Robin DG Kelley

Robin D.G. Kelley on Freedom Dreams, AP Courses, Hope, and Why We Fight

Black Canary is an op-ed column sounding the alarm against enduring injustice in America.

There’s a concerted effort underway by the right to erase both the history of Black resistance and the legacy of white supremacy from public education. In Florida, governor Ron Desantis’s administration rejected a new AP African American studies course and enacted restrictions on how LGBTQ+ issues can be discussed and taught in public schools. The potential 2024 presidential hopeful’s war on “wokeness” has turned Florida’s classrooms into his own personal battleground.

Though the right loves to talk about cancel culture and censorship, they’re the ones banning booksprotesting outside drag queens’ storytime reading to children, and pushing legislation that would ban teaching about the history of racism and slavery in the US. This rising fascism, though intensified, is part of a legacy of Anglo-colonization and puritanical hypocrisy. 

This brings me to Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. The book, originally written and published in 2002, and written by my fellow California State University, Long Beach alumni Robin D.G. Kelley, has received renewed attention since the mass unrest of the summer of 2020, or as Kelley refers to it, the “Black Spring.” Recently rereleased with a foreword by activist and poet Aja Monet and a new introduction written by Kelley himself, Freedom Dreams finds itself, 20 years later, in the hands of a new generation saddled with an even grimmer world.

Over the phone, I spoke with Kelley about American fascism, the pitfalls of liberalism, and having no choice but to continue the fight. 

(This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

Kandist Mallett: I noticed that in your new intro you reference a lot of young academics, artists, and activists. What do you think the importance of cross-generational dialogues is in organizing spaces?

Robin D.G. Kelley: [They] are oxygen. You can't have movements without cross-generational dialogue. We have a kind of a mythology around movements being radical generational breaks. And one of the more recent examples is when I was in Ferguson and went to some of those sorts of backdoor meetings; it was people from every generation in conversation.

What I was writing, there was acknowledging what has been our history, but also acknowledging what is the source of my own rethinking of the book. When you think about it, Freedom Dreams was written in response to my students telling me, "There are no movements for me right now." And they were frustrated with the capacity of social movements in near time to make change, especially under the liberal regime of Bill Clinton. Fast-forward 20 years later, everything that I learned, everything that I kind of rethought emerges out of activists, artists, intellectuals who are really pushing the envelope, but they're doing so, again, in conversation, in dialogue with both history, with veterans, with elders, and with communities.

KM: Something that I’ve been trying to challenge myself on, which feels like is part of the essence of Freedom Dreams, is to push past despair and truly imagine another direction the future could go in. Can you tell me, is there anything that's happening currently movement-wise that gives you hope?

RDGK: All of the movements I focus on [in Freedom Dreams] are movements that have emerged in times when it feels hopeless, whether we're talking about the Communist Party and the Great Depression in the midst of a global economic crisis, or even the struggle for land in chapter one. None of these movements were waiting for something to happen. None of these movements really relied on hope. Instead, they relied on determination. That is to say that no matter how bad things get — in fact, it's precisely because we're on the verge of fascism right now — that we have no choice but to fight.

Especially now, because as you know, and you've written about it eloquently, we are facing an existential crisis that is whether or not we'll have a future on this planet.

We have this whole range of crises: the rise of fascism, climate catastrophe, the continuation of racism and state-sanctioned racist violence, the attempt to roll back any gender nonconformity, the crushing of feminism ideologically and otherwise in the attempt to take back public education, university education for right-wing and white supremacist causes. It's worse than some of the things that people faced in the past, but we don't have a choice. We have to fight for our own survival.

KM: I really like the way you put “it’s about determination.” Hope is a word that for some reason gives me an ick feeling. I think that's part of just the heartbreak of participating in movement waves and maybe a way to cope.

RDGK: That sense of heartbreak, that's a really great way to put it. Because what I keep hammering, especially some of the stuff I've been writing in the Boston Review, is that the source of that heartbreak, more often than not, isn't the loss, because we lose all the time. But the source of the heartbreak is liberalism. The liberals are quick to compromise and to be complicit.

KM: In your new introduction, you note “after throwing a $10 million bone to a bunch of Black organizations in the name of Black Lives Matter, Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, proceeded to cut employee hazard pay, spend millions to crush a union drive in Alabama, and launch plans to begin colonizing space.” Black Lives Matter Global Network has also been criticized for lack of transparency over the funding they've received throughout the years. I'm interested to hear your thoughts on whether they and other organizations that received a lot of money in 2020 should be accountable to the movement.

RDGK: All organizations should be transparent and responsive to the communities that they claim to represent and serve. That just goes without saying, and this is not the first time there have been problems with transparency, problems with money management, problems with choices.

I think that there should never be an organization, no matter how Black they are, that should be above criticism, period. And usually what happens is things get screwed up when there is a lack of democracy.

Now does that mean that democracy means everything works well? No. Sometimes a lot of democracy means it's like all kinds of problems break out. But I have to say, more democracy with problems is better than no democracy without accountability or transparency or even a sense of what people need and want. Because part of the issue to me isn't just money. It's like, what's the agenda? If the agenda, in the case of, let's say, Black Lives Matter, is some people are saying we need resources for the families who lost loved ones and others are saying, "No, we need property," well, what matters most? And who determines that? A grassroots process of really engaging people in a deliberative process, not just the vote, not just majority rule, but the delivery process of discussing what is it we need?

How is it that owning property will actually advance the needs of the families who lost loved ones? How would owning property advance the agenda of abolishing the police and replacing it with something else? 

To go to the second part of the question, which is really about the transformation of social movements in the age of the nonprofit industrial complex, and that's something I write about in that new introduction, how so many movements have become dependent on funders and foundations. And that means that just like any corporation, they've got to show an outcome. And again, this is not blaming anyone except to say that dependency means you can't decide on your agenda. The funders ultimately decide or they'll redirect you because what funders want is what corporations want. They want, at the end of the year, to say, "Well, what's the bottom line? What did you accomplish? What were your goals? Did you accomplish your goals? And if you want more money, you got to give us goals that are doable, goals that we can actually go to our donors and say, this organization did X, Y, Z." That's not conducive to movement building that requires deeper political education, the ability or freedom to make mistakes, to build capacity, and to really do the long-term work of moving forward at a pace where you're trying to consolidate a movement that may not actually produce anything in the end — anything that's tangible.

So, here's the thing about accountability: Who are you accountable to, to your funder or to the people? That, to me, is the pivot. And I think movements need to be accountable to the people. 

KM: At least 326 people were federally prosecuted for the 2020 unrest, including people like Mujera Lung’aho who’s been in pretrial detention in Little Rock for over a year. I wanted to know, when you look back at past waves of Black resistance from Black nationalism, civil rights, and the anti-colonial movements, what are some lessons that we could take from then to apply now to better support those behind bars?

RDGK: A lot of these people who are being held, especially more recently, can be classified as political prisoners. There’s a disconnect between the struggle to free the political prisoners who have been in prison since the '70s and '80s, which is ongoing, and the abolitionist movement. Critical Resistance and their abolitionists have always been concerned about political prisoners. But there's some new ones who don't even think about that. They're not thinking about the way the state actually uses the criminal justice system to lock up people for doing things that are essentially righteous.

One strategy is to actually make a great leap and say, "the treatment of Black insurgents, Black people who are fighting for basic rights and freedom, should not completely fall within the jurisdiction of US courts. And that we need to go to international bodies like the United Nations and the International Court of Justice because that's acknowledging that we're not just bystanders who happen to be there, and the cops kind of start beating us up. And I think, in some cases, we are, and we have to fight that fight. 

I'm not saying that the criminal justice system should be ignored, although it's really unjust and corrupt. But what if we sort of think about ourselves and our movements in global terms, and think about our movements in terms of saying, you know what? We actually have a fundamental critique of the United States as a system, as a nation, as an oppressor nation, and we are an oppressed nation within an oppressor nation. And that's not just for Black people, but for anyone who's challenging. The anti-war movement, for example. How many people are in prison right now for doing stuff like throwing cow's blood on the wall of some military base or distributing literature that's considered to be subversive? They're political prisoners as well.

In terms of what to do with all these people who are behind bars and how to free them, number one, abolition is a very important part of that, no question. There's no reason that people should be in cages anyway. Secondly, the work we need to do as writers, as journalists, as activists, is to make sure the whole world knows who these people are, knows their names, knows their stories. That's how the Scottsboro Nine were [ultimately released] because it was a massive campaign of letting people know who they are and what were the charges. Mumia Abu-Jamal would've been dead a long time ago had there not been a movement.

We need to build movements that actually defend these prisoners and recognize them as not just victims and bystanders, but actual political prisoners in a political war. And all that should not shroud the fact that the majority of the people who are in prison are not even [in] prison for any of this stuff. They're in prison because they can't pay the debt. They're in prison because they had drugs, or were buying drugs, or trying to sell drugs. They're in prison because a lot of them had mental health crises and did things when they were not in their right mind. They're in prison because they are poor. 

KM: Regarding the rejection of AP African American studies by the State of Florida, you’ve said previously regarding the revised course list that, “this is about eliminating any discussion that might be critical of the United States of America, which is a dangerous thing for democracy.” Can you tell me how the teaching and reading of the coursework of AP African American studies could help improve the democratic process?

RDGK: We need to have a critical perspective on the history of this country, which we actually don't do very well. And the irony is that I'm just as critical of the identity politics that often drive a critique of the African American studies AP curriculum as I am the kind of conservative reaction against the critique of identity.

If we don't actually come to terms with the movements that are critical of the United States and simply say they're outside of the kind of culture, the ideology of the mainstream, and therefore they're subversive, they're dangerous, they don't even need to be talked about, then we basically don't understand how democracy works. We understand the relationship between social movements and demands on the street, and in community centers, and in churches, and things like that, and how change happens. And if we don't understand that, then what are we left with? We are left with all these people who don't even know how the government works, people who believe that the only elections that matter are presidential elections, people who think that you elect a president based on personality, and people who believe lies, straight-up lies, who have no critical perspective. 

KM: Something that has been on my mind is global solidarity. You talk about that in your book about how Black liberation movements in the '60s were influenced by the global revolts in Africa and China. And in 2011, I was a part of Occupy and I was heavily influenced by Tunisia and Egypt and what was happening in Greece. In what ways do you think that global uprisings are impacting Black resistance now?

RDGK: Internationalism ebbs and flows. The ebbs and flows have to do with the way the dominant classes really shape the media in our politics. So, during presidential elections, for example, or during these kinds of things, [we see] this obsession with the United States, with what's happening within our borders, to the point where we're not even paying attention to Black Lives Matter in Canada, which is huge. We can't even always get out of our lane to think about the Indigenous struggles happening around us. Activists do and make these connections, but they're not always self-evident.

Part of our task is not only to analyze and identify moments of global solidarity but to basically do our work by always thinking about the international, always thinking about ourselves beyond a nation-state. And that's our task.

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