The SPB Q (Grad Chapter): Professor Robin D.G. Kelley

“It’s funny because I didn’t study history to be a historian. I studied history to attempt to solve a series of political problems.” ~ Robin D.G. Kelley, 2003

{When I decided to pursue graduate work for my PhD, I sent out one email: to Professor Robin D.G. Kelley. Why? Because in the years following my leaving Brown and going to NYC, he was pretty much the only scholar I read regularly. Why? His accessibility; his ability to synthesize sophisticated ideas into readable, elegant prose; his subject matter; his style (personal style, that is); and his ability to shift between academic work and consumer publications. His email back to me was funny, direct, a little skeptical and yet quite encouraging: I can honestly say that I’m where I am today, partly due to Robin Kelley. And I know I’m not the only grad student who feels that way.

Anyone interested in academic work, particularly in history, would be hard-pressed not to appreciate Kelley’s output, which has tilled the domain of African American cultural and political history with a blend of laser-sharp intellectual intensity and race-man love of community. His books—ranging from Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class to Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, to my favorite (and maybe one of the best-titled books ever!), Yo Mama’s Dysfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America—have tackled working class social movements, radical political thought during the Depression, and African American artistic movements, and have been called “provocative” and “history at it’s challenging and transformative best.” Kelley challenges his readers to consider the brutal machinations of communities on the outskirts of mainstream resistance movements as well as the hopeful possibilities imbedded in the freedom quests of his narratives, and brings a passionate activist’s spirit to the process.

His most recent work Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, is a massive, meticulously-researched biography of the jazz legend, buttressed by rare Monk family archives accessed by no other scholar. It’s a passionate, nuanced work of jazz (and American) history, and it recently won the Best Book award from the Jazz Journalists Association (an organization not known for praising the work of scholars and academics!) The paperback of the book will be out this fall. Professor Kelley, who last year was the first African American to serve as the Harmsworth Chair at Oxford University, currently teaches in the American Studies and Ethnicity department at USC. I’m very honored to have him as the first professor to contribute to The’s SPB Q’s Grad Chapter.}

Name:  Robin D. G. Kelley

Hometown:     (Harlem) New York, NY

School/Year:  B.A., Cal State Long Beach (1983); PhD UCLA (1987)

Dissertation Title: “‘Hammer n’ Hoe’: Black Radicalism and the Communist Party in Alabama, 1929-1941”

Favorite book: W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (New York: Free Press, 1992, orig. 1935)

Favorite author: Elleza Kelley (she isn’t well-known, yet, but she’s the most brilliant writer I’ve ever encountered.  And she’s my daughter.)

Favorite movie: Nothing But a Man (1964) dir. Michael Roemer, starring Abbey Lincoln and Ivan Dixon

Favorite song:  Thelonious Monk, “Brilliant Corners”

Academic text that most influences your work:   Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (orig. 1983, New Ed. 2000)

Academic who most influences your work:  I can’t limit to one—at least three: Farah Jasmine Griffin, Cedric Robinson, George Lipsitz

Academic High:  Delivering Black History lectures to kids on lockdown at Boysville Detention Center, Saline Michigan, in the early 1990s.

Life High:  two: birth of my daughter, Elleza, and my marriage to LisaGay Hamilton last year.

You’re on a desert island and can only have 5 CDs/books/ or DVDs shipped in to you. What are they?

  • Beah: A Black Woman Speaks [Documentary by LisaGay Hamilton] [DVD]
  • Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall [CD]
  • Franklin Rosemont and Robin D. G. Kelley, eds., Black, Brown and Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the African Diaspora (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009)
  • Desmond’s: The Complete First and Second Series [DVD]
  • Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Collected Works [OK, the last might be unfair because it’s 50 volumes.  But if I had to pare down to one, I choose Eugene Kamenka, ed., The Portable Karl Marx]

Your favorite quote: “You’re not worried about me marrying your daughter.  You’re worried about me marrying your wife’s daughter.  I’ve been marrying your daughter ever since the days of slavery.”  — James Baldwin

Guilty pleasure: Rockin’ Ice Cube (from the early 90s) on my iPod (at the gym or on my way to class)


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8 Comments

Filed under books, PhD, The SPB Q, Uncategorized, writing

8 responses to “The SPB Q (Grad Chapter): Professor Robin D.G. Kelley

  1. I admire him so. And now I find out he’s married to my favorite contemporary actresses? Wowza.

  2. happybrowngirl

    This was great and let me just say up front I’m a fangirl! I heart Freedom Dreams!

    When I was at J-school at NYU in the late 90s/early 00s I’d see him running around the roof track at the gym in the Village. I always wanted to be like, OMG! It’s Robin DG Kelley, look, everyone look! But I kept it cool and laid low, lol.

    It might be worth pointing out for grad students that he eventually published his dissertation as Race Rebels, right?

    Also, OMG, he and LisaGay Hamilton (I have such a girl crush on her) are married! Umm, I think those 2 just broke the mold for awesome modern black love.

    Finally, Desmond’s! I remember when BET used to show that…sigh

  3. You and your connects….so jealous LOL This was awesomeness.

    When I was doing the SHI out at UCLA before I started my MA I saw the original bound copy of Kelley’s dissertation in the black studies library on the shelf. Motivation!

    I love his work; I used the intro from Race Rebels and a chapter in Yo Mama’s Dysfunktional for my Hip Hop Writing Course.

  4. ashoncrawley

    i met Elleza when she was a first-year at Duke…

    and…i must echo her (biased) father (i, of course, am unbiased)…she is an AMAZING writer and thinker.

    and Robin is great…had him for a course…simply great!

  5. wfrankm

    Nice mention for miss Farah. Maybe she, Kellie Jones, and Ruthie Wilson Gilmore are your next academics.

    • Good call. I’m actually hoping Farah will do one, and me and Kellie go back a long way. I’d love her to do it. I hear wonderful things about Ruth Gilmore but I dont know her.

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