Robin D. G. Kelley is the Distinguished Professor and Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. History at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has an extensive academic career exploring the history of social movements in the U.S., the African Diaspora, and Africa; black intellectuals; music; visual culture; contemporary urban studies; historiography and historical theory; poverty studies and ethnography; colonialism/imperialism; organized labor; constructions of race; Surrealism, Marxism, nationalism, among other things. His essays have appeared in a wide variety of professional journals as well as general publications, including the Journal of American History, American Historical Review, Black Music Research Journal, African Studies Review, New York Times (Arts and Leisure), New York Times Magazine, The Crisis, The Nation, The Voice Literary Supplement, Utne Reader, New Labor Forum, Counterpunch, to name a few.
Kelley’s first two books, Hammer and Hoe and Race Rebels, grew out of the same set of questions: who makes up the black working—class, how do they fight back against oppressions of race, class and gender, and what do they fight for? In some ways, my goal was to write a social history of politics that pays attention to the culture and ideas of ordinary people in struggle. He wanted to know how people changed as a result of their participation in these social movements. He wanted to know how they fought back, survived, made community outside the pale of the organizations and movements that are too often our own source for historical narratives. The last question lay at the heart of Race Rebels, which included an elaborate discussion of everyday forms of resistance. Kelley concluded that there is nothing inherently radical or oppositional about daily acts of resistance and survival; the relationship of these acts to power always depends on the context.
Yo’ Mama’s DisFunktional: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America is a work of urban studies, public policy, social commentary and late 20th century history. In addition to offering a critique of the ethnographic imagination in studies of inner city communities, Kelley examines various sources of the contemporary urban crisis and the means by which residents have tried to survive, achieve some kind of upward mobility, create art, and organize in order to fight back. This book has been widely read and debated.
Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination might be described as a history of the collective imagination of black radical social movements during the 20th century, focusing primarily on what people in particular movements dreamed of, what they thought they were fighting for, what they articulated as the “New World” or “New Land.” The book begins with the premise that the catalyst for political engagement has never been misery, poverty, and oppression but hope; the promise of constructing a new world radically different from the one we’ve inherited. It is a brief meditation on the black radical imagination, a kind of “third eye” view of history that attempts to recover the dreams of a new world that have yet to be realized. Focusing on “back-to-Africa” movements, socialism, Third World Liberation, Surrealism, radical feminism, and reparations, Kelley argue’s that these renegade black intellectuals/activist /artists not only created a vision often more inclusive than their Euro-American counterparts, but in so doing produced theoretical insights that might have pushed Western radicalism in new directions.
Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press 2009) is the first full-length, complete biography of one of the most important composers/pianists in 20th century American music, and one of the most enigmatic figures of his era. While he is recognized as an originator of modern jazz, throughout much of his life his angular melodies, dissonant harmonies, and unorthodox technique were dismissed or overshadowed by tales of his reputed behavior. Critics and fans alike called him weird, eccentric, strange, taciturn, child-like—sometimes derisively, other times as evidence of his originality. Based on exclusive access to the Monk family papers and private recordings, personal interviews, as well as a decade of prodigious research, this book challenges the common stereotypes and delivers an intimate portrait of a startlingly different Thelonious Monk–witty, generous, family-oriented, politically engaged, critical and brutally honest, and a devoted father and husband. Above all, Thelonious Monk is the story of an artist’s struggle to “make it” without compromising his musical vision.
Kelley’s most recent book, Africa Speaks, America Answers!: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (Harvard University Press, 2012), examines the work and lives of four artists and the groups they led during the age of African decolonization: Ghanaian-born drummer Guy Warren; pianist Randy Weston; bassist/oudist Ahmed Abdul-Malik; and vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin, who is also South African. By exploring the work, conversations, collaborations, and tensions between both African and African American musicians during the era of decolonization, Africa Speaks, America Answers explains how modern Africa figured in reshaping jazz during the 1950s and early 1960s, how modern jazz figured in the formation of a modern African identity, and how various musical convergences and crossings shaped the political and cultural landscape on both continents.
Each of these artists was propelled by the upheavals of the 1950s to seek new musical forms, new collaborations, new fusions across time and space. They shared neither a common agenda nor a common culture—though they recognized and often embraced cultural commonalities, “jazz” being one. Nor did they always succeed. On the contrary, they occasionally clashed with fellow artists, or bumped up against prevailing assumptions, the intransigence of the market, an oppressive state that viewed their music as a threat to order, or consumers whose own stereotypes made them incapable of hearing and appreciating the work. Yet, they all shared a common vision of jazz as a path to the future, a vehicle for both Africans and African Americans to articulate and realize their own distinctive modernity while critiquing its Western variant. And, from their vantage point, standing at what appeared to be the precipice of freedom for Africa and Black America, the continent represented a beacon of modernity blazing a new path for the rest of the world, but one tempered by deeply spiritual, anti-materialist values. This sort of janus-faced modernism is key to understanding the nexus of jazz and Africa in the age of decolonization.
Kelley’s latest big project is a biography of the late Grace Halsell, tentatively titled The Education of Ms. Grace Halsell: An Intimate History of the American Century. The Texas-born journalist, granddaughter of Confederate slave owners, daughter of a once wealthy cattle rancher and Indian fighter, began her career as a correspondent (domestic and foreign) for several Texas papers during the 1940s and 50s, eventually worked as a staff writer for President Lyndon B. Johnson, before setting out in 1968 to chemically darken her skin and live as a black woman for a year. Known as the female John Howard Griffin, she published the best-selling Soul Sister: The Journal of a White Woman Who Turned Herself Black and Went to Live and Work in Harlem and Mississippi (1969). She would go on to write twelve more books, including an expose about living as a Navajo and working as a domestic in a California suburb (Bessie Yellowhair), a book about passing as an undocumented worker from Mexico and crossing the border three times (The Illegals), and several other unrelated texts. In her final masquerade, she passed as the person she was probably supposed to become: a right-wing Christian fundamentalist. She traveled to Israel with Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” and wrote a scathing critique of the Christian Right’s uncritical support of Israel and what she regarded as the brutal treatment of Palestinians and Arab Jews. As a result of her sharply critical stance against Israel, her jobs, lucrative book contracts, and other opportunities began to disappear. She died in 2000 from multiple myeloma cancer caused largely by the drugs she had taken to turn herself brown.
Finally, Kelley is collaborating with two other authors, Tera Hunter and Earl Lewis, on a general survey of African American history. In many ways, it is a challenge to what has become the standard ‘multiculturalist’ approach to American history. What they are proposing is a re-writing of American history through the experiences and struggles of African Americans. They want their readers to understand both slaveholders and enslaved people, lynch victims and lynch mobs, women and men, working people and employers, rich and poor, and how all of these relationships are interconnected to American culture, the economy, politics, power, and tradition.