Kelley, Robin D. G. 1962-
KELLEY, Robin D. G. 1962-
PERSONAL: Born March 14, 1962; daughter of Ananda Sattwa; married Diedra Harris-Kelley (an artist); children: Elleza. Ethnicity: "African American." Education: California State University at Long Beach, B.A., 1983; University of California, Los Angeles, M.A. (African history), 1985, Ph.D. (U.S. history), 1987. Hobbies and other interests: "Playing piano."
ADDRESSES: Agent—Mary Evans Inc., 242 East Fifth St., New York, NY 10003.
CAREER: Southeastern Massachusetts University, professor of history; Emory University, Philadelphia, PA, professor of history; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, professor of history; New York University, New York, NY, professor of history and Africana studies, 1994—; Brooklyn College, scholar-in-residence, 2001-02.
AWARDS, HONORS: Southern Historical Association's Francis Butler Simkins Prize, and Organization of American Historians Elliot Rudwick Prize, both 1991, both for Hammer and Hoe; National Conference of Black Political Scientists, Outstanding Book Award for Race Rebels, 1995; Village Voice best book designation, 1997, for Yo' Mama's Dysfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America; New York Public Library's Outstanding Book for the Teen Age, 1997, for Into the Fire; History Book Club and Choice Outstanding Academic title, 2000, for To Make Our World Anew.
Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class, Free Press (New York, NY), 1994.
Yo' Mama's Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1997.
(With Howard Zinn and Dana Frank) Three Strikes: Miners, Musicians, Salesgirls, and the Fighting Spirit of Labor's Last Century, Beacon Press (Boston MA), 2001.
Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 2002.
(With Sidney J. Lemelle) Imagining Home: Class, Culture, and Nationalism in the African Diaspora, Verso (New York, NY), 1994.
(With Earl Lewis) The Young Oxford History of African Americans, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1995.
(With Earl Lewis) To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2000.
Contributor of articles to periodicals, including New York Times and Chronicle of Higher Education.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Writing a biography of jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk.
SIDELIGHTS: Robin D. G. Kelley, a professor of history and Africana studies at New York University, has spent a major portion of his life examining the lives of people who tried to change the world. He studied these people and the social movements in which they were involved as he attempted to discover a formula that might be the most effective in making much-needed transformations in society. In the course of his examination, however, Kelley was forced to conclude that it is hard to define the success of such social movements. Looking at them from the point of view of whether they were able to topple or transform the basic power base that had existed before the social movement, one would have to judge that most movements failed; but then, over the course of years, Kelley began to look at the movements in a different way. He studied the inspiration behind the radical factions, the "alternative visions and dreams that inspire new generations to continue to struggle for change." It is these visions, Kelley believes, that will inspire new concepts of freedom.
Kelley is often referred to as an accessible writer and lecturer. As Clayborne Carson described Kelley in the Stanford Online Report, "He's in the middle ground between social history and a kind of postmodern cultural analysis." In other words, not only is he easy to understand, Kelley is also as aware of cultural history as he is of current events. The major focus of his writing is on how people—black people in particular—have defined freedom and the ways in which to attain it. The history he writes is informed by what Kelley refers to as the ebb and flow of freedom. "I don't think there's going to be a moment when suddenly we're all going to get together and win," Kelley told Elaine Ray in the Stanford Online Report. "I think it's a constant battle."
Kelley's first book, 1990's Hammer and Hoe, relates the story of the relationship between the Communist Party in America and the black community through an emphasis on African Americans living in Alabama during the 1930s. "Alabama Communism in the 1930s," wrote Daniel Wright in a review of Kelley's book for the Southern Humanities Review, "resembled nothing so much as a great evangelical community of the harassed and disposed." The Communist Party was the only source of inspiration for African Americans living in the Deep South, in states that saw frequent lynchings, beatings, and rampant disparities between the lives of its citizens based only on the color of their skin. In the North, African Americans were assisted by "divergent movements," Wright stated, such as "Socialism, the Wobblies, and communities of radical European immigrants." In Alabama, only the communists had the courage to defy the ruling "class terror." In his concluding remarks about Hammer and Hoe, Wright stated that Kelley's book is not only an outstanding account of "events and persons largely unknown to and unacknowledged by much of the world, but a passionate summons to readers to explore a militant past that in many unappreciated ways has shaped our present and assuredly will help determine our future." In another article in the New York Review of Books, George M. Fredrickson pointed out that Kelley's book provides "revisionist post-cold war scholarship" that is unlike the more popular political rhetoric regarding the Communist Party in the United States, showing that "the Party did not merely project Soviet influence onto the American domestic scene but was also helping to organize grass-roots movements that embodied the beliefs, needs, and aspirations of the people who took part in them."
Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class is a collection of eight essays that cover a wide range of topics, from Jim Crow laws and their effects on black workers in the South to contemporary rappers in Los Angeles. In these essays, according to Bruce Nelson for the Journal of Southern History, "Kelley challenges traditional interpretations of the black working class." Kelley's beliefs run contrary to the easily accepted myth that blacks are lazy. As Nelson found in Kelley's writing, "the black working class has had good reason to develop an antiwork ethic." They were, after all, doing the most difficult and most disgusting work in the labor force with the least reward for their efforts. In retaliation against these challenging working conditions, many African Americans rebelled. These rebellions took various forms, as quoted from Kelley's book by Eric Lott in the Village Voice Literary Supplement: "from foot-dragging to sabotage, theft at the workplace to absenteeism, cursing to graffiti." Kelley's interpretations, according to David Rouse, writing for Booklist contain "a bold premise" that will most certainly "provoke controversy."
In 1997 Kelley published Yo' Mama's Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America, in which, according to Salim Muwakkil in the Washington Post Book World, Kelley argues against the often accepted "culturalist views of conservatives" that the "behavior of the urban poor explains their poverty." The conservative view of people living in urban ghettos, Kelley states in his book, is that they are imbued with errant cultural values, and that explains their actions as well as the reasons why they are so economically devastated.
Kelley continues his exploration of black culture and social movements in his 2002 publication Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, which has gained the most critical attention of all his books. In it, Kelley discusses what he calls the Marvelous, a concept his mother taught him. It is a way of seeing beauty in the world, which in turn inspires the imagination. "This parental gift," wrote Lisa Kennedy, in the Village Voice, has provided Kelley with an understanding of the "wild current of freedom" that weaves through the lives and philosophies of "black cultural prophets and community visionaries, poetic renegades and musical rebels" whose lives Kelley studies in his book. In Freedom Dreams Kelley unearths the inner core of beliefs from a variety of black radical thinkers, which include Paul Robeson, Jayne Cortez, and Richard Wright. Borrowing concepts from all of his subjects, Kelley puts together a philosophy of his own, one influenced by the concepts of surrealism as espoused by Aimé Cesaire, who believed in the power of the unfettered imagination. Freedom Dreams concluded Laura Ciolkowski in the New York Times Book Review is a "bold and provocative celebration of the black radical imagination."
Kelley told CA: "I write primarily to effect change. I hope my work helps readers think critically about the world we've inherited and inspire some to participate in movements for social change. For this reason being politically involved is important for my own work. It always enriches my writing, forcing me to be clear and accessible. However, my latest project, a biography of Thelonious Monk, is less a product of politics and social movements than a labor of love."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Prospect, January 1, 2002, Cowie Jefferson, review of Three Strikes: Miners, Musicians, Salesgirls, and the Fighting Spirit of Labor's Last Century, pp. 41-44.
American Visions, February, 1996, Dale Edwyna Smith, review of Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class, p. 34.
Black Issues in Higher Education, January 8, 1998, D. Kamili Anderson, review of Yo' Mama's Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America, pp. 37-38.
Booklist, October 15, 1994, David Rouse, review of Race Rebels, p. 382; February 15, 1996, Hazel Rochman, review of Into the Fire: African Americans since 1970, p. 999; October 15, 1997, Mary Carrol, review of Yo' Mama's Disfunktional!, p. 367; June 1, 2002, Vernon Ford, review of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, p. 1652.
Choice, April, 1991, R. D. Ward, review of Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression, pp. 1370-1371.
Civil Rights Journal, fall, 2000, review of To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans, p. 62.
Journal of African History, January, 1996, Wilson J. Moses, review of Imagining Home: Class, Culture, and Nationalism in the African Diaspora, pp. 128-129.
Journal of American Ethnic History, fall, 1997, Donald R. Wright, review of Imagining Home: Class, pp. 71-75; fall, 1998, Emory J. Tolbert, review of Race Rebels, pp. 103-108.
Journal of Southern History, February, 1996, Bruce Nelson, review of Race Rebels, pp. 171-172; August, 2002, Charles Pete Banner-Haley, review of To Make Our World Anew, p. 669.
Library Journal, October 1, 1997, Ellen Gilbert, review of Yo' Mama's Disfunktional! p. 106; May 1, 2000, Edward G. McCormack, review of To Make Our World Anew, p. 134.
Monthly Review, February, 1996, Paul Buhle, review of Race Rebelss, pp. 41-48.
Nation, June 24, 1991, Jon Wiener, review of Hammer and Hoe, pp. 854-856.
New York Times Book Review, June 8, 1995, George M. Fredrickson, review of Hammer and Hoe, pp. 33-35, 38-39; June 23, 2002, Laura Ciolkowski, review of Freedom Dreams: The Radical Black Imagination, p. 21.
Publishers Weekly, September 26, 1994, review of Race Rebels, p. 48; April 24, 2000, review of To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans, p. 76; July 16, 2001, review of Three Strikes, p. 173.
Southern Humanities Review, Spring, 1992, Daniel Wright, review of Hammer and Hoe, pp. 172-73.
Village Voice, July 5, 2002, Lisa Kennedy, "Love and Bullets", review of Freedom Dreams.
Village Voice Literary Supplement, February, 1996, Eric Lott, review of Race Rebels, pp. 12-14.
Washington Post Book World, November 30, 1997, Salim Muwakkil, review of Yo' Mama's Disfunktional!; spring, 2002, Steve Early, review of Three Strikes, p. 157.
Stanford Online Report,http://www.Stanford.edu/dept.news/ (July 29, 1998), Elaine Ray, "Robin Kelley Brings Grass-roots Movements to History's Grand Narrative."