Recording: Culture at Large 2018 with Robin Kelley
From the Series: Forum: Culture at Large 2018 with Robin Kelley
From the Series: Forum: Culture at Large 2018 with Robin Kelley
This recording of the 2018 Culture at Large session presents the entirety of the discussion between Kelley, the three discussants, and the audience. At times, audience responses overlap or overtake the voices of the invited speakers, reflecting the dynamism of the event. In an imperfect attempt to both retain the vibrancy of the conversation and ensure accessibility, an accompanying written transcript is provided for clarity.
Karen Strassler: In the spirit of exploration, innovation, and engagement that the Society aims to foster, this annual event celebrates interdisciplinary dialogues that invigorate our field, helping us to think, write, and work in new ways. This year, in collaboration with the Association of Black Anthropologists, we honor Dr. Robin Kelley for his deep and longstanding engagement with anthropology and the many ways his scholarship has both challenged and inspired us. We are delighted to have you here, Dr. Kelley. Thank you.
Especially in our deeply troubled current moment, it feels vital to gather together to think critically and collectively about possibilities for freedom and radical imagination.
Now, Dr. Orisanmi Burton will offer a fuller introduction of Dr. Kelley on behalf of the ABA in just a moment. I'm going to be as brief as I can; I want to leave as much time for this event. But let me just quickly outline kind of what's going to happen. Orisanmi will introduce Robin, followed by the three discussants, who will be offering reflections on Dr. Kelley's work and its influence on their own thought. And then, after this, we're going to open up a conversation that includes the audience. So please allow me to very, very briefly and inadequately introduce our three wonderful discussants, who I very much appreciate their being here today.
John Jackson, Jr. is Richard Perry University Professor of Communication and Anthropology, Professor of Africana Studies, and Dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a scholar of critical race theory, religion, class, and urban anthropology as well as a promoter and producer of multimodal forms of research and presentation. He is the author and coauthor of a number of books including Harlemworld and Thin Description.
Savannah Shange is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at University of California, Santa Cruz. She is an urban anthropologist whose work focuses on social justice and multiracial coalitions, blackness, and antiblackness, urban poverty and gentrification, and queer critique. She has a book due out next year with Duke University Press: Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Anthropology, and the New San Francisco. So we look forward to that. [Panelists: mmhm, yes]
Gary Wilder is Professor of Anthropology and History and Director of the Committee on Globalization and Social Change at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author most recently of Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World, as well as other books. And his current work focuses on historical temporality, postcolonial justice, and the Black Atlantic critical tradition.
Thank you to our panelists, and I'd also like to thank the Association of Black Anthropologists for their collaboration, especially Bianca Williams and Donna Davis, who helped a great deal to pull this together. And now without further ado I give you Orisanmi Burton from American University, who will introduce Robin Kelley. Thank you.
Orisanmi Burton: Good afternoon.
Audience: Good afternoon.
OB: I have the distinct honor and pleasure of introducing Dr. Robin D.G. Kelley, distinguished and Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Dr. Kelley has provided us with a vast and still growing corpus of intellectual thought and production. He is the author of several books, including Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class, Yo' Mama's Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, to name a few. He's also written over 150 essays published in academic journals, as well as popular outlets such as the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Nation, and the Boston Review, to name a few. Most recently he coedited a book that I can't wait to read: The Russian Revolution: A View From the Third World, by the great Pan-Africanist historian Walter Rodney. [Audience, panelists: mmm] Robin grew up in the Washington Heights area in New York City in the 1960s and 70s, a time when the consciousness of African Americans was profoundly shaped movements for decolonization occurring around the world. He later moved to California when he eventually enrolled in the African History program at UCLA. As a graduate student in the mid 80s, Robin was active in the anti-apartheid movement, participating in a coalition which successfully compelled the University of California Board of Regents to divest 3.1 billion dollars in investments from South Africa and Namibia. That's billions with a b.
His internationally oriented activism continues to this day, as Robin is active in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel's apartheid regime in Palestine.
[Snapping, scattered applause]
Robin's scholarship has addressed a broad array of thematic concerns including working class history, social movements, black feminist radicalism, radical internationalism, surrealism, state violence, and jazz, to name a few.
In Hammer and Hoe, his first book, Robin demonstrates how in Depression-era Alabama, black agricultural workers and domestic laborers with little formal education established a dynamic chapter of the Communist Party, which fused Marxist-Leninist ideology with cultural and religious practices that were deeply rooted in the Southern black tradition. It also showed how class and gender struggles emerging from within this movement were constant and often productive sources of tension.
In Race Rebels, Robin draws on anthropologist James C. Scott's notion of infrapolitics to demonstrate how working class black people who do not belong to formal organizations engage in everyday forms of resistance such as sabotage, theft, and various forms of rebellious self-fashioning which offer important lessons for professional organizers. In that book, like many of his books, Robin begins by positioning himself in relation to this work. He talks about how he worked in McDonald’s in the late 1970s, and how he and others engaged in these seemingly mundane but actually quite important forms of resistance. And I think this kind of positioning is a model for anthropologists in thinking about how to do reflexivity well.
Robin brought his historical and political sensibility to bear on the life of Thelonious Monk, the enigmatic jazz composer and pianist, not by revealing Monk's individual genius but by rendering Monk as a historical subject, that was produced through an intergenerational web of social and familial relations.
On a personal note I have to share my memory of plucking Freedom Dreams off my aunt's bookshelf in Brooklyn and just tearing through it. It was one of the first academic books I ever read from cover to cover of my own volition. [Laughter] I remember being deeply moved not only by inspiring stories of black struggle and world-making contained in its pages, but perhaps more so by its ethics. And this I think is true of all of Robin's work. They're written with a deep sense of love for humanity, a commitment to justice, a sense of radical honesty that does not shy away from voicing inconvenient truths. He's not afraid of being critical, in a productive way, of movements and figures who are otherwise sources of his and our inspiration. He shows us that by taking dreams seriously, we better position ourselves to articulate and actualize our affirmative political demands in the present. And in this way I think it's important to think about Robin producing a body of future-oriented historiography. And this is clear in his op-ed writing.
In his 2016 essay, “Black Study, Black Struggle,” he addresses himself to the intensifying political activism that he saw emerging on college campuses across the United States. He's simultaneously critical of and encouraging towards these young activists. On the one hand pointing out the folly of articulating demands for greater inclusion in the university, provocatively asking us to "think about what it means for black students to seek love from an institution incapable of loving them." On the other hand he affirms their political enthusiasm and gently invites them to study lessons of past movements to build new strategies of political engagement.
His orientation toward the future is also evident in the numerous forewords, prefaces, and introductions to updated editions of germinal texts of political theory and mobilization. Works such as Marx and Engels's Communist Manifesto, C. L. R. James's A History of Pan-African Revolt, Aimé Césaire's Discourse on Colonialism, and Cedric Robinson's Black Marxism, to name a few. And this is really important work because it translates the political context and historical importance of these texts to a new generation of scholars.
In keeping with this theme of intergenerational dialogue, I was speaking with Erica Lorraine Williams a few hours ago, who’s an anthropologist at Spelman, and was telling me about how she studied with Robin when she was an undergrad, and how much of an inspiration he was, how his teaching and mentorship opened up a whole world of possibility for her and inspired her to become a professional intellectual. And especially the way in which he centered the lives of black women in his teaching.
So there's so much more I can say. I'm going to close so we can hear from Robin, but I just want to reiterate that what I think what is most powerful about his work is the sense of possibility, that there's a certain way in which we can think about the movements that he writes about as having failed, because the dreams haven't come true, but I think part of what his project is to keep those dreams alive, because when they die, that's when we've actually lost. And I think we should think about explicitly taking up the study of dreams as an anthropological project [snapping] as he asked us to do in 2006 when he wrote: "In many ways, figuring out how people live, what drives them to survive, and how they organize their lives in relation to others, and how they imagine their ideal world is precisely what anthropologists do." He continues, with a nod towards Marx and Engels, “and the most radical anthropologists don't just document and interpret society, the point is to change it.”
So without further ado, please help me welcome Robin D.G. Kelley and his talk, "Against Pessimism?" (It's a question.) "Against Pessimism? Freedom Dreams versus Fascism."
Robin D.G. Kelley: Forgive me.
[RK takes a picture of the audience; audience laughs].
My wife does not believe that people come out to hear me. Like, how many people are going to show up? Why are you going to fly all the way out there just for a day? [Laughter]
So, by the way Orisanmi, don't delete that intro because you should send it to the New York Times after I die. [Applause] That was beautiful. And I'm a little nervous now because in fact the first thing I said was, make it short, because I'm supposed to talk for thirty minutes, I don't want to take up too much time. But that was just beautiful. I just really appreciate this, especially having—some of you may or may not know this, but I spent about three years of my life as an actual anthropologist, you know, or pretending to be, I should say. When I was in history, in the anthropology department at Columbia University, in Af-Am, because the history department really didn't want me there, so anthropology embraced me. I learned a lot. So I'm kind of pretending to be an anthropologist, but I’m not really. But I'm here to talk about some other things. I just want to before I begin say what an honor it is to have these amazing people on this panel who I know are super super busy, super super brilliant, to be in conversation. So, and, we'll get to that part, so thank you.
So let me begin with the title. I don't read my emails carefully. Lately I've been so busy, I didn't realize until a couple days ago, when Karen said “oh no, you’re supposed to talk for thirty minutes.” I thought I would just sit here and listen. [Laughter] So I came up with a title, which is "Against Pessimism? Freedom Dreams versus Fascism." And I do this all the time; I come up with the title, and later I figure out what I'm going to say. [Laughter] So I was sitting in the airport, the San Jose airport, thinking about what I'm going to say. So there may be some bumps in this road, but this is what I'm thinking.
The title, some of you may be familiar with it, is actually Antonio Gramsci's title, an essay that he published in New Order in 1924. And it was really in recognition of the fifth anniversary of the Communist International, and this is two years after Mussolini came to power. And, you know, fascism was really an existential threat. And Gramsci was concerned with what he called the "dark cloud of pessimism" which had overtaken the party, the Italian communist party, the PCI. Which he described as both the greatest danger we face at present, given that its consequences are political passivity, intellectual slumber, skepticism about the future.
But we have to be clear how he's using pessimism. He's seeing it as a form of political fatalism, that is that to overthrow capitalism is inevitable, but only when the objective conditions are right. So therefore, because conditions are terrible, it's convinced many of his comrades to kind of wait it out, to step back, to withdraw from what is temporarily a losing battle. So he indirectly suggests that the Communist International had actually constrained the communist work to resisting fascism, but more was required. The PCI needed to return to the earlier period of workers’ rebellions, like the soviets in Turin for example, when “we were trying to open new roads to the future,” “with that in mind, all the energy of our leaders will be needed. The best form of organization and concentration of the party's mass, the great spirit of initiative, and a great rapidity of response.”
So the pessimists however, did not think this kind of work was necessary. In fact, what he was saying was that they were thinking this work was a repeat, going backwards. And I begin with this concept of pessimism because it's precisely on the axis of pessimism/optimism that Freedom Dreams sort of came back, you know, into interest. It was published in 2002, and by the way, it's very popular. People read it. I don't make any money off of it. Why is that? Because thank goodness there's a PDF floating around of the whole book, and you can get it for free. So don't buy it. [Laughter] And this PDF has been around since 2004. [Laughter continues] So I get no royalties, but that PDF has made that book fly. I'm very very happy about that. So if you're thinking about going to buy it, don't. [Laughter]
OK, so what do I mean? So, in some ways, it's been on the axis of pessimism and optimism. It came back both as an inspiration and an object of ire. What do I mean by that? On the one hand it has inspired a lot of young people committed to struggle to think about mapping a radically different future, of poetic knowledge, of organizing around what we want to build rather than what we're against. At the same time, Freedom Dreams has become a source of derision among a certain variant of Afro-pessimists, who have come to dismiss what they call "resistance porn." [mmm]
Now to be fair, there is much that is compelling about Afro-pessimism and it's not like there’s sort of one variant. There's lots of different variants. Arguments, for example, that recognize a deeply embedded structure of antiblackness. And this becomes evident every single day. If you don't believe there's a deeply embedded structure of antiblackness, you can't be watching TV or on the internet. Every single day, every single day we're reminded of that. So that I agree with. Of course, if blackness is relegated to a permanent social death, predicated on modalities of accumulation and fungibility, then the kinds of revolutionary imaginings I write about are pretty much worthless. At the same time, I do agree that given the black ontological condition, that decolonization is not possible without a fundamental disruption of modernity and our understanding of humanity. A position, by the way, that I associate with people like Cedric Robinson, who was my teacher, and Sylvia Wynter, neither of whom are Afro-pessimists. And I'll fight you on that. [Laughter]
But I digress. I'm not here to critique or endorse Afro-pessimism. That's not my point. I'm thinking about a different kind of pessimism. We'll get to that. Rather, I want to point to one line of argument in my book that has drawn special ire from a certain group, and that is that black dreams of freedom have been capacious enough to constitute liberatory futures for all humankind. That's something that runs through every single chapter.Or at least, you know, beyond black working-class communities. I make this point throughout, and the skepticism of this position comes up a lot, not in print though. I'm sure it's been in print, I haven't seen it, but it comes out in the many many political meetings and convenings I've attended over the last four years. And it's based on a fundamental, I think, misreading of Freedom Dreams in which certain critics think I'm actually arguing that our freedom depends on, or is directly tied to our alliances with white people, to the subordination of our needs. That I'm proposing some kind of rainbow optimism. A politics of hope. And that's crazy.
First of all, if you do a search of the book, and you can do that online, especially with the PDF copy [laughter], the word optimism doesn't even come up in the book. Optimistic comes up as part of Jayne Cortez's poem "Cheerful and Optimistic," which is a kind of critique of optimism in the face of catastrophe. Nor does the word pessimism. Pessimistic comes up in one word, and that's describing the postemancipation generation’s outlook on the future. So I always have to remind people that I wrote Freedom Dreams from a place of despair.
Young people may not know this, because this is a long time ago. It's going to be twenty years at some point soon. This kind of infectious despair I felt in my students in the year 1999, 2000, 2001, when many of them were involved in campus struggles, feeling a bit rudderless, but believing that the only way to make themselves into authentic activists was to leave the books and the radical theories at home or in the dorms. And they had no sense of the future they wanted to build. And I found a lot of young people, a lot of students with an incipient critique of the economic arrangements but no deeper understanding of its operations, and only a vague sense of alternatives. And that's our fault. That's our fault. That's not their fault. And we were failing them I think as faculty, as scholars.
So I wrote the book as Bush stole the presidency. [mmm] Remember that. [light laughter] We just had a theft in Georgia, and you know, we had that one. And it created a constitutional crisis. We have to remember that. Amidst the creation of homeland security which precedes 9/11, that was in the spring of 2001, then 9/11, and the beginnings of what is a seventeen-year-old war and counting. Back then we used the word fascism a lot. If you don't believe me, read the Village Voice. Fascism came up to describe the Bush administration. We forget that as Michelle Obama is photographed giggling with George W. all the time, who has somehow become the benign, heroic figure compared to the Trump years.
And by the way, just a plug, in December you can catch a film called Vice, in theaters next month, which is about Dick Cheney. And in the role of Condoleezza Rice is the beautiful and talented LisaGay Hamilton. I just happen to know her. [Laughter] Anyway, that reminds us of who George Bush was and what that regime represents.
But even some of the book's defenders, of Freedom Dreams defenders, misunderstood the arguments, taking the black radical imagination to mean taking a break from day-to-day self-defense to dream of a different world, that a radical imagination is literally a kind of dream state. But instead my central point of the book was that you can't divorce critical analysis from social movements. The challenges of solidarity, and a deep understanding of the mechanisms of oppression generate the conditions for and the requirements for new modes of analysis. So it is not enough to imagine a world without oppression. We can do that. But that's even dangerous because we don't always recognize the variety of ways oppression occurs. We're still trying to figure that out. But understanding the mechanisms or processes that not only reproduce subjugation and exploitation but make them common sense, and render them natural or invisible. So it is about how people in transformative social movements moved, shifted their ideas, rethought inherited categories, and tried to locate and overturn blatant, subtle, and invisible modes of domination.
And by the way, just a reminder, I should have said this at the beginning. I wrote the book Freedom Dreams for undergraduates and for movement people. I didn't write it for graduate students at all. In fact I was surprised that any graduate student would read it in a class. That's why there are no footnotes. And that’s why—people get mad at me, like, "why are there no footnotes?" I just have, like, a list of sources at the end. And it was written in a way where I'm speaking to my students. I mean literally speaking to my students. And we can talk about that.
So what do I mean by "Freedom Dreams versus Fascism?" Well, rereading the book, especially in light of so much of the scholarship that's come after—so many books; I’m thinking about Vaughn Rasberry’s Race and the Totalitarian Century, which I think is a masterpiece—but these books kind of helped me realize how much of Freedom Dreams was actually about fascism or antifascism. And by that, we're talking about a long view, going back to enslavement, colonialism, and to precursors of fascism, and the Keynesian welfare-warfare police state presided over by liberal regimes in the 60s and 70s.
Surrealism especially was formed and politicized in response to fascism. In fact, through the writing of Pierre Naville, who I regret not including in the book, developed the idea of revolutionary pessimism. Revolutionary pessimism, and this is going to be my theme, ironically better represents the central themes of the book and is also useful for the current moment. And Michael Löwy, by the way, has this beautiful essay about Naville in his book Morning Star.
So let me explain. Pierre Naville was one of the founding members of the Paris Surrealist Group. He was also one of the first to join the Communist Party in 1925 in France. When he was called for military service, he was literally distributing leaflets in the barracks criticizing France's colonial war in Morocco. Incidentally, some of you may know Naville because he was the one who translated Black Jacobins into French. In this pamphlet, “The Revolution and the Intellectuals” in 1928, Naville asks, "do the Surrealists believe in the liberation of the spirit prior to the abolition of bourgeois conditions of material life, or do they consider that a revolutionary spirit can be created only after the revolution has been accomplished?" It's a very old question.
But for Naville, you can't separate the two. They have to be done together. His intervention, in fact, was a critique of optimism. What do I mean by that? Specifically, the optimism of Stalinist assertions about the inevitable triumph of socialism in Russia and the imminent fall of capitalism. And a critique of the optimism of social democrats who believe that, through parliamentary means, if we just get the right votes, in a matter of time we can vote in the socialist commonwealth. So it's kind of a revolutionary pessimism against an optimism that assumes there's a kind of inevitability of the march toward socialism, toward revolution. And note that his critique also explains why he ends up joining the Left Opposition with Trotsky and why a lot of surrealists did the same.
We might also see it as a critique in the current moment of Obama, by way of King, by way of Reverend Theodore Parker's notion that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." That's optimism and it's problematic because it doesn't bend toward justice, we know that. We have to bend it. And that's the work ahead.
In any case, what Naville proposed was revolutionary pessimism, not fatalistic resignation or an obsession with the decline of elites, or the decline of nations, or the decline of Western civilization. This was a call for collective revolutionary action to intervene on behalf of the oppressed masses. And this is what Walter Benjamin found so attractive about the surrealists, or more precisely, where the communists and the surrealists found a point of convergence. He too was a revolutionary pessimist who saw capitalism marching full speed ahead toward global catastrophe. As Michael Löwy explained, this organized militant pessimism was aimed at "preventing the onset of disaster by all possible means." Benjamin does not conceive revolution as the natural or inevitable outcome of economic and technological progress, or a contradiction between forces and relations of production, but as the interruption, the interruption of a process of historical evolution leading to catastrophe. It is because he perceives this catastrophic danger that he speaks up for pessimism.
So in my epilogue, the epilogue that I wrote but didn't publish in the book, I had this story of these marooned poets who engaged in this, like, seven-hundred-year struggle to create the New World. And thinking about it now, it's like, not only was that too apocalyptic, it was too late. We don't have seven hundred years. This is Benjamin's point. [mmhmm] This is Naville's point. We don't have seven hundred years. There are people out there breathing toxic air from fires that are coming everywhere. We don't have seven hundred years. We don't have seventy years. The point is that revolutionary pessimism is about—you engage in struggle now to bend that arc, toward more than justice, but true emancipation. As fast as possible, otherwise we will be destroyed. I don't have that kind of cadence in the book, but that's what I would put in if I had to do it again.
At the end of his life, Naville wrote a letter to the Chicago Surrealist Group praising their statement on the L.A. rebellion, concluding that the rebellion itself was an expression of what André Breton once called "anticipatory optimism." [mmm] So I do think that Freedom Dreams might be read as an expression of both revolutionary pessimism and anticipatory optimism. These were movements that refused to wait for the objective conditions of revolution, that anticipated the new world coming. It wasn't enough to stop fascism, as Gramsci implied in “Against Pessimism.” We have to do more than that.
The final thing I want to say . . . I just want to say something about the current moment, and sort of, you know, really focus on this question of where we are now. Because clearly we’re facing fascism. And I'll fight you on that too. [light laughter] This is not like, it may be fascistic, maybe. We're moving in that direction, certainly authoritarianism. Trump's election hardly signaled a state of emergency for most people, since many of us had been living in such a state for years, living in ghettos, in barrios, with underfunded public schools that are now annexed to the criminal justice system. That's been going on. We saw it under Clinton. We saw it continue under Obama. Living under the war—the war on drugs, the war on terror—subject to constant state-sanctioned violence or enduring the continuous media loop of police killings of unarmed black and brown peoples. I mean, this world of ongoing dispossession, resource extraction, the violation of sovereign rights, this is the world that we've been dealing with for a very, very long time. To quote Walter Benjamin again, in his passage from his Theses on the Philosophy of History, he says:
The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the state of emergency in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism. One reason why fascism has a chance, is that in the name of progress, its proponents treat it as a historical norm.
And I know many of you have heard that quote before or read it before, but it's worth repeating. Because in other words, normalization, which we witnessed with Trump's election and we see it continuing to this day, that idea that the state of things is natural, the logic behind it becomes common sense, conceals the state of emergency that the most oppressed not only recognizes, but endures and resists. As Gramsci explained, "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In this interregnum, morbid phenomena of the most varied kind come to pass."
For black people in America, the condition of racism produces something akin to a permanent state of crisis. The very violence and ferocity of everyday racism ironically proves its fragility. It is built on fictions. And this is something that Cedric Robinson taught me and taught all of us. It's built on fictions that must constantly be shored up, not for its victims, but for those who stand to benefit. Thus, black people exist in this interregnum where morbid phenomena constrain black lives and we could say that about other subjugated groups of people.
Moving beyond this interregnum requires the kind of qualitative leap that is about more than seizing opportunity. It is about freedom dreams. It's about thinking beyond crisis, you now? And not just in a creative way but in a way of urgency, right? For Benjamin, what is required is a political vision and critique that contains messianic traces, an image of a future beyond both catastrophe and a recovery. An understanding of history as flashes of hope at a moment of danger that attends to the traditions of the oppressed can generate the sort of political critique and vision that moves beyond the closed dialectic of crisis versus opportunity to some sort of revolutionary break. And that break, I think, is actually before us. But we have to make that.
So in closing, I want to do something a little bit unusual, and that is, read part of a poem. And this is a poem from this amazing, amazing book by Jackie Wang called Carceral Capitalism. It is a brilliant book. I can't say much more than that except you really should read it. It's one of the best critiques of neoliberalism and the carcerality of everyday life. But in the end, she writes this conclusion which is partly inspired by Freedom Dreams. And the conclusion is this long, epic, broken-up poem with quotes and experiences from memories of Rosa Luxemburg to people like Léon Damas, and to Assata Shakur and others.
I just want to read this little segment. She says:
Everywhere I look I see sleepwalkers under the spell of the prison. What counterspell is powerful enough to break the prison's stranglehold on our imaginations? But the spell is never total. The intensification of the desire for life undermines the prison's capacity to structure our mental lives. Imagination is excess, is that which could never be contained by the prison, that which will always exceed it. What night endeavors must we embrace to enter that hidden frequency, that special vibration, the one Sun Ra believed would set us free.
Savannah Shange: I'm going to share what I prepared, but in the meantime I'm just going to be thinking about that, so—
“Love, Study and Struggle: Robin D.G. Kelley and the Demand of the Marvelous”
See, this is the thing. You love us, Robin. [mmmm, light laughter] And it is so palpable when reading the past three decades of your scholarship. You don't just love us in the archives or at the protests. You don't only love those of us with an accent or a degree. You love us right here, ordinary and colored as can be. You love us the way my mama taught me to, down to the gristle. And I speak to you directly as a reflection of how you speak directly to so many of us, to a whole generation if not two of academics and community workers committed to the labor of transformation. You recently wrote that black study and existence must begin with love, so that's also how I wanted to begin today. And there's so much to appreciate in terms of how your oeuvre shapes the work of anthropologists, from those of us working in the African diaspora, to those of us thinking with popular music and culture as sites of politics, to ethnographers of transnational arts movements.
But I want to lift up your attention to the surreal and the marvelous, and the demands you make on us as ethnographers and political practitioners. You've established the surreal as an intrinsic element in diasporic freedom dreaming in a way that's been incredibly generative for me. But even when you're not topically addressing the actual aesthetic and political practice and tradition of surrealism, you're always manifesting the marvelous, that which exceeds the taught ideology of the real to include dreamworlds, chance encounters, even nonsense. It's the promise beyond the realm of the tactile. Rather than the depoliticized notion of the surreal as a distraction from politics, your work on and in the marvelous puts immense pressure on the category of the properly political, a critique that's immediately actionable for a robust and ethical anthropology of the state. In this sense, the marvelous demands a method of ethnographic engagement that takes us, all of us, seriously, like you wrote about Al Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, formerly known as Malcolm X. If we look deep into the interstices of the postindustrial city, we're bound to find millions of Malcolm Littles, male and female, whose social locations have allowed them to demystify aspects of the hegemonic ideology while reinforcing their ties to it. And it's at those interstices that I do my research, that both/and, right? Mostly just up this peninsula in San Francisco. In the endgame of gentrification, where the black population hovers at 3 percent, and two-bedroom apartments average $3,550 a month, the Malcolm Littles I know go by Tarika, Deshawn, Sierra, Bashira, Marisol, Josué. They're not the young leaders of Undocumented and Unafraid or Black Lives Matter, though those are their homies, right? I'm talking about the young people who I find outside the principal's office awaiting suspension or kicking it at the bus stop at 10 a.m., smoking a pinner and finishing their makeup, arming themselves for the school day. Sixty years earlier maybe they too would have been strutting in a zoot suit. Even though Malcolm later derides his years as Detroit Red, you remind us that his narrative shows us, unintentionally at least, the power of cultural politics, particularly for African American urban working-class youth, to both contest dominant meanings ascribed to their experiences, and seize spaces for leisure, pleasure, recuperation. I find those spaces in public school hallways, where organizing doesn't always look like a protest. Young people literally steal themselves away from class, conveniently forgetting their books and materials, picking a play fight just to get kicked out or slipping out when a teacher's head is turned. Once in the hallway these black, Latinx, and Polynesian youth use their fugitive minutes of class time to rebraid their edges, talk a crying friend through their drama, or just stroll along quoting their favorite song in unison with the YouTube video coming out of their iPhone. In short, for the leisure made impossible within the constraints of the neoliberal city and school.
Your discussion in Race Rebels of working in McDonald’s and tucking away a few burgers for later, of working-class folks collectively operating outside the scripts of both capital and revolution, opened a space for me to think through the politics of refusal in Frisco, even when it doesn't show up as resistance.
A Kelleyan approach [laughter and applause], so, yes, [laughter continues] a Kelleyan approach demands an anthropology from way, way below, one that starts not only with writing about, but with and as the inheritors of a black radical tradition.
In a recent piece about the most recent wave of student protests against entrenched racism in U.S. universities, you shared a triptych mantra: love, study, struggle. Not only do you offer us a scholarly method guided by this triple compass, and a model in the flesh for what it means for an academic to manifest courage and generosity within and beyond the structures of the corporate university, your work as a historian gives me the gift of lineage, something so hard to come by for those of us who hail from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. [quiet mmms] From Hammer and Hoe, to Africa Speaks, America Listens, you have crafted a material and intellectual genealogy of the marvelous, that shimmer of black radical possibility of post-Reconstruction freedom and inheritance that exceeds any one campaign, organization, or era.
I was reminded of the impact of that genealogy when I was engaged in strategic planning process with the Black Youth Project 100, a group that organizes nationally to build power through a black queer feminist lens. Our founding executive director was getting ready to transition out, and a group of us was tasked with developing a three-year strategic plan to anchor the organization during this time of transition. You know the deal, right? [scattered chuckles] So I was there as an alumni representative, so most folks knew me from political work, until it came out that I was an academic. So my comrades were like, wait, what is it that you do these days again? I fumbled through a description of my monograph in progress, and someone responded with, oh, like a Freedom Dreams situation. [Laughter] That's the PDF. [Laughter] Your books have set the bar for accessible, urgent, politically-grounded, intellectual, lyrical scholarship, and help provide a framework for us as a team of organizers to dream beyond the task before us. At the outset it was supposed to be just polling the members of the organization in order to figure out which campaigns to prioritize locally and nationally in the next three years, if there's any kind of shuffling necessary in the leadership chart.
After reading together and engaging in a democratic research design process, we ended up asking each other to call in the marvelous. In our interviews with rank-and-file members, staffers, and activist members that we lovingly call OGs, we asked, what's your vision for a world in which we govern ourselves? What's your vision for a world in which we keep ourselves safe? Because of this broadened frame, we were able to have a different set of conversations and build a strategic plan that exceeded the social real of nonprofit life, to include alternative system-building, a counterpolitics of local control and accountability, authentic, generative community relationships that change the material conditions for our people. This was love, study, struggle.
I've met most of the BYP100 folks on the strategic planning team at the 2014 convening of the Movement for Black Lives in [inaudible]. Though the proceedings were putatively inside, there was an almost constant musical presence in courtyards and street corners surrounding the event that attracted hundreds of organizers, educators, and cultural workers from across the U.S. Drums, horns, beatbox, harmony. We shared chants and songs across generations and regions. And each cipher ended with this infectious refrain: [chanting] I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!
And some of you who are parents of athletes might recognize that that's actually a soccer team chant, which in and of itself is a testament to the transformative capacity of black cultural practice. [laughter] Sung at the top of our lungs, jumping up and down, variously wiggling our body parts in rhythm with our devotion to black life. "I believe that we will win!" is an abolitionist mantra that plots a course to freedom.
Like you assert in your recent critique of student mobilization around safe spaces and campus diversity, winning is not always the point. And this was not about getting a W in the nonprofit Hunger Games. This utterance was an affirmation of black autonomy in the context of a gathering that centered prison abolitionists, and black land activists. Its repetition offered in a different register than the necessary but insufficient discourse of our concrete campaigns: Arrest the officer. Don't shoot us. Protect black and brown youth from state execution. Fund education, not incarceration.
I believe that we will win is at its core a faith declaration, one that is surreal in the sense that in your words, "it offers a vision of freedom far deeper and more expansive” because “it's a movement that invites dreaming, urges us to improvise and invent, and recognizes the imagination as our most powerful weapon." I believe that we will win is a ritual practice of internalizing the necessity to do the impossible, one that weaponizes the marvelous in the face of black death and dispossession. Thank you Robin, for always, always believing that we will win [voice cracks].
RK: We’re gonna have us a good cry.
[Panelist]: I know.
John Jackson, Jr.: So when I was in graduate school, Robin D. G. Kelley was a truly mythological figure. And some of it expressed itself in jokes, in nervous jokes, from graduate students who didn’t know what the life of the mind, as a profession, would entail for them. And most of the signs, most of the discourse was negative. The job market was bad, you’re not gonna get tenure, there isn’t space for the kind of work you want to do, you have to do someone else’s project. But Robin Kelley—before the internet, before we could Google people and find out what they look like and know everything about their lives— was this individual who stood in for something different. He wasn’t built like any of the other academics, at least of the folks I knew at Columbia in New York, had ever seen before. So we’d playfully say things like, you know, he was so precocious he got tenure as a teenager. [Laughter.] He had already written his first ten books, and they were all done, he was just putting them out. [Laughter.] But I say this because it was something about how he operated in the world as a scholar, we hadn’t seen before. And this was still when I wasn’t even sure I was built for the academy, that I should be here. And one of the reasons why I go back to this notion of him being a mythological figure, because myths educate us, right? [Panel: mmm] And I just want to say a few of the things I learned as a function, mostly from afar but also sometimes in ways that felt very intellectually intimate, what I learned from the myth that was Robin D. G. Kelley.
So the first thing I hold onto when I think about how and why I was so honored to be asked to come up here is that there’s a way in which—and we just saw it in your presentation, and I think we also heard it in the way Savannah responds to the power of your work. This is someone who thought about politics and the political as central to the work, but in a way that was so far from being claustrophobically pedantic. [Panelist: mmm] You know, this is a notion of politics that, even in its most pessimistic form, is expansive. [Panelist: mmm] And so for me, part of what that meant was, I wanted to understand for myself as an anthropologist: what is going to be the role, the definition, of the political in my work? And it doesn’t have to be like anyone else’s.
So part of what he taught me, for instance, was that one could invoke Marxism in a way that wasn’t, as we used to talk about it back then, that wasn’t vulgar. [Panelists: mmm] It could accommodate understandings of race and gender without dismissing those things as false consciousness. In fact, I think it’s the subtle ways you work in and through these categories with Cedric Robinson as your teacher, and others, that catapulted me into Harlem—your neighborhood, that wasn’t mine, your neighborhood [RK: Right]—to try to figure out how black folks in that part of New York theorized race and class at the same time. They can walk and chew gum. [Panelist: Mmhmm.] It wasn’t like race was such an important and blinding category for them that they didn’t see how capital worked. And so part of what you taught me was to think about how to take all of these analytical models, all of these frameworks, and not always assume that the only way to mobilize them is the way that folks who are most, I think, doctrinaire, in their deployments might imagine they should go.
You also clearly demonstrated a model of a Black studies that was already constituted through and through with an appreciation for gender, for ethnicity. We’re still trying to figure out how to make sure Black studies doesn’t forget that, but your work always reminds us that there is no Black studies without the real serious integration. And maybe that comes from Sylvia Wynter and others, but it’s a model that not everyone follows. I don’t feel like I always do it to the degree that I should, but you were the person who really reminded me, time and time again, as a grad student, that it’s possible and you have to try to do it. The work doesn’t do the work you want it to do unless you’ve already tried to incorporate that stuff into it.
The first piece I ever published was in Transforming Anthropology—I think it was my first year in graduate school, might’ve been my second year—and it was all a function of the serious tutelage of Drexel Woodson, who put people through their paces when they were writing reviews for Transforming Anthropology. [scattered laughter] And it was for Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional! And I remember poring over that book, I remember going back and forth—and I’m always, I’m one of these people, I’m like drawing in the margins [panelist laughs], underlining. Right, so this is, for me, an attempt to figure out how do I capture why I think this book is so important. One of the things I think it taught me and that your work demonstrates—and this is something we talked about at the beginning of this conference at a session— we tried to think about how, especially as scholars, as anthropologists of color, how you deal with a discipline that doesn’t always feel like it appreciates your presence or wants you there. [Panelists: Mmm, mhm] Right? And one of the ways you think about that, at least, I would argue, is to say that given the things we want to do, especially as scholars of color, anthropology isn’t big enough to contain us. That’s why we need Af-Am, that’s why we need comp studies, that’s why we need gender studies. But part of what you see in your work from the beginning, and even, I would argue, in Hammer and Hoe, but definitely, certainly in Race Rebels and Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!, is someone who isn’t a respecter of disciplines simply for the sake of being pigeonholed. You’re always thinking about, not just interdisciplinary work, but how to talk about the project that cares— in a way that puts the disciplinary concerns to the side—it’s almost orthogonal to your project. [RK: uh-huh] If it’s helpful, yes, you’ll use it; if it’s not, you write in a language, in a register, with a sensibility and ethos, that couldn’t be contained even in history. I know historians think everything begins and ends there but [RK laughs] that’s how you got to Columbia and anthropology, right? [RK laughs] And so that for me was really important.
There’s also a way to think about the relationship between the political and the personal that I guess I want to end on, I’ll wrap up. So, when I was an undergraduate, I was gonna be a filmmaker, I studied at Howard in D.C., and there were two different filmmakers who were for me incredibly important mentors. But they were mentors for me as a fledgling, would-be filmmaker for two very different reasons. One was a guy named Alonzo Crawford, the other one was a guy named Haile Gerima. [RK: Oh yeah] And they had two very different approaches, at least at the time when I was an undergrad, to why and how you engage film, what the purpose was and what the process was. And so for Alonzo Crawford, again, so, remember, so I’m, you know, with a crew, we’re all thinking we’re gonna be the next Spike Lee, the next John Singleton [laughter]—when Sankofa came out we were like “Sankofa what?” We were not impressed [laughter]. So Alonzo Crawford and Haile Gerima made films that were very different from the films we thought we wanted to make, at least some of us at the time, but what we always appreciated is what they told us about the power and importance of the work itself. And I think it’s something that, for me, frames why I so appreciate what you contribute, and why I know still to this day I think of the kind of work you do, in some ways, as mythological in its significance and importance.
So Alonzo Crawford’s project was always one that was about trying to make it clear to us that the most important intervention you can make as a filmmaker is a social one, is a social one even before the film comes out. So almost in this tradition of Italian neorealism, he would go into communities in D.C., he’d teach people how to use the Nagra, right, he’d teach them how to use the clapboard, he would get the community in on the project as cast and crew. They would make a film together, and when it was done, he would screen it, that was all important. But if he was successful, the job, his job as a filmmaker, as a cultural organizer, as a political person in the world trying to make the world a little bit better, was already complete if they got the film in the can and got it done. And got folks learning the skills, connecting with people they otherwise didn’t have any relationships with. And so for him it was all social, and it was social that was always linked to a project that was political and in the community. And that was Alonzo Crawford. And so, no matter what you say about the films he made, and the narrative, you knew, for him, the rubber hit the road when he was in there doing the work in communities.
Haile Gerima, a point for us and he was really inspirational when he made it, was to say do not forget under any circumstances—because you gotta think about Hollywood, and the cameras are gonna be really slick, and the images are gonna be really sultry—do not ever forget that film is a weapon. [mmm] It’s a weapon that people use against you [RK: right], and that when you’re going to defend yourself existentially, politically, you have to be able to deploy just as well or better. And there’s a version I think of that two-ness, of thinking about film as a social form that really is about building community, even for Alonzo Crawford, more than it’s about creating a wonderful narrative at the end that people can watch. And this idea that no matter what we think we’re doing as filmmakers, we’re always really cultural warriors trying to defend ourselves from an onslaught, but also thinking about that weaponry as carefully as you can.
And the work that I feel like you do is a wonderful combination of both of those things. I think when you read it, but also when you’re in the presence of Robin Kelley, when you’re talking to you, you realize that this is someone who cares about the social, who cares about people, who wants to imagine ways of connecting that’s substantive and beyond even simply the end product of the work—right?— if the product is a book or an article. But also someone who clearly is a warrior. Now, a warrior that’s still, I think, is love-filled, a warrior that’s still is one of the most generous people and spirits I’ve ever seen in the academy—and I don’t take it for granted in the academy, or anywhere else, but especially in the academy. And so I guess part of what I would end by saying is there’s a way in which . . . I talked about how I don’t think I’d be in the academy now if it weren’t for Lee Baker, when he came to Columbia, when I was there, at just the right time. And then when I saw Lee later he told me, well, Lee wouldn’t have made it through if it hadn’t been for Faye Harrison, if it hadn’t been for the folks who came, Michael Blakey, who got him through. You get so many people through, Robin [SS: mmhmm]; you know some of us, but you don’t know all of us. [Panelists: Right; mmm] So I thank you for the work, I really appreciate what you do, and my only hope—my only hope—is that, as we continue to think about our role as anthropologists in the field we will draw on you as a model to understand that, part of what, I think, we have to internalize is a way of understanding our relationship to scholarship that always does something more than simply parrot back what we got. [Audience, Panelists: mmm] And so when we read your work, we’re hearing you, we’re not simply hearing the canon, we’re not hearing the versions of things we’ve already heard before, which is one of my biggest critiques of anthropological discourse now. Every ethnography’s almost like the same ethnography, you pull out the place and, you know, the same turns of phrase. You’re someone who speaks in a genuine way. And it made me feel like there is space enough in the academy, you know, not just in the academy, beyond, but there is space in the academy for the kind of questions I care about, and I think a lot of people here feel the same way. So thank you.
Gary Wilder: So forget the PDF, I think I purchased your Freedom Times [sic] four times. I’ve taught it, I’ve lost it, I carried it around, I’ve given it to students, so I’m doing my best to help with those small royalties. [Laughter]
So, thank you to Karen and John for organizing this discussion. It is an honor and a joy to think with a scholar whom I admire so deeply, one of our indispensable public intellectuals in these dark times, as we’ve been hearing about. And while I welcome the opportunity to think across disciplines, I am not going to comment on why Robin Kelley’s thinking is important for anthropology per se. For his work immediately points beyond reified boundaries between fields. Of course, his scholarship certainly crosses history, anthropology, political science, cultural studies, American studies, Black studies, music studies, et cetera, colonial studies. But, more importantly, the issues about which he writes—black radicalism and the problem of freedom—cannot be circumscribed within the university, let alone a single discipline. His example points beyond intellectual work as merely a scholastic or professional enterprise, as John just suggested. His writings regularly intervene into present debates that are aligned with struggles and oriented always towards transformative possibilities. So Kelley writes histories of the present that are propelled again and again by his insistent question: where do we go from here? So rather than relate his work directly to anthropology, I would like to comment on why his intellectual orientation is so important for all engaged scholars in our current conjuncture.
First of all, Kelley invites us to think beyond so many of the inherited binaries that often obstruct meaningful political analysis. These include race versus class, Pan-Africanism versus Marxism, and self-determination versus internationalism. But also the supposed divisions between politics and aesthetics, realism and utopianism, strategy and ethics. Not to mention theory and practice, scholarship and advocacy, or critique and positive vision. This refusal of false oppositions allows Kelley to explore the multiplex character of black radicalism, including the peculiar ways that cultural nationalism, Pan-Africanism, anti-imperialism and revolutionary socialism so often converge within original forms of black Marxism. His work signals that Marxism and liberalism are not simply two sides of the same Eurocentric coin, even if there’s a lot of racist history to interrogate within the Marxist tradition. Working within the framework of what Cedric Robinson called racial capitalism, Kelley’s work demonstrates what Du Bois insisted upon so forcefully in the 1930s, 20s and 30s: namely, that socialism can never be realized so long as a color bar exists, and that racial emancipation can never be realized under capitalist arrangements. In other words, his work suggests in so many different ways, in so many different books and articles, that the black freedom struggle must also be an anticapitalist struggle. And that likely requires joining or creating and leading broad-based movements for societal transformation.
Second, Kelley reminds us that internationalism has long been a crucial component of black radicalism. His work is always deprovincializing antiracism and challenging American exceptionalism, alerting us to converging and entangled histories of African American solidarity, Black Atlantic solidarity, global South solidarity, and worldwide anticapitalist solidarity. He studies movements that insist on the intrinsic relation between black emancipation and what Marx called human emancipation, emphasizing that, to be meaningful, freedom needs to be planetary, universal and unconditional. And that beyond legal equality and material well-being, it requires and enables radically different forms of subjectivity and sociality, as we heard in the last two comments. Kelley invites black radicals to see themselves as what he says “as part of a continuing struggle of human beings not only to survive, but to evolve into more human human beings, a struggle that is a worldwide struggle.”
Third, as we know, Kelley underscores that political imagination and utopian visions, or freedom dreams as he calls them, are indispensable to black radicalism and left projects. He celebrates a poetic politics that refuses the given and embraces the marvelous. On one level this aesthetic orientation certainly nourishes struggle, it stubbornly maintains that other possible worlds . . . other worlds are possible, another world is possible. But, as importantly, this aesthetic orientation also provides a glimpse of that world to come. It anticipates by practicing, something like the joyful, loving, and creative ethos that should inform social arrangements, as well as the relation between humans and nature, as he tells us. His inspired example calls to mind the suggestion by Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui in the 1920s that socialists may need to focus less on the time-worn distinctions between revolutionaries and reformists, than on the crucial distinction between those leftists who embrace the imagination and those who do not. Kelley insists that it is not enough to challenge the given order but we must also envision a world worth fighting for. And whether he uses the language of freedom or love or socialism, and he often weaves them together in beautiful ways, he is never reticent about naming alternative and desirable futures.
I would like to suggest that these aspects of his thinking do not only challenge the racist common sense that saturates so much public discourse, including so much conventional scholarship in and beyond the U.S., which it certainly does, but that these aspects of his scholarship also point beyond several short-sighted policies within critical theory and left politics today. Among these are what we might call left culturalism, which often reifies territory and revives civilizational thinking. It often entails questionable assumptions about the supposedly normal alignment of place, people, culture, tradition, and consciousness. Here an important concern about honoring singularities can often lead to a dubious preoccupation with cultural incommensurability and epistemological purity. Second is its corollary, left realism, or presentism, which may take the stronger form of left melancholy. This entails catastrophic and apocalyptic assertions about being stranded in an unsurpassable present. A position that so often perversely mirrors neoliberal end of history discourses. Here a welcome critique, an important critique of linear temporality and teleological history is too often used to cast aspersions on future-oriented politics as such. So left realism, or this current of left realism, often hurls the term romantic as a derisory epithet. It mistakenly conflates political visions with elitist blueprints, which they are not. It derides as hopefulness or optimism the attempt to identify historical possibilities that may be dialectically present within or produced by existing arrangements. These tendencies often lead critics to distrust solidarity politics as necessarily imperial and to denigrate utopian thinking as dangerously naive. But Kelley’s work is a rigorous, nuanced, and passionate engagement with solidarity politics, with left internationalism, and utopian thinking as central to the black radical tradition and the task before us today.
Recall his account of black surrealist poets in the 20s who refunctioned European modernism in the service of a radical politics of the marvelous. Or Southern U.S. black communists in the 1930s protesting the invasion of Ethiopia and enlisting to fight in the Spanish Civil War, which he writes about. Or Brooklyn avant-garde jazz musicians in the 50s and 60s traveling to Africa and collaborating with continental counterparts. And of course we can’t forget Robin’s own longstanding attempts to link African-American and Palestinian liberation struggles. Recall the explosively beautiful image that Kelley conjures when he writes: Monk meets Lautreamont on the night train to freedom. That could be a title for the oeuvre, right? [Kelley laughs] Robin relays the scene, in the Monk book, which I recommend you read, along with Freedom Dreams, and Race Rebels—and all the others. [Laughter] Robin relays the scene of a journalist asking Thelonious Monk provincial and racist questions about the relation between Western concert music and black jazz. Monk simply replies: two is one. I read this eloquent formulation as both descriptive and prescriptive. An observation about fundamental entanglement, and an aspiration to transcend the reified divisions that impoverish black being and modern life in and beyond the U.S.
To me, this poetic formulation, two is one, does not only capture so much about the impossible situation that figures like Monk had to navigate, but it also crystallizes something fundamental, I think, about Robin Kelley’s scholarly and theoretical and political orientation. It situates Kelley in a lineage of antiracist, anti-imperial, anticapitalist, black, utopian, socialist internationalists that includes Du Bois, Claudia Jones, C. L. R. James, Stuart Hall, Angela Davis, and now, today, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and of course the Movement for Black Lives. Like them Kelley refuses to accept that we inhabit a closed circle or a one dimensional world. His writing reminds us what we say we know but often seem to forget: that history is not finished. Like them, he refuses the nihilism, fatalism, and all-knowing irony that Walter Benjamin earlier criticized as the antipolitical symptoms of what he called left melancholy. And he uses that beautiful line, Benjamin, all-knowing irony. In the late 1970s Stuart Hall sought to understand the broad popular appeal of Thatcherism to the white working classes who would surely be its greatest victims. Hall criticized the British left, then, for abandoning what Gramsci had called the ideological class struggle. And in a similar spirit, I would suggest, that understandable fears of elitism, normativity, and universalism too often means that the Left today has lost the will to fashion concrete freedom dreams that would name the kind of world and life that we want and we need.
But without such dreaming and naming and aiming, how can we take up and improvise responses to Kelley’s repeating refrain, his insistent question: Where do we go from here? He nudges us along when he declares, “Now is the time to think like poets, to envision and make visible a new society, a peaceful, cooperative, loving world without poverty and oppression, limited only by our imagination.” And if passages like this suggest that we can regard Kelley as a proponent of what Löwy and Henri Lefebvre refer to as revolutionary romanticism, this certainly does not mean that he is a naive optimist or blinkered idealist, as his opening comments suggest. Like many of his black radical predecessors, Kelley identifies possibilities for transformation while offering clear-eyed warnings about how implausible the prospects of success almost always are. This is the tightrope—one of them, but this is one of the tightropes—upon which his thinking and politics boldly, yet cautiously, balance and sometimes dance. Consider the quote with which I will end, when Robin writes:
Now there’s the real question: can we all get along long enough to make a revolution? [mmm, light laughter] Perhaps, but history tells us it will mean taking leadership from some very radical women of color. And if that’s the case I’m not holding my breath. What the old-guard male militants really need to do is give up the mic for a moment, listen to the victims of democracy sing their dreams of a new world, and take notes on how to fight for the freedom of all.
Thank you, Robin.
[Background chatter during transition]
RK: OK, so, Orisanmi told me I should say something, and what can I say? I have to say that I’m a little bit emotional because I didn’t—when Karen invited me to this, I didn’t expect this. I thought something totally different. I thought it was like [laughter], like there would be like a critique of Freedom Dreams, and I’d defend it but then also talk about its weaknesses and what would you do differently. [Laughter] I didn’t think of it—it’s like, it’s like the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced ever that didn’t have anything to do with with, with my children. [Laughter] And I mean, I really mean that. I can’t imagine anything like this, like, at the Organization of American Historians or the American Historical Association. So I am forever an anthropologist. [Laughter, applause]
But just a couple of, you know, I can’t really respond. What you said was just so beautiful, I really was in tears. Because you know you can’t, you don’t always recognize the work you do. What I do recognize, and I’m saying this, I’m not being facetious, that I am the luckiest person on the planet. And I’m the luckiest person on the planet because I was born at a moment and surrounded by people who really loved me. And I mean that, you know, of course, Freedom Dreams starts out with my mother. And it’s all really about her. It’s dedicated to three people—to my sister and to two people who passed away sadly too young, Lisa Sullivan and Joe Wood, Jr., and it—so in some ways, it’s written for my students who taught me more than anything. Just to see, I know Erica just left, to see people who aren’t my students, like Miesha and others, and all these people who are in this room, some of whom—I know you, I can’t, if I start naming names it’d be crazy—but I learned so much from students that made all this stuff possible. Everything John talked about, that’s all because of the students that I learned from. But also, I have these, all of us have these great mentors, you know, we could all tell stories about who trained us. I see Leith Mullings who was, who took me under her wing, you know, and I’m not even an anthropologist, but really kind of took me around and helped me when I was coming up as a very, very young, young, young assistant professor, and known for years. And so we all have an obligation to each other, and that’s what makes intellectual work and political work both wedded together but also so necessary.
Because the final thing I just have to say is that everything that was said today proves the point that there really is no separation between the kind of social movements that produce the conditions to produce new knowledge, that none of this stuff ever happens within think tanks that are isolated, that BYP 100 is an organization has the most forward-looking visionary thinkers on the planet right now. That the Movement for Black Lives was more than just people sort of in the trenches, they come out of the trenches, to think through a completely different future that is so visionary and actually should be the stuff that we should be reading [mmhmm], you know, and why I assign, you know, the documents that they produce to our future generations. And so I really appreciate this. I don’t want to take up too much more time because I know people have questions, talk about the book, but I just wanna say thank you, thank you, all of you, and let’s continue the conversation, thanks.
OB: So we have about thirty minutes to have a conversation, and I think that we should really turn it over to people in the audience. I’m sure you have a lot of thoughts about this, so I can walk around and take questions, and maybe we’ll do three questions and Robin and other people on the panel can respond. Do we have any questions? [Pause] Or reflections?
[Silence, soft murmuring]
RK: OK, we can go home!
GW: So Robin—
OB: I know we have questions.
GW: Though, I just wanted to add a footnote to your terrific talk, and let people know that Pierre Naville, if I remember correctly, was the cultural attaché in the French embassy in Haiti . . .
GW: . . . who first invited Aimé Césaire to give the amazing, the talk that became “Poetry and Knowledge” . . .
RK: Mmhmm, wow.
GW: . . . so his first visit to Haiti, so that kind of international intersectionalism . . .
GW: . . . is right there.
RK: That’s amazing, that I didn’t know.
GW: He was responsible for that.
SS: Are there really no questions, I have . . .
OB: Ask a question.
SS: Um, so this is an awkward time to out myself as an Afro-pessimist. [Laughter] But I so appreciate this concept of revolutionary pessimism, and it really helps me think about what is so compelling to me about thinking with and in death and loss as a generative space. [RK: Right] And so I guess I would love to just hear a little more around how you operationalize revolutionary pessimism, particularly in terms of thinking about—there’s this false division between like, oh, we’re thinking about what we want to destroy versus what we want to build, right, or we’re thinking of the end versus the beginning, of black death as opposed to black life. So I’m wondering if you could speak to how you orient, and I’m also in the beginning of a very long mourning process myself [RK: mmhmm] and so what, how, how do we orient toward death, how do we orient toward a constant stream of death in a way that is accountable to this tradition of black possibility?
RK: Should I answer that now or . . . ?
OB: Yeah, go for it.
RK: OK, that’s actually . . . by the way, I’m still, the jury’s still out for me on Afro-pessimism, that’s why I kind of began by saying, you know, it’s one of the most interesting positions right now, and part of my struggle with Afro-pessimism has to do with a recent trip to South Africa, where it actually takes on a different valence, [SS: yes, yes] very different valence, one that . . . My daughter, by the way, talking about the Kelleyan, the person to Elleza Kelley, whose dissertation will be done soon, a really brilliant scholar, Columbia University, in English, she’s really a secret geographer. And I watched her have this debate with some of the South African Afro-pessimists, who actu—and I’m not speaking to all—who actually have fallen into a deeply . . . a politics of pigment. [Audience: mmmm] And not only that, but one that the Afro-pessimists in South Africa dismiss Steve Biko. [SS: wooooww] So Steve Biko, for example, who is the founder, one of the founding figures of black consciousness, they have this term called Biko black, that if you’re Biko black you’re basically, you know, kind of a traitor. I mean, it’s more than that, and I don’t want to sort of cast aspersions, but what, what, what I came away from was this sense . . . the most critical problem in that debate was the way in which class distinctions were erased and the gender politics among the Afro-pessimists in South Africa were . . . there’s no such thing as black feminism, that feminism is an import from the white man [SS: oh], right? So that’s, and again [laughs], we can talk more about that, but what’s interesting, though, is that the erasure of class basically meant that there’s undifferentiated experience within this framework of blackness, and what I was arguing was that, you know, many of the people who signed the legislation that put us in prison look like me or darker. [Panelists: mmhmm] So we gotta pay attention to those kinds of . . .
So, and at the same time, I actually agree that part of the emergence of Afro-pessimism is about dealing with death and mourning. This goes back to the issue of left melancholy, or left melancholia. There is this issue about, you know, what is the work of mourning, whether you’re mourning loss of movement in the post-1989 moment, or the loss of life, or the continuation of the just being plastered with death. That mourning has been, for us, a tradition to inspire struggle rather than resignation. [mmhmm] You know, and so, if anything, to me the beautiful potential of Afro-pessimism is to think of revolutionary mourning. That is, that we . . . it goes back to how you ended your talk, “We believe that we can win.” We believe that we can win, as you know, and Dream Defenders: you know, I was in Brazil with the Dream Defenders, and they were doing that every day. It’s transformative. All of São Paulo was just bouncing up and down. But we believe that we can win is not based at all on the idea that it’s inevitable. It is that, as we continue to bounce, it’s our strength and our power that has the capacity to take down the, to topple these structures and to build something new, which is why we say it together. And so to me, the combination of revolutionary mourning, you know, anticipatory optimism that is, that when they say “we believe that we can win,” they’re anticipating a different future because they know, not that it’s inevitable, but that they’re willing to give their lives for this transformative politics to make a new world. And to me that’s the beauty, and that goes back to the Movement for Black Lives, that goes to We Charge Genocide, all of those organizations with that vision, that we believe that we can win because we really don’t have a choice. [mmhmm]That we have to, and this goes back to Benjamin again, if we don’t win we’re doomed. [mmm] And that, to me, is the power, that’s where I think, just as in 1925 communism and surrealism can converge to create a revolutionary pessimism, you know, which is a necessary intervention, it’s quite possible, I think, that Afro-pessimism and, you know, revolutionary pessimism, let’s call it that, can converge to produce the urgency of intervention. And that urgency is the one that does not say that the “blue wave” is a revolution [mm, laughter] right, so [laughter] . . .
OB: I’m going to selfishly ask a question as I walk to give you [audience member] the mic to ask a question. I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about Palestine [mmhmm, finger snaps] and black-Palestinian solidarity [Kelley: OK], and maybe help us think historically about black–Palestinian solidarity, which I think is often not looked at nuanced enough, because there’s a complicated history between the black Left and Palestine. And also I’m sure you’re aware that a few years ago, the American Anthropological Association decided not to vote in support of BDS, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on BDS. [laughter]
SS: Narrowly, narrowly, narrowly.
OB: Narrowly, narrowly.
OB: [inaudible] take another question.
RK: Should I answer both of them?
OB: Well, let’s put them both on the table and then . . .
RK: We’ll put ’em both on the table, yeah.
Audience Member 1: Thank you so much for all of the remarks, really beautiful and amazing panel and event. I think my question, I don’t think it’s really much of a departure from the first two, from Savannah’s and Ori’s questions, I think, based around an issue of mourning and then also the sort of internationalism of the black radical imagination. So I’m asking this question . . . so the sort of mourning I’m thinking about is the deep mourning of being a black American anthropologist whose work is committed to and centered in the African continent. [RK: uh-huh; SS: mmm] And I think essentially what I want to ask can be wrapped up in what do you think of Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother, in the sense of, like, trying to hold on to some real commitment and investment in celebratory and liberatory black radical politics? And then also the deep disappointments and exclusions of Pan-Africanism on the continent that come in the form of certain kinds of identity politics or like, not identity politics, but, like, pigment issues and all these sorts of, you know . . . And also I think Frank Wilderson’s Incognegro, just going to the continent with, like, Fanon stuffed in your pockets and calling yourself black and then when you get there someone says “What kind of black are you?” [mmhmm] And so, yeah, I think I would just love to hear your thoughts on that, thanks.
RK: OK. That’s a hard question. [laughter] Well, on the question of Palestine, boy, I’ve written so much about this, I don’t even know where to begin. It’s a very, very interesting story because the short version is, and I’ve written about this, there’s been a long history before 1967 of African American leadership, including from A. Philip Randolph to W. E. B. Du Bois, with some exceptions—Malcolm X being one of the exceptions—who basically saw Israel as a projection of a kind of liberatory, anticolonial state and so the celebrations around the creation of the state of Israel without any reference of the Nakba, to the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians, you know, was just par for the course. And then something shifted around, with the ’67 war and why that’s the case is a long, long story, but the relationships between black social movements in the U.S. and Palestine have always ebbed and flowed. [mmhmm] When I was in Palestine in 2012 I remember I was with a delegation, and we went to the, you know, the old part of Jerusalem, the walled city, and we went to the African quarter, and then I come out and then there’s tour buses filled with African Americans who are coming from, like, these Christian, Zionist, you know, associated Baptist churches and stuff to go visit the Holy Land without any reference to displacement, dispossession. And the brother that took us in the African quarter was one who himself, his family was part of the displaced population during the Nakba. So it’s interesting.
And I’ve also written about the role that some of the kind of black elite HBCU leadership played in opposition to SJP. I’m here in San Jose; as we speak there’s a conference at UCLA, SJP’s national conference is going on, which was opposed by the president, by the chancellor of UCLA. And so it’s interesting how the question of Palestine is still a question that doesn’t allow for academic freedom. San Jose State right here has a case going on where there’s a professor whose basically gonna file legal charges against any action that is about Palestine that doesn’t have an opposing view [mmm], which I didn’t even know that that was legal, that you could even do that, but this is a struggle that’s going on. So this is the context for trying to think about what does black solidarity and Palestinian solidarity look like. Post-Ferguson there was a lot of, sort of, interesting relationships between what was happening up in Gaza in 2014, what was happening in Ferguson in 2014, and acts of solidarity across the board. But the good news is that that’s solidarity, the bad news is that that sometimes that solidarity actually erases difference. And the politics of analogy can do more damage, do as much damage as produce an opposition. So we have real issues, we have issues of antiblackness in Palestine, among Palestinians. That’s real. I mean, you have issues of Islamophobia in black communities. That’s real. We don’t make these things disappear. Solidarity’s a very, very difficult thing to produce, it’s not natural, it requires a kind of work that entails, not erasure of the past, but acknowledgement of the past and difficulties of the past. One other thing to keep in mind, and most of you may know this story, the Black Panther Party of Israel was not necessarily Palestinian in terms of displaced populations, but there were Mizrahi Jews who were treated like second-class citizens, especially, you know, before ’67, and so that was also a real issue that we have to pay attention to.
Anyway, there’s a lot to the story. I do know that I’ve been working with Rabab Abdulhadi, who had her own case at San Francisco State. She established something called Teaching Palestine, and one of the thing I’ve been trying to do is talk about—what does it mean to teach Palestine in Black studies? [mmm, yes] And it’s not a new thing because, if you recall the origins of Third World studies, the origins of BlacksStudies, not just in San Francisco but across the country, actually had dimensions of Palestine in it in 1968, 1969, and it kind of disappeared. And it disappeared with the professionalization of ethnic studies, and now that it’s coming back there’s a lot of opposition to it, and trust me, I’m in a place where there’s opposition to it. So I won’t say much more than that except to open up the conversation and warn against the easy, again, analogies and the easy idea of solidarity. Because even within the Palestinian liberation movement, it’s not all about BDS. There are people who oppose BDS, among Palestinians, there are people who feel like, that BDS and the international boycott movement, as effective as it is, is not the liberation movement. There’s splits. The fact that the PFLP has this long history, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary recently has been kind of erased, that Fatah plays a role reproduction of the Israeli occupation. I mean there’s all kinds of things that are real that have to be paid attention to, but then you could say the same thing about the United States. Not every black person was in the trenches in Ferguson [laughter], some people were actually benefiting from the extraction of resources from working-class communities. So again, that’s something we have to pay attention to.
Which kind of brings me to your question, which I don’t really have a good answer to, except to say I won’t make this about Saidiya’s book because . . . I understand what you’re saying about the work that it does in terms of the way she tells a story, which is a very powerful story about expectation, about the distance, the transatlantic distance, which is not just about space and time, it’s also about the different histories that emerge. A lot happened, happens between the eighteenth Century and the twenty-first century, right? In terms of the development of a place like Dakar or Ghana, you know. And so in that respect that history always has to be attended to. When I wrote Africa Speaks, America Answers part of what I was trying to deal with in that book was: what does African modernity look like specifically? Like what does it mean to create a public culture, a print culture in South Africa, in West Africa, in Accra, one that sometimes oriented to the United States, but sometimes very much oriented to Europe, but sometimes very much oriented to the makings of new publics in a place like Ghana. Where to be Fante on the coast or to be, you know, living on the northern edges of Ghana, to be Ewe, and to try to create new communities, new publics that in, in a society where decolonization really entails the reorganization of capital, power, and labor relations, and class, that nothing stays still. So much of what we see as really intense differences or the, even the nostalgia around what Pan-Africanism could be has to do with the particular histories, that even from the 1970s, where things have really radically changed. So to me that’s what matters. We can never be caught in the past. Does that mean that we should give up on the kind of vision or dream of some kind of Pan-Africanism, whatever that means? Not me. I think there’s something very romantic about it, but there’s also something very powerful about the idea that, that we have connections. But those connections and, you know, are not necessarily connections that are about blood, nor is it about lineage, nor is it about the Middle Passage epistemology. [panelist: mmm] Sometimes it’s specifically about the creation of new cultural forms of resistance that actually resonate across the board, whether it’s hip-hop in Senegal, hip-hop in the United States, or Cuba or Colombia, or it’s also about the resonances of forms of exploitation and extraction that are very, very similar.
And so there’s this wonderful book that I’m teaching now. It’s not about West Africa or anything, it’s about . . . it’s called, We’re All Fast Food Workers Now. This is Annelise Orleck’s book. And what it shows is that in these collective struggles for a basic living wage in fast food and in the garment industry and in agriculture, you know, for basic living, for basic control, that people find new solidarities and new relationships. You know? So for a Japanese and a Mexican and a Brazilian McDonald’s worker to come together, to talk about what the labor process is like, and what is it be paid less than a living wage, produces new publics. And so in some ways Pan-Africanism, modern Pan-Africanism was about, not the restoration of old, but the production of new publics, new relationships, new solidarities. And in that case, if you throw all the baggage out and start anew there’s all kinds of possibilities, and that’s exciting to me. That’s a long answer. [Laughter]
OB: Did we have other questions?
And there’s another in the way back. Maybe we can take those two.
Audience Member 2: Thank you, Professor Kelley, for spending time with us and giving us your insights. I wanted to ask you . . .I wanted to give you a comment, as well as a question, so maybe respond to either or none, you can decide, whatever you feel. But as someone who is an ethnographer, and someone, you know, and my analytics do really draw from Afro-pessimistic modes of inquiry, I’ve struggled with representation [SS: mmm] because I do research in New Orleans, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. So, you know, black death is so palpable and thinking about state enclosure, at least ten, twelve years since Katrina happened and yet I saw the vibrant black social life that was contesting at every step of the way that social death. And so at every step of my research and my writing I’ve struggled with thinking through what Katrina has meant, and what it did mean for black life, and still how black sociality has always been there to contest every step of the way. [RK: right]
So, you know how when you give talks to different audiences, you frame your work differently? So I was talking to some working-class, mostly working-class black folks, you know, from the South, and I didn’t really want to come in really leaning too heavily on the pessimism side. I brought up your work and how black folks in New Orleans are thinking through freedom dreams and thinking through these ways of trying to think: how do we kind of contest the state and this enclosure of our lives and this ethnic cleansing that’s happening, and showing some of the, the hope that I felt in that moment. And I was struck by, there was a white scholar [SS: mmm] who was there, who employed at me an Afro-pessimist critique. [Panelist: ugh; laughter] As somebody who’s really reckoning with these ideas and taking them seriously and trying to find, find, you know, the balance between . . . the white scholar then levied at me, how can you find instances of black life in this moment of total social death considering what Hurricane Katrina was? And cited Wilderson and Sexton, just kind of hammered that point in. In that moment, I was really, it was jarring, to have a white scholar levy an Afro-pessimist critique at me, an ethnographer of black life [RK: right]. So I think, that’s, that’s, that’s my comment. [laughter, scattered applause]. But one question I have, though, is the . . . thinking through, because I am you know, my work, is informed by Afro-pessimism and Afro-pessimistic critiques, and I think it’s very powerful, as you’ve mentioned, and I think about this idea of black liberation. And what sticks with me about Afro-pessimism is thinking through the importance of antiblackness and to the the human itself, and the Western, kind of modern conception of the human, which as as anthropologists we investigate, sometimes taking for granted the teleology of the human itself, I think. So in thinking through the human, I think that it was Jared Sexton, perhaps, that said, you know, to eradicate antiblackness, or for black liberation itself, would make the world a lot more free than they really want to be. Because who are you, then, without antiblackness? What do you look like? What do you feel like? What’s your culture as a nonblack person? How do you . . . much of your life has been oriented around antiblackness, it’s visceral, it’s psychological, it’s almost preconscious. So for black liberation to happen, the whole world goes into disarray. How do we organize ourselves politically, psychologically, in the aftermath of that? So I just wondered how would you respond to that? It’s not a provocation of your work at all [RK: right]; how would you respond to that?
RK: OK, we’re going to take one more question, I’m gonna have to try to remember, ’cause this is really important, so I’m going to try to remember both of those things. One more question, I guess. Maybe I’ll try to write it down.
Audience Member 3: Am I audible? [Audience: yes] Okay. My question was actually prompted a bit by Savannah’s mentioning that refrain. And thinking about the phrase we will win. So I am from Mozambique. And so I’m kind of, in some ways, the inverse of the person in the front, a black American studying Africa, I’m an African studying Africa in America. And one of the things that strikes me often, as someone trying to have a historical materialist relation to the continent and to solidarity, is . . . there is a desire in myself and in most of the people I speak to who study from Africa and who and, or, who are black Americans, to have a sense of kinship between the African continent and America. And the point where that kinship always seems to come into a kind of conflict is when we begin to have a materialist critique of empire. [RK, SS: mmhmm] And it’s a thing that is animating my scholarship at the moment trying to figure out how to wrestle with creating forms of kinship while retaining a critical relation to the thing that is disabling the freedom dream. So I was wondering if you could speak to that.
RK: OK, so the one thing that’s going to happen is, I’m not going to be the only one responding. I know that Savannah and Orisanmi, at least, and John and Gary, too, will respond to these questions ’cause this is actually, these are questions for all of us. That’s how I take it.
So I’m just going to jump in real quickly. Let me go back to your—you said you’re from Mozambique— that’s amazing. I mean, the very first long paper I wrote was about FRELIMO when I was eighteen years old, I wrote, like, eighty-five pages [laughter] on FRELIMO. And what you say is so profound ’cause I just want to go back, one of the things we don’t always pay attention to is, is both the question of Afro-diasporic solidarity and the, some of the mythologies around it, how it does erase empire and that is our relationship to empire, the way in which, you know, those of us who live in the metropoles benefit from forms of extraction even as we’re being extracted. But to give one concrete example, when we talk about the occupation of Haiti, for example, Brazil played a very important role in that occupation. And the South-South contradictions, now I’m not talking about the early occupation, the later one, the South-South contradictions. “What does it mean?” really does matter, and the fact that coming out of a place like Mozambique with civil war, with having to fight a war both against Portugal and South Africa for so many years . . . means that it’s very important to pay attention to the ways in which class, empire, capital actually does create differential relationships, and exploitative ones, and that’s a hard thing to swallow. Because, and this, and part of my critique of Afro-pessimism, again, it’s not everyone, is that there’s a tendency to erase those kinds of relationships by centering antiblackness as really the only mode of exploitation. It basically erases difference to the point where there are black elites in the global South, let alone in North America, who benefit from forms exploitation and extraction, again, and that they’re off the hook in some ways.
Now to go back to the two questions, two points you raised, extremely profound, I’d love to hear what the real anthropologists have to say about it. What is your name by the way?
Audience Member 2: Justin Hosbey.
RK: Do you know Christian Tompkins?
Audience Member 2: Yes.
RK: OK, good, ’cause we talk about New Orleans all the time and the stuff that he’s finding . . . who’s brilliant, brilliant, you know. And all I can say is that, you know, and don’t take this the wrong way everyone, I’m going to be quoted out of context, but there’s, when I said that there’s different variants of Afro-pessimism, there is the Frank Wilderson/Jared Sexton, who I’m sympathetic to in many, many ways. There’s also the Ta-Nehisi Coates [knowing mmms] variant and that’s the one that white people love [mmms, laughter]. And look, and I love Ta-Nehisi, this is not—I have defended him in print, people know that, and he’s really, really smart. But there’s a way in which the kinds of things he’s talking about actually are attractive to, I think, that same person who would then render this argument, because, what it ultimately does is . . . the kind of agency that you have identified, which is in some ways a form of mourning, there’s a form of social community building, sociality that, that’s, that’s who we are, that’s how we survive. And survival is not enough, it never has been enough. If survival’s enough we just build barricades; instead, we make the blues. Clyde Woods’s book Arrested Development [sic], all his work has taught us that lesson. It is to me the bulwark against that particular variant of Afro-pessimism, the idea that somehow we, you know, we are such victims that we don’t, we just sort of exist as commodities or as damaged goods, and that refusal is what you’re talking about. Once you’re no longer damaged goods, once you’re no longer that, then suddenly you have to reckon with the human, as this complex, always changing, unpredictable subject in the world that can do terrible things and good things and a lot of stuff in between that.
And that’s the thing that I think is incomprehensible in much of academia. It’s not comfortable, right? Because if you—in other words, this is what Richard Wright was trying to tell us with Bigger Thomas. That Bigger Thomas is a product of the violence of racial capitalism, but what he comes out as is not necessarily the nicest person on the planet [laughter], nor is he a militant [mmms], you know? It’s only at the end that he recognizes the possibility of class struggle, but that’s something that Richard Wright added in there, I think with a lot of pressure from being in the Communist Party. In the end, it’s not clear who Bigger Thomas is, but what we know is that he’s a product of that, and a product of his dialectical relationship, right? And that, to me, is what we have to grapple with and that’s why that dude—forget him! [laughter] He couldn’t grasp the complexity of black life. Because that’s what, this is what Fred Moten’s always saying, and Cedric, saying, look, social death, we never accepted that. We’ve never accepted that. We’ve never accepted being slaves. That’s why Du Bois uses the term black worker.
And this goes back to the second point you were making. I’m just going to end here and then turn over the mic, when Jared Sexton says that, I think he’s right, that the world’s not ready for antiblackness, because to actually eliminate antiblackness for good is a complete transformation of the globe. But Hegel said it first. In Hegel’s master–slave dialectic he’s like, this master is enslaved to the slave. The biggest fear, you know, the biggest fear—and Hegel didn’t quite understand all the implications of it— but the biggest fear is the loss of the slave, the loss of antiblackness, the loss of anti . . . the, the refusal or rather, how could I put it? The loss of the concept of the dead Indian. Once that disappears, like, a lot of white people are up shit’s creek. Because suddenly you don’t have anything to hold on to in terms of production of an identity, but that is emancipation, that is freedom, that is producing the conditions of possibility, for all kinds of people who are locked into white identity, which is a dangerous thing. And it’s not our job to save them. But what it does do, and this is where I kind of said this in my comments, one of the powerful things about the Afro-pessimist turn is the idea that it’s not enough to redistribute wealth, that you have to completely transform us and transform society to eliminate all forms of antiblackness, and basically eliminate whiteness as a concept to be able to produce the conditions of true freedom for all people. And that is why I think Fanon turns to Hegel, you know, I think that’s why Césaire turns to Hegel, I think that’s why a lot of people turn to Hegel, ’cause Hegel maybe could not have grasped the full complex, but there’s something that comes out of that that to me is resonant with this moment. But I want to just encourage you to keep on doing what you’re doing because I don’t necessarily think there’s a contradiction between people who say, look, I’ve . . . you know, this world is destroying me, you know, and singing the blues at the same time.
[quiet transitional murmuring]
SS: So this is another . . . Justin, where you at? So this is another one of the bracketed “don’t at me,” but I think the theory of Afro-pessimism is not the same as the political economy of Afro-pessimism in terms of the production of the people who are empowered to be professional Afro-pessimists, right? Which partly has to do with who we train with, who can afford to train places where there isn’t necessarily guaranteed packages [snaps], right, so the ways which black and . . . privilege is reproduced in the academy also has to do with where we can afford to go to school. So there’s that. And so I think that the school—I wasn’t even counting Ta-Nehisi—the school of Jared and Frank, right, is one room in the house of Afro-pessimism as I engage it. And for me, I do think of commodification and commodity as a central ontology of blackness, but I engage myself as a commodity in the tradition of Hortense Spillers. Right, so not a commodity that cannot act, but a commodity that must act in a way that actually demonstrates the ruse of capital and value in the first place, right? And so I think that’s what’s so important about this professional Afro-pessimist who felt empowered to engage you is, like, there’s a key misinterpretation of Afro-pessimist antiblackness theory that makes people think that it’s about, well, black people can’t be antiblack. The first antiblack person I knew was my grandmother [laughter], who kept me from going outside too long and would literally put clothespins on our noses from, you know, being too wide. And this is a race woman, right? And so what I think antiblackness does is it attunes us, not to who’s holding the gun, but to who is magnetized by the bullet, ’cause otherwise we can’t withstand who George Zimmerman is. Which is not a white man, it’s not about white supremacy. You can’t understand how a black mayor dropped bombs on the MOVE compound in the city that I grew up in. [RK: That’s right.] And so I think the thing that’s important about antiblackness is that we don’t allow it to become some kind of alibi for allyship. So, you know, when Frank and Saidiya Hartman sat together to do “The Position of the Unthought” interview, they offered allies, models of allyship: John Brown and Marilyn Buck. [mmhm, right] These are people who literally put their life on the line. Marilyn Buck who was in a cage until she was dying. Right? These are not professional Afro-pessimists. And so I think it’s important for us to not, not collapse, or allow other people to collapse, the theory with the practice of Afro-pessimism. And then also, I’m sorry, community mem—representative from Mozambique? Thank you so much for, the first time—we will win, my understanding of what “we will win” was standing in Maputo watching the street signs with the dates—we won this time, we won that time, you go, there’s—every street sign is another revolutionary date, and that was an embodied moment for me to be in, the space of—well, we won. Right? And also we won, and what now? ’Cause we won and we’re not done, so I think the temporality of winning is also challenged by what we imagine to be a cross-national kinship.
JJ: I think that’s the last word.
OB: Can you please all join me in thanking Robin Kelley . . .
[Applause, scattered wooos]