"Freedom Dreams" at 20: Robin D.G. Kelley on the Ongoing Work of Imagining LiberationRoundup
tags: African American history, radical history
Robin D. G. Kelley, Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA, is author of Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times and Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.
Two decades after I delivered the lecture at Dartmouth that would become the seed for my 2002 book, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, the world caught fire. In the late spring of 2020, some 26 million people around the world took to the streets to protest the public execution of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the vigilante murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, and the killing of Breonna Taylor. For the last decade, videos of police killing unarmed Black people in the United States and Canada had become routine, but so had the protests. This was different.
An unprecedented number of people risked their health and safety to face down riot police, tear gas, rubber bullets, and the COVID-19 pandemic to demand justice and a radically different approach to public safety. Activists proposed cutting police budgets and abolishing prisons to fund housing, healthcare, living wage jobs, universal basic income, green energy, and a system of restorative justice. The Minneapolis city council passed a dramatic resolution to defund its police, and at least sixteen cities pledged to significantly cut expenditures on law enforcement. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti agreed to cut funding to the police by $150 million dollars. Seattle’s city council pledged to reallocate 50 percent of the police budget to other programs, but Mayor Jenny Durkan rejected their proposal.
The “Black Spring” rebellion of 2020 sparked a renewed interest in Freedom Dreams. But the book was never intended as a roadmap. It did not predict the future or present a plan of action or claim to be the catalyst for new radical insurgencies. Instead, it humbly offered a different take on histories of a handful of social movements by centering their visions of a better future for all.
I was responding to a particular cultural moment. Despite what seemed to me an abundance of radical organizations in the 1990s, they looked nostalgically to the 1960s—especially to the Black Panther Party—for what they believed were “successful” models of revolution. But I wondered, what does “success” mean for movements committed to fundamentally transforming society? Does it mean winning campaigns? Taking state power? Passing laws that are transformative? What does it mean to “win,” and why does it matter? The focus on winning was not limited to college students aspiring to become revolutionaries but had been baked into movement culture with the expanded role of the “non-profit industrial complex.” Back then—and, to a large degree, even now—U.S. social movements depended on foundations. Funders put their money behind “winnable campaigns,” often undercutting the difficult and patient work of collective thinking, base building, and cultivating a vision of the world they are trying to build. Freedom Dreams was an attempt to move beyond this narrow understanding of social movements as targeted campaigns to focus instead on the collective radical imagination that conjures and sustains visions of freedom even in the darkest times.
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