New Internationalist

Freedom dreams

Issue 351

My mother has a tendency to dream out loud. I think it has something to do with her regular morning meditation. In the quiet darkness of her bedroom, her third eye opens on to a new world, a beautiful, light-filled place as peaceful as her state of mind. When I was growing up, she never had to utter a word to describe her inner peace; like morning sunlight, it radiated out to everyone in her presence. Her other two eyes never let her forget where we lived. The cops, drug dealers, social workers, the rusty tap water, the roaches and rodents, the urine-scented hallways and the piles of garbage were constant reminders that our world began and ended in a battered Harlem/Washington Heights tenement apartment on 157th and Amsterdam.

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. Strange, needy people always passed through our house, occasionally staying for long stretches of time. 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.

She simply wanted us to live through our third eyes, to see life as possibility. She wanted us to imagine 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.

I came to black nationalism filled with idealistic dreams of a communal society free of all oppressions, a world where we owned the land and shared the wealth, and white folks were out of sight and out of mind. It was what I imagined pre-colonial Africa to be. Sure, I was naive, still in my teens, but my imaginary portrait, derived from the writings of Cheikh Anta Diop, Chancellor Williams, Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, Kwame Ture, gave me a sense of hope and possibility about what a post-colonial Africa could look like.

Very quickly, I learned that the old past wasn’t as glorious as I had thought – though I still believe that it was many times better than what we found when we got to the Americas. The stories from the former colonies – whether Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire, Idi Amin’s Uganda or Forbes Burnham’s Guyana – dashed most of my expectations about what it would take to achieve real freedom.

In college, like all the other neophyte revolutionaries influenced by events in southern Africa, El Salvador and Nicaragua, Cuba and Grenada, I studied third-world liberation movements and post-emancipation societies in the hope of discovering different visions of freedom born out of the circumstances of struggle. I looked in vain for glimmers of a new society, in the ‘liberated zones’ of Portugal’s African colonies during the wars of independence, in Maurice Bishop’s ‘New Jewel’ movement in Grenada, in Guyana’s tragically short-lived 19th-century communal villages, in the brief moment when striking workers of Congo-Brazzaville seized state power and were poised to establish Africa’s first workers’ state. Granted, all those movements crashed against the rocks, wrecked by various internal and external forces, but they left behind at least some kind of vision, however fragmented or incomplete, of what they wanted the world to look like.

I fell in love with the young Marx of The German Ideology and The Communist Manifesto, the visionary Marx who predicted the abolition of all exploitative institutions. I followed young Marx, via the late English historian Edward Thompson, to those romantic renegade socialists like William Morris, who wanted to break with all vestiges of capitalist production and rationalization. Morris was less concerned with socialist efficiency than with transforming social relations and constructing new, free, democratic communities built on, as Thompson put it, ‘the ethic of co-operation, the energies of love’.

Little to say

The socialists – utopian and scientific – had little to say about that, so my search for an even more elaborate, complete dream of freedom forced me to take a more imaginative turn. Thanks to many wonderful chance encounters, I discovered Surrealism, not so much in the writings and doings of André Breton or Louis Aragon or other leaders of the Surrealist movement that emerged in Paris after World War One, but under my nose, so to speak, buried in the rich, black soil of Afro-diasporic culture.

In it I found a most miraculous weapon with no birth date, no expiration date, no trademark. I traced it from the ancient practices of maroon societies and shamanism to the metropoles of Europe, to the blues people of North America, to the colonized and semi-colonized world that produced the likes of Aimé and Suzanne Césaire and Wifredo Lam. The Surrealists not only taught me that any serious motion toward freedom must begin in the mind, but they also have given us some of the most imaginative, expansive and playful dreams of a new world I have ever known.

In that respect, they share much with radical feminists, whose revolutionary vision has extended into every aspect of social life. Radical feminists of color, in particular, have revealed how race, gender and class work together to subordinate most of society and complicate easy notions of universal sisterhood or biological arguments that establish men as the universal enemy.

Like all the other movements that caught my attention, radical feminism, as well as the ideas emerging out of the lesbian and gay movements, proved attractive not simply for their critiques but also for their freedom dreams.

Black intellectuals associated with each of those movements not only imagined a different future, but, in many instances, their emancipatory vision proved more radical and inclusive than what their compatriots proposed. Those renegade black intellectuals/activists/artists challenged and reshaped communism, Surrealism and radical feminism, and in so doing produced brilliant theoretical insights that might have pushed the movements in new directions. In most cases, however, the critical visions of black radicals were held at bay, if not completely marginalized.

My purpose is to reopen a very old conversation about what kind of world we want to struggle for. I am not addressing those traditional Leftists who have traded in their dreams for orthodoxy and sectarianism. Most of those folks are hopeless, I’m sad to say. And they will be the first to dismiss me as utopian, idealistic and romantic. Instead, I’m speaking to anyone bold enough still to dream, especially young people who are growing up in what the critic Henry Giroux perceptively calls ‘the culture of cynicism’ – young people whose dreams have been utterly co-opted by the marketplace.

Young faces

In a world where so many youth believe that ‘getting paid’ and living ostentatiously was the goal of the black-freedom movement, there is little space to even discuss building a radical democratic public culture. Too many young people really believe that is the best we can do. Young faces, however, have been popping up en masse at the anti-globalization demonstrations, beginning in Seattle in 1999. The Black Radical Congress, launched in 1997, has attracted hundreds of activists aged under 25, as did the campaign to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. The question remains: what are today’s young activists dreaming about? This is a crucial question, for the most powerful, visionary dreams of a new society don’t come from little think tanks of smart people or out of the atomized, individualistic world of consumer capitalism, where raging against the status quo is simply the hip thing to do. Revolutionary dreams erupt out of political engagement; collective social movements are incubators of new knowledge. The great works by WEB Du Bois, Franz Boas, Oliver Cox and many others were invariably shaped by social movements as well as social crises such as the proliferation of lynching and the rise of fascism.

Progressive social movements do not simply produce statistics and narratives of oppression; rather, the best ones do what great poetry always does: transport us to another place, compel us to relive horrors and, more important, enable us to imagine a new society. It is that imagination, that effort to see the future in the present, that I call ‘poetry’ or ‘poetic knowledge’.

Recovering the poetry of social movements, however, is not such an easy task. For obvious reasons, what we are against tends to take precedence over what we are for, which is always a more complicated and ambiguous matter. Such dreaming is often suppressed and policed not only by our enemies but also by leaders of social movements themselves. Desire can be crushed by so-called revolutionary ideology. I don’t know how many times self-proclaimed Leftists talk of universalizing ‘working-class culture’, focusing only on what they think is uplifting and politically correct but never paying attention to, say, the ecstatic.

I remember attending a conference in Vermont about the future of socialism, where a bunch of us got into a fight with an older generation of white Leftists who proposed replacing retrograde ‘pop’ music with the revolutionary ‘working-class’ music of Phil Ochs, Woody Guthrie, pre-electric Bob Dylan, and songs from the Spanish Civil War. And there I was, comically screaming at the top of my lungs: ‘No way! After the revolution, we still want Bootsy! That’s right, we want Bootsy! We need the funk!’

Despite having spent a decade and a half writing about radical social movements, I am only just beginning to see what has animated, motivated and knitted together those gatherings of aggrieved folks. I have come to realize that once we strip radical social movements down to their bare essence and understand the collective desires of people in motion, freedom and love lie at the very heart of the matter. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that freedom and love constitute the foundation for spirituality – another elusive and intangible force with which few scholars of social movements have come to terms. That insight was always there in the movements I’ve studied, but I was unable to see it, acknowledge it, or bring it to the surface. I hope to offer here a beginning.

Robin Kelley is professor of history and African studies at New York University. This article is adapted from his Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, published by Beacon Press. Copyright ©2002 by Robin Kelley.

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