like a hundred and fifty pages worth.

Kelley: Yeah, George Lipsitz is always making fun of me for that. He says I could write a book that's all endnotes. It was important to me, for political reasons, that Hammer and Hoe was accessible because I wanted the people I interviewed to be able to read it. Actually I sent them the manuscript, the dissertation, and got feedback. Some people I interviewed couldn't read or write or lost their vision, but those who could read and write were able to give me feedback, and it was wonderful. Things they didn't understand I had to change to make them understand it. So it was always a goal for me to be able to write for other venues. I've always wanted to do that.

When I got to Michigan, I began reading as much as possible outside of my field, but also I began to submit things to publications like The Nation. The Nation was really the first turning point.

Williams: What did you write on for them?

Kelley: In '92, the first thing I did was on the L.A. Rebellion. It was about hip-hop and what it could teach us about the construction of L.A.

It's like a snowball effect; if you get one or two pieces in the public, then you start to get invitations to write more, and it just started to open up for me. Moving to New York had an even greater impact because I could actually talk to people and be a part of forums that ended up being translated into public pieces. For me, writing those pieces was never about publicity; it really was about trying to make some sharp critical interventions, and it's always been about that. The whole issue about the success story ...

Williams: Now is a lot different from McDonald's at sixteen. I don't say that cynically, but it's a difference.

Kelley: You know, I'm so lucky. I'm always thankful and I'm always encouraging the young people I talk to—I have a lot of conversations with urban working-class youth—to consider intellectual work as work, and I tell them what kind of money I make and how I'm living. I think it's a great thing, because, for them, a lot of times the only option is sports or entertainment. When I leave them there's always a handful that's like, "wow, I could do that."

Williams: What kind of places do you speak?

Kelley: Oh, youth centers, churches. In Michigan, I was going to a place called Boys Town, which is a youth detention center, in Saline, outside of Ann Arbor. I'd go there twice a year and talk to these kids about Malcolm X, and I still do that. Sometimes I talk about hip-hop; I talk about whatever it is that they want to talk about, and they love it, in part because they just can't imagine that there could be like a fairly young-looking black person who makes money as a professor, and who is not boring or crazy.

Some of these kids write me and I correspond with some of them. Some end up in prison, and I still correspond with them, and it gives them a sense of hope and possibility. That's why I'd never shirk from my position of privilege and treat it as if it's an embarrassment. As a first-generation college graduate who went from working at McDonald's to being a professor at a major university and an author—my family's so proud of me. I know a lot of young black people who also feel the same way, and a lot of older people who feel the same way—that this is an amazing achievement. And it really does give these young people hope that, "if that boy can do it, and he's not so smart, I know I can do it."

Williams: I want to go back to Race Rebels to trace the path of your work. You started as an historian; Race Rebels is a transitional book, still centered on working-class history, but it also takes up current politics, with the closing chapter on hip-hop, and the middle on Malcolm X and the 50s. Your more recent Yo' Mama's Disfunktional! is more directly focused on contemporary cultural politics or cultural commentary, and obviously Freedom Dreams is too. Maybe you could say something about your path to cultural politics.

Kelley: With Race Rebels, I put a lot of emphasis on reading texts and representations of cultural reality, as opposed to paying attention to aesthetic questions. The gangsta rap chapter really is about "this is what they're saying about the police, this is what they're saying about the state and state oppression, this is what they're saying about women and gender." By the end, I felt really uncomfortable with how much I ignored the politics of pleasure and style, so I ended up doing a remix version, which became Yo' Mama's Disfunktional!. If anything Yo' Mama's Disfunktional! is in some ways a critique of things in Race Rebels. It's reflecting back. In the first chapter I'm saying, look, social scientists have often made the mistake of making very literal readings of expressive culture ...

Williams: And social scientists have gone to a lot of trouble producing an image of a degraded culture ...

Kelley: Exactly, but the way they succeed in producing it is by reading the culture literally as a text that speaks to the immediate social reality. So if someone's talking about someone's mama, the social psychologist or sociologist says, "Well, this is clearly an issue of matriarchy dominating family culture, it's about the breakup of the family, it's all about sex."

So in Yo' Mama's Disfunktional! I try to distance myself from my own heavyhanded reading of hip hop. But Yo' Mama's Disfunktional!, just to go back to what we began with, was not written solely as a public policy intervention. It was not on any agenda of mine; it was a product of a series of talks and lectures and essays I'd been publishing as a kind of immediate intervention in debates about what the culture is, debates around the black neo-conservatives. All of these debates centered on: how does culture matter? why is culture so fundamental to the explanations of urban poverty? and how can we enter this debate without having to accept an explanation of urban poverty and deprivation as either structure or culture? how can we develop analyses that challenge this bifurcation, which I think is a real problem?

Williams: Your most recent book, Freedom Dreams seems a little different. Yo' Mama's Disfunktional! is more on policy, whereas Freedom Dreams is more hopeful, more visionary. There's a passage on Aimé Césaire where you quote him: "It is not a dead society that we want to revive. We leave that to those who go in for exoticism.... It is a new society that we must create." It seems to me that is your credo, on African American cultural politics as well as on American politics overall. On the other hand, I could see how some people might say that Freedom Dreams is almost New Agey. You've abandoned wanting to be a professional Communist.

Kelley: Yeah, I've definitely abandoned being a professional Communist, but I haven't abandoned social movements and on-the-ground material struggle as the way to make change, or some kind of socialist solution. That's one of the things about Freedom Dreams. It's probably the most transitional book of all: in some ways, it's a return to history, recovering historical narratives of social movements, even though it's based largely (but not entirely) on secondary sources. Still, I'm trying to create a kind of popular history of the black radical imagination for readers, for non-academics. The idea of constructing this popular history is to say in the past there have been movements that may not have succeeded in terms of our definition of success, but have left us a very powerful legacy of possibility.

Let me back up. I was saying it's transitional. It's somewhat autobiographical, and that's because I want to convey to readers exactly what brings people to social movements in the first place. It's not oppression, it's not failure or deprivation; it's the sense of hope and possibility, and in some ways that makes me an old-school Communist. This is what the Communists said, you know. Think about the "Internationale": that song is about throwing off the shackles and creating new people. I wanted to convey that to people.

I think the chapter that's most controversial is the chapter on surrealism, and that's where people say it seems New Agey. I don't think it is. My understanding of New Age ideology is that it is another version of corporate ideology that suggests a withdrawal into individualism. I'm talking about the collective, how to deal with the community, how to change people's relationships to one another. I do invoke the term "love," not because it’s a new thing and not in a New Age way, but because it's an old thing that is rooted, I think, in a long tradition of black Christian, communitarian, radical movements. In other words, the love I talk about is the love that Dr. King invoked.

Williams: But it seems to me it's also different from, say, Cornel West or Michael Eric Dyson, insofar as it's a redemptive politics without Christianity.

Kelley: In some ways that's true. My interest in surrealism was an avenue to try to talk about redemptive politics, but specifically to think about freedom in new ways that are non-religious. That might get me into some trouble, but I don't think that's necessarily an antithesis of what Dr. King was saying. I don't really have an answer for this. I love reading the surrealists like Suzanne Césaire and Aimé Césaire, even Richard Wright's surrealism, because it seems to me to break with the old language. As you were saying before, we need new songs. I think I'd go even further and say that we need a new language of struggle, a new language of hope and possibility. I don't think we even have the language to talk about what kind of world we want to create. In some ways, poetry is the quest to explode language as we know it, to open it up.

Williams: A couple more questions. How would you place yourself in current African American cultural politics? There are a few lines, for instance, the more conservative line, of people like William Julius Wilson, whom you parody in the section at the end of Yo' Mama's Disfunktional! that updates Looking Backward. And there's a more centrist line, for lack of a better word, of people like Gates at Harvard, who does not espouse a radical politics but who has obviously been pivotal in putting African American studies in the academic mainstream. And then there's a more radical line that you're more affiliated with, of people like Michael Eric Dyson (to an extent), Cedric Robinson, Manning Marable (who's a leading figure in Committees of Correspondence), and Angela Davis (whom you thank in your acknowledgments).

Kelley: Social Democrats. Well, I'm very catholic when it comes to the Left, which has been my downfall in some ways, because I've always been willing to support movements at war with each other. I can't say I agree with every single thing that these Social Democratic movements support, but the general consensus is that capitalism is not serving us well. I still don't think it's serving us well. And so I feel an imperative to support movements that are trying to claim a radical path. Even if it's not really clear what that path will be, it's still important just to defend them.

Now that I'm an older person with a twelve-year-old daughter, I'm much more critical of black popular culture—I'm especially concerned about the dominance of consumerism, the misogyny, the deep materialism. Still, the black middle class critique of popular culture centers around the uncouth, unrepresentative Negro desiring these things, rather than the mere fact of this desire. What I find disturbing is an identity centered around the possession of things like diamonds and expensive cars. Yet the same black middle class shares some of the same consumerist impulses.

Williams: You mean the kind of things they show on MTV’s House of Style?

Kelley: Exactly. The culture's really becoming bankrupt in some ways, and I feel like I'm caught between a lot of different movements. I feel like I'm still somewhat of a Marxist, but that Marxism is too little. I feel like my roots are in Black Nationalism, as critical as I am of nationalism and of nations. The core of that movement, that attracted me in the first place, was the idea of building a sense of humanity. Black Nationalism allowed ordinary black people to stake a claim to history, to say that we're contributing to the world. That sense of pride is something that I'm still very much connected to, as much as I'm anti-nationalist.

And then there's the sense of emergency. I too get caught up in the immediate moment and the need to solve immediate problems, whether it's to keep the US out of the war or to save battered children. Whatever it is, I will continue and many people will continue to fight those battles on a day-to-day basis. I'm simply saying that, as we fight these battles, they should be opportunities to produce new visions of the future.

I honestly, to this day, cannot map out that new vision. One of the main points of Freedom Dreams is to say that one doesn't map out a new future by simply "dreaming." I don't know what the future of politics will look like. I think that we are in a tremendous ideological transformation, but, if I believe my own argument, I can't know what that is because part of knowing is learning in the process of struggle, in a collective movement. In other words, no one can see it. That's New Age, where you meditate, or you're in a steam room, and all of a sudden you're able to see and envision it. No, it's on picket lines; it's in the streets; it's in study groups; it's participation in social movements. Even the failures are very, very important, for they provide very important lessons for thinking about the future. But it requires work, it requires organizing, it requires study, to read, to think, to debate.

Williams: In a New York Times piece you did on Miles Davis and his hustler or "pimp aesthetic" (13 May 2001), you mention his unlikable traits and say, "By dividing Miles up like this we miss how the things we don't like about the man are fundamental to what we love about his music." So what are the things—I fear this is my Barbara Walters question—that people don't like about you that are fundamental to your writing?

Kelley: The main thing, I think, would be my optimism. It's the thing people love to hate. I get so much static about it—"Kelley's got such a sanguine view, he's not paying attention to reality, the hard work and political reality that confronts us all, and he's talking about dreams." The sense of the future and what's possible is in all the books. It's in Hammer and Hoe, it's in my other books, that you can win, that the next generation will take us there.

If you think of something like the end of slavery as one of the most revolutionary moments in U.S. history, in 1854—a decade before the end of slavery—none of those people thought slavery would end. It wasn't even in the cards. Imagine if we write history not from the perspective of the victors or even in hindsight—by that I mean standing in the present, turning back and trying to explain how we got here. But if you stand in 1854, what you see ahead is not the end of slavery. You don't see any of that.

Too often we’re told that, if you're a real radical, you're not supposed to be optimistic. That's the culture we grew up in. But the radicals I wrote about, they're all optimistic. Just imagine what it meant in the middle of the Depression in 1934 to join a movement where they were going to inherit the earth, "a better world’s in birth." The future was theirs and they knew it. That's why they fought everyday.

That was in starvation times, and here we are in the year 2003 and it's still starvation times for a lot of people, and if you stand up and say, "Yeah, well, we know we're going to win. Capitalism is going to be dead, we're going to kill it, we’re going to replace it with something much better," people are like, "You're crazy. You're out of your mind."

Williams: There does seem to be a tenor of inevitability about the all-ruling market.

Kelley: Absolutely, and I think that the idea of the inevitability of the success and strength of capitalism is as dangerous as the idea that its death is inevitable. That's the other thing that some people say, "you're suggesting that this is just going to happen at a certain time," when, in fact, I'm saying that it's going to happen if we do the work to make it happen. It's always the work of struggle, the thing that transforms the conditions in which we operate, that makes things possible. You cannot dream your way out of your situation. You dream to imagine where you’re going to go next, but without social movement, without struggle, you're stuck.

Williams: One last question. I read somewhere that you're writing a book on Thelonious Monk. I know you wrote a piece in the Times on Monk and his wife, Nellie Monk (21 July 2002). Does this mean you're not going to be a historian anymore but are going to be a music critic?

Kelley: Not exactly. I'll always be an historian, but I've kind of remade myself as a jazz scholar. I've gone back to being a historian because of this book on Monk, because it’s all based on primary sources. It’s based on the kind of archival research I love to do. It's detective work to a certain degree, and the story that I'm writing is not just a typical jazz book—the story of the rise and fall of a great artist, and drugs and all that stuff. It's a narrative about postwar culture, American culture and beyond the United States. Monk is a template for that.

It's a book that draws on art history, on literature, on all kinds of visual culture, as well as music and musicology and history. Part of what I end up talking about is why it is, in 1964 for example, that Monk became the darling of the Right. National Review loved him. And he was the darling of the Black Left. The Liberator and other publications claimed him as one of the greatest. And he was the darling of the Center—on the cover of Time magazine. All at the same time! How could they write political meaning on his body and on his music in that way? I explain that. It's the most fun, the most interesting thing I've done in years!




Jeffrey J. Williams is editor of the minnesota review.