A Review of Freedom Dreams by Robin D. G. Kelley
Published in the July/August 2003 edition of Z Magazine.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often devoted portions of his public speeches to discussing the nature of love. After distinguishing romantic eros from the love felt among close friends, he stressed the need for agape—a visionary love of humankind that guided his nonviolent activism. Others with significantly different politics agreed on this point: “Let me say, with the risk of appearing ridiculous,” Che Guevara once stated, “that the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love.”
With his most recent book, entitled Freedom Dreams, the innovative movement historian Robin D. G. Kelley takes a similar risk in defending such sentiments. “There are very few contemporary political spaces,” he argues, “where the energies of love and imagination are understood and respected as powerful social forces.”
Freedom Dreams seeks to change this, to set out space where “the black radical imagination” can be celebrated without wallowing in historical shortcomings. By the measure of history alone, Kelley writes, “virtually every radical movement failed because the basic power relations they sought to change remain pretty much intact. And yet it is precisely [their] alternative visions and dreams that inspire new generations to continue to struggle for change.”
Kelley also contends that political theory cannot be a merely academic affair. Instead, we must value analysis provided by people doing the day to day work of organizing. “Social movements generate… new theories, new questions,” he writes. “Revolutionary dreams erupt out of political engagement.”
You have to be hard-hearted (or, as the author himself suggests, to have traded in your “dreams for orthodoxy and sectarianism”) to deny Kelley the space for his investigations into “emancipatory vision” after this deeply felt introductory appeal. Using the unusual framework of love and imagination allows him to bring a fresh perspective to what might otherwise be well-worn histories of Back-to-Africa movements, ever-shifting Marxist positions on the “Negro question,” black feminism, and arguments for reparations.
Against readings that understand Back-to-Africa arguments, like those of Marcus Garvey, as being essentialist and holding naively utopian views about the continent, Kelley places these proposals in the context of wider Exodus narratives that have long been central to “dreams of black self-determination.” Here, the idea of Africa as the home of proto-socialist cultures, free of exploitation, is itself significant, not so much as a romantic refraction of reality, but as a genuine expression of hopes for—and images of—anti-capitalist freedom.
A desire to escape is not necessarily escapist. Always attentive to cultural forces, Kelley finds politicized calls for departing present society in favor of something better in unlikely places: from Sun Ra’s “Arkestra,” to Parliament/Funkadelic’s “Mothership Connection,” and to the hip-hop generation, in Arrested Development’s charge to “break / outta the country and / into more country.”
Similarly, in one of his more unexpected moves, Kelley defends surrealism as a political force, combatting critics who reduce it to a merely aesthetic movement. He holds it up as “a revolution of the mind”—“a movement that invites dreaming, urges us to improvise and invent, and recognizes the imagination as our most powerful weapon.” Those who can be grouped among the movement’s adherents, he argues, include Americans such as Thelonius Monk, Richard Wright, Jayne Cortez, and Ted Joans.
Of the various activist formations that he examines, Kelley makes the most convincing case for why black feminism matters. African-American women like Pauli Murray, Florynce Kennedy, Barbara Smith, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, and June Jordan not only played important roles in the development of second and third wave feminism in the United States. They also incisively critiqued ways in which “racism is gendered, sexism is racialized, and class differences are reproduced by capitalism and patriarchy.”
In defending bell hooks’ idea that “Feminism is for Everyone” —arguing that these women create a “conversation about how all of us might envision and remake the world” —Kelley recalls the stances that made him an effective voice in the late 1990s’ debates about “identity politics.” Against the “common dreams” envisioned by the likes of Todd Gitlin, which seem suspiciously nostalgic for the early New Left, Kelley’s “freedom dreams” assert a different type of universalism. This vision is drawn out of the concrete struggle of groups reckoning with multiple forms of oppression. It refuses to let all movements taking on issues of race, gender, and sexuality be grouped with the most inane of academic culture wars.
Kelley’s argument grows from a personal engagement with the U.S.’s major post-1960s social movements. It uses these movements’ experiences to suggest new ways of finding common ground. Often, this can produce an internal critique of “identity politics” that is at once more trenchant and constructive than that offered by outside critics. Of Barbara Smith, for example, Kelley writes: “Since the heyday of the civil rights movement, she has been telling white people that fighting racism is necessary for their own survival and liberation, not some act of philanthropy to help the downtrodden Negroes of the ghetto. She has been telling black activists that fighting homophobia is their issue because the policing of sexuality, no matter to whom it is directed, affects everyone. And she has been sharply critical of lesbian and gay movements for the narrowness of their political agendas. She knows what it will take to win freedom.”
Having given Kelley the space to undertake his personal examination into vision and imagination, the question remains as to why today’s imperial superpower will care about those crafting alternative visions from within—least of all about those seeking (in the words of the Chicago Surrealist Group) to “emancipate desire and supply it with new poetic weapons.” Not all of the movements Kelley profiles seem equally exciting. Even he acknowledges that the marginal Revolutionary Action Movement, to which Freedom Dreams devotes a considerable section, limited itself with preoccupations of winning a “colonial war at home.” Yet his decision to profile this group, and to avoid activists that are apparently not his personal favorites, leaves open pressing questions about how vision and everyday political work interact. The book is not reflective enough to please those debating the classic division between base materialism and cultural superstructure. And even those looking for inspiration may ask if it is really possible to cleanly separate a movement’s imagination from its actual organizing.
This is not to deny that vision and imagination are important questions—and not only for activists. To maintain an “Empire,” those in power rely as much on cultivating a sense of legitimacy for their actions as they do on military force. Increasingly, they turn to a vision of freedom to justify imperial power. As they attempt to tie the concept to an ideology of “free markets” and “free trade,” rediscovering our own freedom dreams—of participatory democracy, civil liberty, and economic self-determination—will be vital in combating expanding corporate power and Bush’s preventive military aggression.
Kelley writes that “Although the word… in the United States is fraught with patriotic, jingoistic baggage,” freedom is nevertheless vital in imagining “what it means fully to realize our humanity.” The number of people who reject the hegemonic view of freedom, and the number who connect alternative visions with strong feelings of love, will go far in determining the scope and duration of this Empire’s reign.