OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Robin D. G. Kelley

Portrait of Robin D. G. Kelley

Robin D. G. Kelley is the Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at the University of California, Los Angeles. His books include the prizewinning Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2009); Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression (1990); Race Rebels: Culture Politics and the Black Working Class (1994); Yo’ Mama’s DisFunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (1997), which was selected one of the top ten books of the year by the Village Voice; and Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (2002). He is a coauthor of Three Strikes: Miners, Musicians, Salesgirls, and the Fighting Spirit of Labor’s Last Century (2001) and a coeditor of Black, Brown, and Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora (2009), recipient of an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation; and To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans (2005). His most recent book is Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (2012).

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Beginning with the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and moving back to the 17th century, this lecture examines the ways in which liberalism has long served as the legal and ideological scaffolding that promoted and protected slavery and other forms of unfree labor, Jim Crow, dispossession, and colonialism. Neoliberalism and the crisis it has engendered lay in the very origins of the nation, in a liberty defined by one’s ability to control and dispose of property, and the rise of a state whose main purpose is to arbitrate property, justice, and control a laboring class. By revisiting key moments such as the Dred Scott decision, John Brown's revolt, Reconstruction and the modern Civil Rights movement, I will argue that the most radical of these movements were informed not by liberalism but what Du Bois called abolition-democracy. And the rise of neoliberalism, mass incarceration, and the current wave of police violence, among other things, represents a defeat of abolition.
My talk focuses on the life and writing of Texas-born journalist Grace Halsell, who spent part of the Cold War as a foreign correspondent in Europe, Latin America, Asia (including a stint in Vietnam), working as a staff writer under President Lyndon B. Johnson, and engaged in investigations into U.S. “internal colonies” (she chemically darkened her skin and lived as a black woman in Harlem and Mississippi, resulting in her book, Soul Sister; she published Bessie Yellowhair about living as a Navajo and working as a housekeeper in a California suburb; and The Illegals, a book about passing as an undocumented worker from Mexico). Halsell initially believed the conceits of U.S. Cold War liberalism that promoted an American myth of a functional, melting pot democracy; a society that birthed the New Woman—free, independent, autonomous; a society where the whole point of war and the threat of nuclear annihilation was to secure peace and protect the American Way of Life from tyranny. But in the course of her travels and experiments in racial passing, old empires are fading or being dismantled and U.S. imperial power is asserting itself against struggles for sovereignty and self-determination. The worlds she encountered not only undermined these conceits, but just as the Cold War liberal myth began its world tour, it began to crack at the seams (home and abroad). Civil rights, feminist, and queer struggles revealed a society in turmoil. Questions of race and sex split open American society, revealing both its dark underbelly, as well as opening eyes, freeing imaginations, and putting white privilege and male privilege (not to mention U.S. national privilege) on the defensive. Halsell world view, schooled in Cold War liberalism, Southern paternalism & white supremacy, and domesticity, begins to unravel especially after her stint in Vietnam, and even more so when she turns her attention to the U.S., its ghettos, reservations, borders – and finally to Palestine. So in some ways, this is a classic loss of innocence story.
I argue that the rise of American democracy took nearly 180 years, and the architects were decidedly not the founding fathers but working people, African Americans, immigrants, women, abolitionists, radicals, and the dispossessed. While the true genius of the drafters of the Constitution and Bill of Rights has been to limit government power so as to preclude the rise of an oligarchy, monarchy, or dictatorship, and to protect fundamental civil rights, they did not establish what we today think of as a democracy—that is popular, unfettered participation of the people in election-based, representative government. As a nation, we don’t achieve a semblance of this until the mid-1960s with the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the enfranchisement of African Americans. Yet, even after 1965, the democratization of the U.S. is still incomplete and, in fact, experiencing a roll back.