Historian Robin D.G. Kelley looks at the raft of strategies Black activists have employed to keep the dream of freedom alive.
In his new introduction to the 20th anniversary edition of Freedom Dreams, activist-professor-scholar Robin D.G. Kelley writes that “the catalyst for political engagement has never been misery, poverty, and oppression but the promise of constructing a new world.”
He’s right, of course, and the idea that another social order — one free of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of inequity — is possible has kept activism alive for generations. But how do we transform ourselves and our body politic?
For Kelley, this question requires an understanding of the ways Black activists have kept the dream of freedom alive since enslavement, and Freedom Dreams describes a raft of strategies that have been employed. That said, he centers the ideas of radical activist-philosopher Grace Lee Boggs (1915-2015) throughout the book, and although her outlook shifted over time, he writes that she ultimately felt that “it was time to leave old protest strategies behind and focus on creating a society that promotes self-sufficiency, ecological sustainability, human interaction, and values of cooperation, mutuality, nonviolence, equality, and love.”
The book doesn’t only promotes Boggs’ form of utopianism. It also zeroes in on the myriad ways that other Black radicals have sought to build a better world. Chapters interrogate efforts to secure reparations for slavery, create new visual mediums and other art forms, pursue historical research and scholarship, and forge solidarity with freedom-fighters throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America and Palestine. And while some activists have nurtured liberatory dreams by participating in communist, socialist and anarchist movements, others have never strayed from their local communities, creating coops and organizations to mentor youth, serve seniors, and feed, clothe and educate their neighbors. Still others have found community in feminism, and Kelley heralds feminist work in reimagining gender roles and opening new pathways to understand what it means to be female, male or nonbinary.
Then there are the people Kelley calls solutionaries. ”They fight water shutoffs,” he writes, “create their own alternative sources of energy (wind, solar), run freedom schools, build collective economic power and sustainability through cooperatives and time banking, and turn empty lots into urban farms to deal with food insecurity, joblessness, and community alienation.”
Pragmatic and fierce, Kelley posits solutionary activism as one tier on a ladder of options. Still, while solutionary dreams are solid, and their efforts bear evident and inspiring fruit, this is a relatively small movement.
Larger, and arguably more potent, are movements Kelley barely mentions in Freedom Dreams. Among them is the radical faith that has goaded many activists — from the civil rights movement of the 1960s and ‘70s to today’s Poor People’s Campaign — to take action.
Similarly, Kelley gives short shrift to contemporary electoral politics.
These are odd omissions since many people, most prominently Stacey Abrams and Raphael Warnock, have found both solace and strength in liberation theology and public service.
Criticism aside, Freedom Dreams remains a potent reminder that despite a flurry of retrenchments and losses, progressives can’t lose sight of the overall goal of human liberation. As poet Aja Monet writes in the book’s foreword, a number of pressing questions require attention as we set our agendas: “Who are we without war, poverty, violence, police, and prison? Who would we be if money wasn’t our concern? If love was our currency, how would we distribute it? How do we value the unseen?” she asks.
Freedom, she continues, is “always now.” Calling Freedom Dreams a prompt rather than an answer, she urges readers to imagine a more open, egalitarian world. “Freedom is not beyond our reach,” she concludes. “It is within our very hands. The capacity to dream, to cultivate and facilitate the collective as self-determined visionaries, is how we demand the alternative.”
What’s more, dreams of freedom — however construed — allow us to persist in working for, and demanding, social and economic justice. Indeed, it’s the only way to keep hope alive.
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