A Kelleyan Approach to Anthropology

From the Series: Forum: Culture at Large 2018 with Robin Kelley

I didn’t know much about the session that promised to honor the intellectual work and interdisciplinary contributions of the historian Robin D. G. Kelley, but given the event’s sponsors and the honoree, I figured I couldn’t miss it. A prolific scholar known for his work on Black radical thought, social and political movements, the interplay of race, class, and gender in social history, and the life and work of Black intellectuals, Kelley has made his writing and lectures accessible to broad audiences with his engaging and genuine prose. And, on that Saturday afternoon at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Kelley didn’t disappoint.

Speaking to a packed auditorium, Kelley’s lecture—“Against Pessimism? Freedom Dreams versus Fascism” —focused on one of his most cited books, Freedom Dreams, furthering a discussion he began in the early 2000s by way of highlighting the promise and potential of Black radical thought and imagination. Given the United States’s current sociopolitical climate, it was a welcome exploration of the need for and relevance of both revolutionary pessimism and anticipatory optimism in the drive for true emancipation, two notions that Kelley argued are at the center of the book. And beyond his own prepared remarks, Kelley’s interaction with the audience to close out the event was full of quotable insights, so the entire conversation is worth a listen. Yet his was not the only memorable perspective offered.

Orisanmi Burton’s introduction and the reflections provided by Savannah Shange, John L. Jackson, Jr., and Gary Wilder were comments prepared by obvious fans of not only Kelley’s writing, but also his teaching, his mentorship, and his overall influence in academic and public spheres. It was in their remarks that these anthropologists performed what I have come to recognize as a staple of the Association of Black Anthropologists: tribute paid to those with whom an intellectual genealogy is shared. Recognized by Jackson as someone who “gets people through” the academy, Kelley was also lauded for promoting questions about people, place, race, and the political in a way that isn’t mediated by some presumed disciplinary boundary, while also encouraging his students to do the same. His theory and practice represent a distinct way of navigating the academy that has already influenced a generation of academics.

This was the last event that I attended at the annual meeting before trekking back across the country to my home institution. Every few minutes, after yet another intellectual jewel was dropped, the colleague I attended with and I would exchange glances to agree that this was the perfect way to end an otherwise overwhelming conference experience. I left inspired by a Kelleyan approach to anthropology, an idea coined by Shange to refer to a focus on the “way, way below” and an approach to ethnography about, with, and as those implicated by the research. Kelley shines a light on the ordinary, quotidian reality of Black folk by highlighting the unavoidable entanglements of the micro and the macro, the past and the present. It was the kind of session that encouraged me to believe that, as a young, Black, female anthropologist, there is space for me to ask questions that might challenge and complicate narratives long held by the discipline.