Black Historian Robin D.G. Kelley Breaks New Ground
Robin D.G. Kelley, at 34, is arguably the leading young black intellectual in America. Which may be why Michigan lost him to New York City. Kelley was a tenured professor of history at the University of Michigan before he was lured back to his hometown in 1994.Kelley spent the first nine years of his life in Harlem and his teen years in southern California. Now he lives in Greenwich Village and teaches history and Africana studies at New York University. He's acclaimed because he looks at African-American history as more than a study of movements and organizations -- the familiar list of abolitionists, Garveyites, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the civil rights movement and the NAACP.Kelley does two things differently.One is to focus on the black working class, whose interests were sometimes different from, for example, those of the middle-class leaders of mainstream civil rights groups.He also looks at day-to-day acts of resistance to racism."Where people are, whether they're on the shop floor or in public space like on buses and streetcars, how do people fight back when they're not necessarily part of a formal organization?" he says. "One of my arguments is that to understand the success and failure of formal organizations, you have to figure out what people are doing before and during and around it."Kelley is co-editor of a new 11-volume series for young readers that he calls "subversive," The Young Oxford History of African Americans. In the final volume, Into the Fire: African Americans Since 1970, he explores hip-hop and rap, as well as the influence of neo-conservative black intellectuals (to whom he gives no quarter). His 1994 Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class includes:* A comparison, from personal experience, of the work styles of black and white teenagers at McDonald's in Pasadena.* Countless examples of individual resistance to riding in the back of the bus before the civil rights movement, drawn from the Birmingham, Ala., bus company's records.* An analysis of the cultural meaning of the zoot suit in the life of Malcolm X.* A warm but critical deconstruction of LA gangsta rap.His new book, due out this year, is Don't Talk About My Mama! Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America .The "culture wars," Kelley says, involve "the vilification of so-called welfare mothers and of young black men. The way that social scientists and the mainstream media perpetuate these racist stereotypes has huge implications for social policy and even for the ability to mobilize progressive social movements."The book examines the struggles of urban youth from their war for autonomy to the hip-hop culture and sports. Kelley sees these developments as forms of play that turned into ways to make money and escape wage slavery. The vilifiers of urban youth, according to Kelley, don't recognize this entrepreneurial behavior as a way of following the American dream to be your own boss. Thus conservatives such as William Julius Wilson claim that black youth have no work ethic."I go to great pains to show how much work is involved in each of these endeavors, actual physical labor, and how much time is involved," says Kelley. He looks at what he calls a struggle over the urban terrain, the cities where young people live but have little direct ownership or power. White flight sucked away the economic base but absentee owners held on to the means to development. In that environment, grabbing a can of paint and spraying graffiti on a wall became a territorial claim."It's not an accident that these forms emerged in a period of deindustrialization, a period of a lack of public services in cities, when the physical landscape of cities is deteriorating, along with policing changes -- the use of high-tech methods, the corralling of bodies, the idea of parks as these dangerous places where young black and Latino men hang out. I'm trying to recast what that means in terms of a struggle over public space."In his most recent writing and speaking, Kelley has taken on the newly fashionable idea that movements for women's rights, African-American liberation and gay-lesbian liberation should give up their respective, "divisive" concerns in favor of a broader, presumably genderless and raceless consensus. He refuses to let "PC" be an insult. "The term has very little meaning except, at least on the right, as an epithet against anyone who advocates social justice," he says.Although insisting on semantic correctness can be a barrier to interaction, Kelley says, it's just as bad to dismiss people who insist on being identified by a specific correct word."It really doesn't get to the issue of trying to communicate. Or even the importance of language," Kelley says."Being black in America or being a woman in America, you live in a world where language is constructed to maintain your subordination every single day -- even if they're being nice to you."At the huge teach-in at Columbia University last fall, when intellectuals rubbed shoulders with the new leaders of the AFL-CIO, Kelley debated with former SDS leader Todd Gitlin. The encounter was aired on C-SPAN several times. Gitlin has made hay on the left by arguing that "identity politics" are to blame for the left's failures and the ascendancy of right-wing politics."It did create a stir," Kelley remembers. He argues that movements defined by Gitlin and others as narrow are in fact broad -- concerned with all humankind. "If you actually read what these movements have to say," he insists, "they're saying that when you eliminate racism, when you eliminate sexism and when you eliminate homophobia, it actually improves the lives of everybody. I said to Gitlin that some of the movements that you vilify actually hold the seeds for precisely the kind of movement that you think you envision. But what he really envisions is one where white men are on top again."He stood there and said --these are almost this words -- 'What I'm sick and tired of is these feminists who would blame all white males for their oppression rather than take a position that being sexist or homophobic is anti-American.' " Kelley believes the position of Gitlin and others who are like-minded speak to what people really want: movements that are effective. "I think everyone recognizes that if you build coalitions, you build alliances, you build powerful movements that are not narrowly focused, you can win. But I'm saying that within those movements, the issues that are considered narrow are not narrow."In New Politics, a radical journal out of New York, Kelley writes, "It's ludicrous to blame so-called identity politics of the 1960s for the collapse of the left, the derailment of progressive social movements or our inability to roll back poverty and unbridled corporate wealth. We have others to thank for that: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, CoIntelPro, white flight, red squads, redlining, contra-backed crack dealers, economic restructuring, the NRA, right-wing think tanks, complacent labor leaders."