This exciting history of renegade intellectuals and artists of the African diaspora throughout the twentieth century begins with the premise that the catalyst for political engagement has rarely been misery, poverty, or oppression. People are drawn to social movement because of hope: their dreams of a new world radically different from the one they inherited.
Our imagination may be the most revolutionary tool available to us, and yet we have failed to understand its political importance and recognize it as a powerful social force.
From Paul Robeson to Aime Cesaire to Jayne Cortez, Kelley unearths freedom dreams in African and Third World liberation movements, in the hope that Communism offered, in the imaginative mindscapes of Surrealism, in the transformative potential of radical feminism, and in the four-hundred-year-old dream of reparations for slavery and Jim Crow.
With Freedom Dreams, Kelley affirms his place as "a major new voice on the intellectual left" (Frances Fox Piven) and shows us that any serious movement toward freedom must begin in the mind.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Robin D. G.Kelley, a frequent contributor to The New York Times, is professor of history and Africana studies at New York University and author of the award-winning Hammer and Hoe, Race Rebels, and Yo' Mama's Disfunktional! (Beacon / 0941-5 / $14.00 pb). He lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Dreams of the New Land
Africa I guard your memory
Africa you are in me
My future is your future
Your wounds are my wounds
The funky blues I cook
are black like you—Africa
Africa my motherland
America my fatherland
Although I did not choose it to be
Africa you alone can make me free
Africa where the rhinos roam
Where I learned to swing
Before America became my home
Not like a monkey but in my soul
Africa you are rich with natural gold
Africa I live and study for thee
And through you I shall be free
Someday I'll come back and see
Land of my mothers, where a black god made me
My Africa, your Africa, a free continent to be.
Ted Joans, "Africa"
Schoolhouse Rock didn't teach me a damn thing about "freedom." The kids
like me growing up in Harlem during the 1960s and early 1970s heard that
word in the streets; it rang in our ears with the regularity of a hit song.
Everybody and their mama spoke of freedom, and what they meant usually
defied the popular meanings of the day. Whereas most Americans
associated freedom with Western democracies at war against communism,
free-market capitalism, or U.S. intervention in countries such as Vietnam or
the Dominican Republic, in our neighborhood "freedom" had no particular tie
to U.S. nationality (with the possible exception of the black-owned Freedom
National Bank). Freedom was the goal our people were trying to achieve; free
was a verb, an act, a wish, a militant demand. "Free the land," "Free your
mind," "Free South Africa," "Free Angola," "Free Angela Davis," "Free Huey,"
were the slogans I remember best. Of course, "freedom" was also employed
as a marketing tool to sell us things like Afro wigs, hair care products, and
various foodstuffs, but even these commodities were linked in our minds to
the black struggle for independence, not just in the urban ghettos but around
the world. "Freedom" even became a kind of metonym for Africa—the home
we never knew, the place where we once enjoyed freedom before we were
forcibly taken in chains across the sea. We drank Afro-Cola, which came in a
blue can emblazoned with a map of the African continent, partly because
slick marketing executives told us it contained the taste of freedom, partly
because we pretended it was nectar from the motherland.
Of course, not everyone identified with Africa or associated the continent
dreams of freedom, but we were living in Harlem, of all places, during the era
of the "black freedom movement." Formal colonialism had ended throughout
most of Africa—the exceptions being southern Africa and the Portuguese
colonies—so those who paid attention to such things were excited by the
prospects of a free and independent Africa. By the time I enrolled at California
State University at Long Beach, the black studiesBlack Studies program
there reignited my nascent, underdeveloped Pan-African vision of the world.
Our professors turned diehard party people and wannabe Greeks into angry
young "Afrikans." And we had good reason to be angry. After twelve years of
public miseducation, reading works by pioneering black scholars such as
Eric Williams's Capitalism and Slavery, Cheikh Anta Diop's The African
Origins of Civilization, George E. M. James's Stolen Legacy, Angela Davis's
Women, Race, and Class, W. E. B. Du Bois's Souls of Black Folk and
Black Reconstruction in America, J. A. Rogers's World's Greatest Men and
Women of African Descent, among others, opened up a whole new world for
us. We learned of the origins of Western racism, the history of slavery, the
rise and fall of African kingdoms before the European invasion, the Egyptian
roots of Western civilization. We were particularly obsessed with the large-
scale civilizations along the Nile—Egypt, Ethiopia, Nubia—as were
generations of Afrocentric scholars before us, as Wilson Moses recently
pointed out in his valuable book Afrotopia. Indeed, the title alone explains
why we junior Afrocentrists were attracted more to the powerful states of the
ancient world than to the civil rights movement: We looked back in search of
a better future. We wanted to find a refuge where "black people" exercised
power, possessed essential knowledge, educated the West, built
monuments, slept under the stars on the banks of the Nile, and never had to
worry about the police or poverty or arrogant white people questioning our
intelligence. Of course, this meant conveniently ignoring slave labor, class
hierarchies, and women's oppression, and it meant projecting backwards in
time a twentieth-century conception of race, but to simply criticize us for
myth making or essentialism misses the point of our reading. We dreamed
the ancient world as a place of freedom, a picture to imagine what we desired
and what was possible.
Sometimes we couldn't read fast enough; other times, we were so
overtaken with emotion we put our books down and wept, or fantasized about
revenge. More importantly, we began to see ourselves—as earlier
generations of black intellectuals had—as part of an African diaspora, an
oppressed "nation" without a homeland. Many of us gravitated to campus
black nationalist groups, imagining Africa as our true home, either as a place
of eventual return or a place from which we were permanently exiled. At least
in our minds, we joined a long line of black thinkers who believed that to
achieve freedom we first had to get out of Dodge.
Few scholars or activists today take proposals to leave America and return to
Africa or some other "homeland" seriously. Back-to-Africa proposals in
principle are almost universally dismissed as "escapist" or associated with
essentialist, romantic ideas about black cultural unity. Critics dwell on the
impracticality of such schemes, or they point to sharp cultural and class
differences that keep the black world divided. They are not wrong to do so,
but any wholesale dismissal of the desire to leave this place and find a new
home misses what these movements might tell us about how black people
have imagined real freedom. The desire to leave Babylon, if you will, and
search for a new land tells us a great deal about what people dream about,
what they want, how they might want to reconstruct their lives.
After all, the history of black people has been a history of movement—real
and imagined. Repatriation to Liberia and Sierra Leone. Flight to Canada.
Escape to Haiti. The great Kansas Exodus. The back-to-Africa movements of
Bishop Henry McNeil Turner and Marcus Garvey. The 49th State movement.
The Republic of New Africa. The Rastafarian settlement of Shashamane,
Ethiopia. I'm goin' to Chicago, baby, I can't take you along. Space is the
Place. The Mothership Connection. All these travel/escape narratives point
to the biblical story of Exodus, of the Israelites' flight out of Egypt. It isn't a
coincidence that the stream of black migrants who fled the South for Kansas
and Oklahoma in the late 1870s were called "exodusters," or that one of the
South Carolina emigration societies was called the Liberian Exodus
Association. Indeed, as Eddie Glaude points out in his recent book Exodus!
Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America, the
book of Exodus served as the key political and moral compass for African
Americans during the antebellum era, and it would continue to do so after the
Civil War. Exodus provided black people with a language to critique
America's racist state and build a new nation, for its central theme wasn't
simply escape but a new beginning.
Exodus represented dreams of black self-determination, of being on our
own, under our own rules and beliefs, developing our own cultures, without
interference. Even before New World Africans laid eyes on the Bible, the
fundamental idea behind Exodus was evident in the formation of Maroon
societies throughout the Americas. Maroon societies were settlements of
renegades from the plantation system made up primarily of runaway slaves,
some indigenous people, and, in a few instances, white indentured servants
who rebelled against the dominant culture. These settlements often existed
on the run, in the hills or swamps just outside the plantation economy.
Africans tended to dominate these communities, and many sought to
preserve the cultures of their original homelands while combining different Old
and New World traditions. Over time, Africans adopted elements of various
Native American cultures, and vice versa, and Europeans relied on aspects of
these cultures for their own survival. In the words of political scientist Cedric
Robinson, these movements were inventive "rather than imitative,
communitarian rather than individualistic, democratic rather than Republican,
Afro-Christian rather than secular and materialist[;] the social values of these
largely agrarian people generated a political culture that distinguished
between the inferior world of the political and the transcendent universe of
moral goods." The impulse toward separatism, defined broadly, is rooted in
maroonage and the desire to leave the place of oppression for either a new
land or some kind of peaceful coexistence.
The problem with modern "Egyptland" is that it claimed to be a republic,
and too many black people—slave and free—invested their own blood, sweat,
and tears in building or protecting the country. Therefore, in the United States
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