At the heart of Robin D.G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination is a call. It is not a call to arms (even metaphorically), nor is this onetime Communist Party worker calling for a return to the elevation of class above all the other complexities that ail us. The author of Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America—a work that took to task lefties who have shown a reckless disregard for “identity movements”—would hardly take that great leap backward. No, it is a call to the Marvelous.
The Marvelous is a way of seeing Kelley learned early. “My mother taught us that the Marvelous was free,” he writes of his childhood spent on the border of Washington Heights and Harlem, “in the patterns of a stray bird feather, in a Hudson River sunset, in the view from our fire escape, in the stories she told us, in the way she sang Gershwin’s ‘Summertime,’ in a curbside rainbow created by the alchemy of motor oil and water from an open hydrant.”
This parental gift, this poetic ethics, has since provided Kelley with a key to understanding the wild current of freedom running through the myriad efforts of black cultural prophets and community visionaries, poetic renegades and musical rebels. Whether it was W.E.B. DuBois or Thelonious Monk, Audre Lorde or Wifredo Lam, the African Blood Brotherhood or the Maoist-influenced Revolutionary Action Movement—blacks, Kelley argues, have kept their eyes on the prize of the possible: an African homeland; a black nation staked out in the belly of this beast; or an anti-capitalist, anti-sexist, anti-racist elsewhere.
“I have come to realize,” writes the professor of Africana studies at New York University, “that once we strip radical social movements down to their bare essence and understand the collective desires of people in motion, freedom and love lay at the very heart of the matter.”
This getting to the core is at once a humble and grand enterprise. It is also tricky to maneuver. Early in Freedom Dreams, Kelley cautions, “I don’t pretend to have written anything approaching a movement history or an intellectual history, and I am not interested in explaining why these dreams of revolution have not succeeded (yet!).” It’s fair warning for fans of Kelley’s previous books, in particular his deft and rigorous histories Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (1990) and Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (1994). But the caveat is also a bit of methodological aikido.
What this feint leaves unanswered is no small matter. Is it really possible, for instance, to separate the spirit of an organization from its destructive acts? Or does the messy end point indict the generative hopes of groups that so clearly failed their glorious visions? These “why these dreams have not succeeded” quandaries become insistent in the chapter ” ‘Roaring From the East’: Third World Dreaming,” which traces the influences of global revolutionary movements on black radical organizations in the ’60s. Kelley makes it clear that the Cuban Revolution, and even more potently, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, aroused the dreams of nascent radical organizations like the Black Panther Party and the little-known Revolutionary Action Movement. Kelley, who wields his sharp insights with a touching regard, does admit the trouble with these ideological progenitors: “We know with hindsight that millions of people were jailed, beaten and killed in the name of the Cultural Revolution; inside China itself, it hardly constituted a bright moment in socialist history.” These particulars often require Kelley’s strenuous effort to keep the beat of his compassionate theme: Beyond egos, sectarian squabbles, misguided or thwarted affinities, and masculinist miscalculations, imagination remains as strategically necessary as it is transforming.
In the book’s exemplary chapter, “Keeping It (Sur)real: Dreams of the Marvelous,” Kelley proposes a strategic surrealism inspired by poet-politician Aimé Césaire and wife Suzanne. Their engaged art, their promotion of negritude, and their critiques of colonialism energized the surrealists after World War II. And surrealism’s fondness for revolt confirmed the Césaires’ belief in the power of the unfettered imagination. Surrealism, for Suzanne Césaire, “was not an ideology but a state of mind,” writes Kelley. It required, she believed, a “permanent readiness for the Marvelous.”
Kelley, it turns out, is right. Freedom Dreams is a history neither of movements nor intellectual trends. For all its marshaling of compelling evidence, the book might be thought of as notes toward the philosophy of an idea. In this regard, it’s a shame that Kelley doesn’t fully interrogate his beneficent view of dreams and imagination, if only to protect his own incandescent aspirations better. After all, dreams, even those of liberation, can be incendiary visions of retribution, of mayhem, of rage.
Perhaps Kelley believes he addresses that question by evoking one of the 20th century’s beautiful dreamers, Martin Luther King Jr. “We Negroes have long dreamed of freedom,” wrote King in 1963, “but still we are confined in an oppressive prison of segregation and discrimination. Must we respond with bitterness and cynicism? Certainly not, for this will destroy and poison our personalities. . . . To guard ourselves from bitterness, we need the vision to see in this generation’s ordeals the opportunity to transfigure both ourselves and American society.” Are the visions King demanded really kin to the fantasies of brutal revolution that were espoused in the late ’60s? More than a few times, Kelley leaves his readers questioning some of the dreamers and their dreams, asking, where’s the love?