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Historian Sees Disconnection
Between Academia and Activism
March 6, 2000

Freedom and love, according to historian and author Robin D.G. Kelley, may be the "most revolutionary ideas" available to people, but academics have "failed miserably" in understanding their significance.

"Despite having spent a decade and a half writing about radical social movements, I am only just beginning to see what animated, motivated, and knitted together these gatherings of aggrieved folks," Kelley said during a Feb. 24 lecture in the Gentry Building auditorium. "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."

Kelley, a professor of history and Africana studies at New York University, made his remarks during a lecture titled "When History Sleeps: On the Poetics of Black Social Movements." His talk was part of the Institute for African American Studies' Black History Month program and Critical Issues series.

"Freedom and love constitute the foundation of spirituality, another elusive and intangible force with which few scholars of social movements have come to terms," Kelley continued. "These insights were always there in the movements I've studied, but I was unable to see it, acknowledge it, or bring it to the surface."

His own understanding of Marxism, Kelley said, helped him to understand the "dynamics of social movements," but was inadequate to comprehending "the question of collective desire, the animating dreams that fuel desire, the very source of poetry: love and freedom."

Much of Kelley's lecture concerned the disconnection between academia and social activism. "Movements for social change are incubators of new knowledge," he said. "They are often the most exciting and vibrant centers of intellectual work."

Kelley suggested that while this observation may appear obvious, he increasingly finds himself talking with students who are enamored of activism yet find it incompatible with intellectual pursuits: "They speak of the 'real' world as some concrete wilderness overrun with violence and despair, and the university as if it were some sanctuary distant from actual people's lives and struggles."

While he is encouraged to see young people who understand the political implications of knowledge, Kelley said he is concerned that these same young people believe that simply "dropping knowledge on the people will generate new, liberatory social movements.

"I am convinced that the opposite is true: social movements generate new knowledge, new theories, new questions," he said. "The most radical ideas often grow out of the problems and frustrations of aggrieved populations confronting systems of oppression."

Kelley said he is interested in understanding the "particular kind of knowledge that erupts from social movements.

"Progressive social movements do not simply produce statistics and narratives of oppression," Kelley said. "Rather, the best ones do what great poetry always does: transport us to another place, compels us to relive the horrors and, more importantly, enables us to imagine a new society."

The author of several books on African American history and politics, Kelley is currently writing a book on jazz musician Thelonius Monk.

Gary Frank