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This paper will go in depth about African American literary criticism, what it is, and how we can apply it to the introduction of Robin D.G. Kelley’s, “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination” as well as a short summary and interpretation of the text. Another work that we will discuss through the lens of African American criticism is the video interview on The Laura Flanders Show: “Freedom Dreaming & Liberation: Robin D.G. Kelley”. By analyzing these sources I am hoping to compose a reading of Freedom Dreams, as well as develop an interpretation that the purpose of this text is: Hope; while using the viewpoint of African American Literary Criticism.
The basis of African American Literary Criticism Theory is that African American/Black writing comes out of a sociological, political, ideological and cultural standpoint marked by oppression and marginalization. “'Black' reading then must negotiate the difficult boundaries between textual and cultural meanings, between 'aesthetic' and ideological impacts”. African American criticism is marked by awareness that the black experience is historical and cultural. This means it has ties to the African language, to spiritual and cultural practices, to attitudes; all of which are formed through the experience of slavery and violence. In African American literary criticism it’s also evident that those involved have endured a long, distressed negotiation with white culture “to the point that black aesthetic production in white cultures is marked by white culture positively and negatively.” African American Literary Criticism is used to acknowledge and celebrate what is characteristically and positively black in black art. That is, “whatever owes its meaning and expression to the particular expressions and traditions of black culture and experience.” It gives us a sense that “criticism is inevitably ideological and political” and that being black or black expression is a historical and cultural form of oppression. “The 'art' of black art is inevitably, then, a very complex cultural formation. Black criticism has substantial ties to post-colonial criticism, and to the issues in it of the representation of the 'other', the reclamation of identity in the forms and language of the oppressor, and the notions of parody, mimicry and hybridity (Department of English)”.
“Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination” is composed by famous historian, activist, and writer Robin D.G. Kelley; the story is a kind of collective history of the black radical imagination. Each chapter in this book explores a separate topic and was written at different times over the course of 20 years; the first chapter dates all the way back to the author’s college days. This text is an attempt at writing about black radical social movements and focusing on what people in these particular movements dreamed of, thought about, were fighting for, what they articulated as a New World, and what moved them to struggle in the first place.
Kelley states “The reason why I always studied history was to try and figure out which way to go forward” he goes on to say “Scholarship inspired by political questions and concerns about the future makes for good history… it makes it more sharp, and more urgent. Scholarship raises questions about which way to go forward rather than just being curious about the past, I’m not really curious about the past, I’m really curious about how we can create a New Future, and its always driven by work”. Robin Kelley goes on to talk about how as an African American author and a historian his work must have a goal in mind. I think this is relevant because we can see in all African American literature there’s an objective or goal. Sometimes the goal is as simple as “stop making me feel like I’m an outsider, stop othering me,” other times the goal is more radical such as in Kelley’s case where he is recreating and dreaming up an entire New World. “Sometimes when you’re a historian and your writing in the moment you end up writing history’s that focus on institutional projects and the institutional constraints that movements are up against” he goes on to say that literary works such as his own must have a long term goal, whether that be socialism or something else (Freedom Dreaming).
“Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination” is not a handbook nor a guide, and its certainly not meant to provide a model for radical social movements. On the contrary, this text is a work of historical recovery and an interpretation. The essays in this book attempt to explore the radical utopian dreams held by certain 20th century black political activists, artists, and black movements in general. In some ways, the book is a meditation on the black radical imagination, a third eye view of history that attempts to recover the dreams of a New World that has yet to be realized. In this analytically imaginative book, Kelley traces historical movements in black, nationalist, communist, feminist, and liberalist movements.
The book begins with a premise that “the catalyst for all political engagement has never been misery, poverty, or oppression, but hope.” Robin Kelley goes into detail about this craft decision, “…All the evidence suggests that hope is much more important than misery, poverty, and oppression. Hope is what DRIVES people in these movements! It’s the promise of constructing a New World that’s radically different from the one we’ve inherited”(Freedom Dreaming).
The first chapter is titled “When History Sleeps”; this is the introduction chapter and the most important in the book. It is about the main character (Kelley) examining his mothers political “third-eye” and detailing how this examination shaped Robin Kelley’s own utopian dreams of analytic politics. Kelley’s’ observations during his youth of the Black Panther party fueled his curiosity; he describes himself as being “surrounded by these people (his mother and sister) who are always trying to make ‘movement’”. Kelley details about his political coming of age, and how “all that activism and participation forced me to think about what was it we were doing in the first place? What’s the long-term goal?” (Freedom Dreaming).
“When History Sleeps” demonstrates the hope that Kelley yearned to convey to his audience; he begins the chapter with a hopeful passage about his mothers third-eye and meditation rituals, “My mother has a tendency to dream out loud. I think it has some- thing to do with her regular morning meditation. In the quiet darkness of her bedroom her third eye opens onto a new world, a beautiful light-filled place as peaceful as her state of mind… Her other two eyes never let her forget where we lived. The cops, drug dealers, social workers, the rusty tap water, roaches and rodents…Yet she would not allow us to live as victims. Instead, we were a family of caretakers who inherited this earth. We were expected to help any living creature in need, even if that meant giving up our last piece of bread” (Freedom Dreams).
This passage is significant because we can already see that this text is taking a standpoint that is marked by oppression. What’s important is the idea that even though the world is oppressing them, they are not allowed to be victims. What also stands out to me is even though they don’t have anything to give, they must always present a helping hand to those in need. I define this as humanity or being humane, and beliefs such as this one are often presented in African American literature. The goal or objective in mind is: just because you weren’t dealt the upper hand in life doesn’t mean you can’t achieve it in some way shape or form. Robin Kelley also has a passage in this section about “othering”, but instead of discussing what its like to be ‘othered’ he talks about his mother teaching him to: Be the Other. The passage is as follows, “We were expected to stand apart from the crowd and befriend the misfits, to embrace the kids who stuttered, smelled bad, or had holes in their clothes. My mother taught us that the Marvelous was free—… She simply wanted us to live through our third eyes, to see life as possibility. She wanted us to imagine a world free of patriarchy, a world where gender and sexual relations could be reconstructed. She wanted us to see the poetic and prophetic in the richness of our daily lives. She wanted us to visualize a more expansive, fluid, “cosmospolitan” definition of blackness, to teach us that we are not merely inheritors of a culture but its makers” (Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination).
Chapter two is titled “Dreams of the New Land” this chapter explores and examines freedom in the Exodus movement and Redemptive movement within the black political party. This chapter draws on famous leaders like Marcus Garvey, and W.E.B. Dubois, but the significance of this chapter lies in the fact Kelley uses this space to describe the task of redefining freedom and community, without exploitation.
Chapter three, and the final chapter that I’m going to summarize, is called “The Negro Question”. This essay analyzes white left-wingers’ and white-radicals’ visions of race relations, which happens to NEVER address the Negro question: What to do with labor so we don’t have to directly address the laborer? Kelley traces this question through to several different organizations and approaches; He demonstrates that a common pattern is the connection between Race and Economy following a belief that “if we can kill capitalism then racism will wither away.” Through these proposals it became clear that racism, race, socialism, and labor were all interconnected. “The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage is defined as ‘intersectionality’” (Webster’s Dictionary).
The final significant passage I want to analyze is about surrealism from “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination”. The text defines surrealism as an exaltation of freedom revolt, and imagination; it’s about what we see from our third eye rather than the two on our face. This passage also defines Kelley’s idea of what a utopia is. The text states, “The idea that we could possibly go somewhere that exists only in our imaginations—that is, “nowhere”—is the classic definition of utopia. Call me utopian, but I inherited my mother’s belief that the map to a new world is in the imagination, in what we see in our third eyes rather than in the desolation that surrounds us…Contrary to popular belief, surrealism is not an aesthetic doctrine but an international revolutionary movement concerned with the emancipation of thought. According to the Chicago Surrealist Group, Surrealism is the exaltation of freedom, revolt, imagination and love… Its basic aim is to lessen and eventually to completely resolve the contradiction between everyday life and our wildest dreams. By definition subversive, surrealist thought and action are intended not only to discredit and destroy the forces of repression, but also to emancipate desire and supply it with new poetic weapons… Beginning with the abolition of imaginative slavery, it advances to the creation of a free society in which everyone will be a poet—a society in which everyone will be able to develop his or her potentialities fully and freely.” Surrealism is significant in this text because the entire story is composed around the idea that we can exalt freedom, revolt, love and imagination in hopes of freeing ourselves from mental slavery and lessoning the line between our daily lives and the passions we each hold.
“Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination” and African American criticism correlate because the text is written from a standpoint that is marked by cultural oppression, has goals of achieving a New World where we are all equal, with hope being the driving force to accomplish the objective. Robin D.G. Kelley focuses on “Back to Africa” movements, socialism, third-world liberation, surrealism, radical black feminism and reparations as a means to accomplish his idea of a just New World. Kelley discusses different black movements that created a vision more inclusive than their white Euro-American counterparts and how these movements really pushed western/modern radicalism in new directions. The significance of this text is to convey hope to its audience while educating about hidden black history and lost movements. As a historian its Kelley’s occupation to recover erased, excluded and marginalized works by those outside of white supremacy. Kelley does an excellent job of integrating these works into a larger historical/cultural understanding that contains many silenced voices of the past.
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