Resources for Resistance: An Interview with Robin Kelley

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

Tracie Canada, Juliana Friend, and Sydney Pullen: How might education function as “counterspell,” in Jackie Wang’s (2018, 316) sense?

Robin Kelley: Wang uses the spell as a metaphor for Antonio Gramsci’s notion of common sense; we are, on this view, sleepwalkers going through life as if prisons and capitalism itself were just permanent features of modern life. Education can clearly play a role in waking us, but what kind of education? Liberal education—at all levels, really—often pretends as if the search for knowledge is disconnected from power and ideological struggles. So the very idea that education is a marketplace of ideas and we kind of pick and choose, or that the ones that prevail are presumably better, or that the minority opinion is to be respected: blah, blah.

Education as a counterspell begins by questioning everything, including regimes of expertise. Bettina Love (2019) has this new book, We Want to Do More Than Survive, which is a model for abolitionist pedagogy, and in many ways, my Freedom Dreams (Kelley 2002)—under the counterspell of Grace Lee Boggs—was about how transformative social movements are incubators of new knowledge, spaces where collective imaginations open up and potentially overthrow the spell we’re under with concrete utopian visions of how we can reorganize social life and why we must.

TC, JF, and SP: What ought we do to help develop the alternatives student activists have access to or might be cultivating? [This question builds on a comment made during the Culture at Large session about how students have only a vague sense of alternatives.]

RK: I think part of the answer lies in my response to the first question. Just having a sense that there are alternatives has been a challenge for young people with the dominance of neoliberalism, and it has become even more elusive in the twenty-first century after the collapse of socialist regimes, the emerging climate catastrophe, global war, proliferation of sweatshop and precarious labor, and so on. In other words, the absence of a sense of alternatives corresponds with the absence of a sense of any kind of future. And yet I’m pleasantly surprised that this generation of student activists insists on thinking about alternatives, about socialism and anarchism, about new forms of sociality, even thinking more deeply about decolonization.

So while I agree with the question in principle, I do think we might distinguish between the alternatives we’ve known and (often fail to) teach, and the alternatives that are in the making as I write these words. That is what it means to think dialectically and to resist nostalgia. My short answer is to see where the students are going and, sometimes, to get out of their way.

TC, JF, and SP: How might anthropologists be most useful to movement work, even if they aren’t directly engaged in research with communities doing that work? How can anthropologists help “bend the arc,” as the expression goes?

RK: Anthropologists (and geographers), at least the ones I know, have long produced work of immense value to transformative social movements. Some of it is historical, some ethnographic, some theoretical, often all three. And much of this work is about structures of power—financialization, debt, carceral regimes, racial/gendered regimes, neoliberal education, questions of indigeneity, citizenship, migration/refugees, and more—as well as counterinstitutions (for instance, I’m thinking about Ayça Çubukçu’s (2018) new book on the Iraq war tribunal). I don’t want to start naming names because I would go on forever and invariably leave someone out. What I can say is that every participant in the Culture at Large session, as diverse as their work is, have truly advanced struggles for justice—whether it is understanding class identities in black urban life, the limits of multiracial alliance in the neoliberal city, how black intellectuals have imagined a radical alternative to nation-state–centered decolonization, or documenting how the imprisoned have created alternatives to caging through mass rebellion. The point is, all of this work is necessary to “bend the arc” toward some liberatory possibility or justice, precisely because there are forces bending the arc in the opposite direction.

TC, JF, and SP: What suggestions do you have for anthropologists who are working with communities that are working to build alternatives?

RK: That’s above my pay grade! What I can say is that working with communities, collectively, and working with colleagues in collaboration goes a long way to both advancing alternative movements and social organizations and developing radical, decolonizing methodologies.

The two examples that come to mind are the book Lessons from the Damned (1973) and the work of anthropologist Leith Mullings in Central Harlem. One of the first things Mullings did before conducting fieldwork was to create a community board that would oversee her project and give her advice. Their critiques and insights were transformative—for example, when they looked at her data on unemployment and asked that she flip it and instead look at employment. Harlem suddenly looked like a working-class community suffering from disinvestment and restructuring, rather than simply an impoverished one ripe for gentrification. The board also directed her to get out of Central Harlem and go down to housing court, where residents were spending much of their time fighting landlords.

There are other examples, but Leith in my view is one of the great forces in the field who understand collaborative and transformative research and pedagogy. She has been practicing it since she was a graduate student in Chicago in the 1970s, having cofounded the Communiversity with Stan Willis, Robert Rhodes, Linda Murray, and Anderson Thompson, among others. They literally taught courses on African history, Marxist political economy, and the like to Black community residents on the South Side of Chicago.


Çubukçu, Ayça. 2018. For the Love of Humanity: The World Tribunal on Iraq. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Kelley, Robin D. G. 2002. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon Press.

Lessons from the Damned: Class Struggle in the Black Community. 1973. Washington, N.J.: Times Change Press.

Love, Bettina L. 2019. We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom. Boston: Beacon Press.

Wang, Jackie. 2018. Carceral Capitalism. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.