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


Kelley rounds the work as a history of social movements – specifically Black radical movements in the US in the 20th century.  It is obvious from the start that the author is committed to socialist causes.  He? states, “the pervasive consumerism and materialism and the stark inequalities that have come to characterize modern life under global capitalism could not possible represent freedom.  And yet, freedom today is practically a synonym for free enterprise” (XI).

Chapter One:  “When History Sleeps”:  A Beginning

In this chapter, the author reflects on his own idealization of Marxism in his youth, his eventual estrangement from portions of it and his consequent move to surrealism as an “international revolutionary movement concerned with the emancipation of thought” (5).  As a goal, he attempts to “argue that these renegade black intellectuals/activists/artists challenged and reshaped communism, surrealism, and radical feminism and in so doing produced brilliant theoretical insights that might have pushed these movements in new directions” (6).  Kelley seems to be a bit of an “organic intellectual” of the Gramscian type.

Chapter Two:  Dreams of the New Land

This chapter is about the rise and existence of radical Black nationalism and Afrocentrism.  By using the Exodus story as a framing text, Kelley describes how back to Africa movements “represented dreams of black self-determination” (17).  Further, emigration further reinforced the conception of many Blacks as “transnational” people by default.  By discussing Ethiopianism (19), uplift ideology (21) and the existence of a pre-colonial primitive communism, Kelley describes the aims of exodus.  Next, he discusses Garveyism in the section entitled “Redemption.”  After noting how there was a shift away from “father” figures to “mother” figures (a small gesture of recognizing the Black woman’s investment in the movement), Garveyism often fell prey to the overt militarism that permeated movements of nationalism during WWI.  Also, he accuses Garveyism of capitalist tendencies (29).  Finally, Kelley discusses the movement for extraterrestrial exodus in “Space is the Place.”  Here, Kelly traces the exodus narrative from Sun Ra, P-Funk and other Afrofuturists.  The section concludes by discussing modern progenitors of this tradition like Arrested Development, Del and others.

Chapter Three:  “The Negro Question”:  Red Dreams of Black Liberation

WHEW!  What a chapter.  In this section, Kelley traces the evolution of socialist/Marxist/Leninist/Trotskyite representations of socialism in Black movements during the 20th century.  Because of the 19th century White Left’s inability to address the “Negro Question,” new forms of Black socialism were needed to move forward.  In addition to the Negro Question, the Black woman question was totally ignored.  Ida B. Wells sought to redress this situation (42).

While militarism haunted early attempts at black-nationalist Marxism, Black socialism eventually found an ally in Soviet Marxism.  The Soviets understood that the “Negro Question” was central to capitalist oppression.  As such, they invited many Black Marxists to speak and participate at the 4th World Congress of the Comintern.  In effect, the Soviets claimed that the Black individuals of the “black belt” counties of the American South were an oppressed nation and hence, had a right to self-determination.  This resolution was derived from Lenin’s “Soviet” concept.

Paul Robeson occupies much of the rest of the chapter.  Robeson claimed that “Black self-determination. . . . was about promoting and supporting an independent black radical movement that could lead the way to a revitalized international working-class assault on racial capitalism” (54).

Chapter Four:  “Roaring from the East”:  Third World Dreaming

While many of the tenants of European Marxism were adopted during the Black socialist quest for self-determination, the issue of larger groups of color oppressed under capitalist systems remained unaddressed by many participants in the movement toward racial and economic liberation.  To address this looming gap in unequivocal equality under a collective, Black socialism looked to non-Western nations for guidance.  In the nations of Cuba and China, Black socialists found much inspiration.  To demonstrate the evolution of this transnational socialist partnership, Kelley recounts the history of RAM or the Revolutionary Action Movement.

The Specter of a Storm

While living in Ghana, many Black socialists, Du Bois included, were invited to China to collaborate in indicting a system of Western capitalism that perpetuated colonialism and imperialism.  In essence, “China offered black radicals a ‘colored’ or Third World Marxist model that enabled them to challenge a white and Western version of class struggle – a model they shaped and reshaped to suit their own cultural and political realities” (68).

The Coming Black Revolution

Eventual BPP leader Huey Newton, and most importantly, armed self-defense radical Robert Williams spent time in both China and Cuba learning about Third World Marxism.  While the Cubans made the same mistake of early White socialists by not confronting the “Negro Question,” Mao and Chinese communists embraced the movement.  RAM, following the writings of an exiled chairman Rob, participated in numerous influential meetings/conferences/actions during the early 1960s.  In so doing, they provided the foundation for many later Black radical movements.  In essence, “The World Black Revolution” advocated by folks in and around RAM “concluded that black nationalism ‘is really internationalism.’  Only by demolishing white nationalism and white power could liberation be achieved by everyone” (83).  While RAM didn’t do much to recognize the position of women and stuck, almost fervently, to Mao’s Quotations from Chairman Mao (see 87), RAM saw the Chinese cultural revolution as a related effort to rid black culture of ‘slave mentality.’  RAM influenced many more groups like the BPP, ALSC, et. al.

The realities of a globalized economy also encouraged RAM and others to consider the struggle against capitalism transnational.  What is key about the movement is the fact that RAM and others of the same cloth “flatly rejected unconditional racial unity and developed a nationalism built on a broader concept of revolutionary Third World solidarity” (109).

Chapter Five:  “A Day of Reckoning”:  Dreams of Reparations

In this chapter, Kelley makes the argument for reparations.  In so doing, he notes that the movement toward reparations must be one wherein the recipients aren’t individuals as much as organizations that can implement large-scale projects toward forming a new, changed, socially-just future.  It’s not really a surprise that he sees this as the best route for reparations considering his belief in state-administered structures.  Kelley’s thesis, “By looking at the reparations campaign in the US as a social movement, we discover that it was never entirely, or even primarily, about money.  The demand for reparations was about social justice, reconciliation, reconstructing an internal life of black America, and eliminating institutional racism.  This is why reparations proposals from black radical movements focus less on individual payments than on securing funds to build autonomous black institutions, improving community life, and in some cases establishing a homeland that will enable A.A.’s to develop a political economy geared more toward collective needs than toward accumulation” (114).  After tracing the historical actions toward reparations, Kelley concentrates on illustrating the efforts of Audley Moore, Forman (BWC) and the Republic of New Africa (RNA) toward reparations.  The key here is that 1) land is wealth and 2) land is space for reconstruction.  Hence, land in addition to money will be necessary in the reparations effort.  Really though, reparations – for Kelley – serve the process of a non-violent revolution.  As he notes on 129, “If we think of reparations as part of a broad strategy to radically transform society – redistributing wealth, creating a democratic and caring public culture, exposing the ways capitalism and slavery produced massive inequality – then the ongoing struggle for reparations holds enormous promise for revitalizing movements for social justice” (129).

Chapter Six:  “This Battlefield Called Life”:  Black Feminist Dreams

I’m going to be brief here as I covered some of this work in last week’s Cannon piece.  The crux of this chapter is that Black women have historically been excluded from the radical movements of Blacks in the US because of an underlying assumption by the leaders of those movements that the female condition doesn’t also need to be improved According to Kelley, this isn’t so much a matter of exclusion, but conception (136), i.e., the Black woman is subsumed under different groups who fight for her interest.  However, as the Black woman endures the most oppression, isn’t it key to bring equality to her first.  Also, once she has been recognized as a free agent, the circumstances of her triple oppression will be lifted not only for her, but for all others.  She is the ur-oppressed (149).  .  Haden, Middleton, and Robinson were steadfast in believing that the revolution 1)must overthrow capitalism, 2) must eliminate male supremacy, and 3) must transform the self.  In addition to discussing the Combahee River Collective, the chapter outlined that Rastafarianism might have a place for black feminist radicals because of 1) they shun materialism and promote oneness within an equal society in harmony with each other and the earth, 2)  they allow for female-only spaces, and 3)they challenge what had become the dominant radical feminist paradigm of sexuality through dress.  In the end, Angela Davis makes Kelley’s point clearly:  capitalism and freedom/equality are mutually exclusive (156).

Chapter Seven:  Keepin’ It (Sur)Real:  Dreams of the Marvelous

In this chapter, Kelley claims the Surrealist movement of the early to mid (and in the US late) 20th century as a metaphor for how to go about creating, dreaming, a new just society.  As surrealism consistently and systematically critiqued Western civilization, economies of oppression, and order, it serves as a wonderful critique of Western imperial domination.  Kelley makes the implicit claim that Surrealism isn’t merely a French movement; rather, through the work of Cesaire and others, the author demonstrates that the Surrealist movement was actually a way of the “empire talking back” to borrow a phrase.  In other words, the Surrealists embraced a poetry that was a “revolt of the spirit” and embodied the rhythms, familiarities, and resonances of life outside the West – outside the empire.  I worry that Kelley isn’t a bit orientalist in this section. . . While the Surrealist program is a critique of Western culture, it serves as an effective metaphor for Kelley’s own program of a Third World Marxism or transnational workers/labor movement that ensured that racism was not subordinate to the worker’s struggle.

To sum up Kelley’s position,

surrealism considers love and poetry and the imagination powerful social and revolutionary forces, not replacements for organized protest, for marches and sit-ins, for strikes and slowdowns, for matches and spray paint.  Surrealism recognizes that any revolution must begin with thought, with how we imagine a New World, with how we reconstruct our social and individual relationships, with unleashing our desire and building a new future on the basis of love and creativity rather than rationality (which is like rationalization, the same word they use for improving capitalist production and limiting people’s needs) (193).

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