D. G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.
Boston: Beacon Press: 2002. 248 pages. Cloth, $24.00
Few writers have done more to stimulate new ways of looking at surrealism
than Robin D. G. Kelley, and the reason is simple: He himself has
dared, again and again, to look at surrealism in new ways. His important
and exhilarating new book, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical
Imagination, fully confirms his central role in the current
resurgence of the surrealist movement throughout the world.
In refreshing contrast to the complacent majority of todays
intellectuals, who pretend that social revolution is impossible,
passé, and in any case undesirable, Kelley in all of his books has
boldly posed the question of revolutionary transformation. He is,
however, far from being any kind of Old or New Left dogmatist; his
criticism of "the same old protest politics" is explicit
and severe. In his view, the revolutionary project needs not only
to be rethought, from top to bottom, but above all to be reimagined
and dreamed anew.
Freedom Dreams grew out of such troubling questions as these:
"What had happened to the dreams of liberation that brought
many of us to radical movements in the first place? What had happened
to socialism the way we imagined it? What had happened to our New
Eden, our dreams of building a new society? And what had happened
to hope and love in our politics? . . . How do we produce a vision
that enables us to see beyond our immediate ordeals? How do we transcend
bitterness and cynicism and embrace love, hope, and an all-encompassing
dream of freedom, especially in these rough times?"
In his quest for answers, Kelley admirably steers clear of the inhibiting
sectarian notion of one-size-fits-all political blueprints and programs.
Instead, his inspiring and far-ranging narrative focuses on key
and recurring moments in the history of the Black radical imagination:
their emergence, their immediate and long-term impact, their strengths
and weaknesses, and their diverse meanings for us today.
The first five chapters show us visions of a resurgent, independent
Africa; an impressive panorama of revolutionary Black nationalisms
and Third World liberation movements, and their interaction with
the civil rights, Black Power, and Black Arts movements; Black involvement
in, and transformation of, Socialist, Communist, and other Marxist-influenced
currents; the age-old and still vital dream of reparations for centuries
of slavery and Jim Crow; and the long and resplendent tradition
of Black feminism.
These are major currents in the history of U.S. and world radicalism,
and all sincere seekers of social change need to know about them.
The sad fact that many of the groups and movements that Kelley discusses
are omitted from so-called mainstream studies demonstrates the truth
of Jayne Cortezs observation that "mainstream" often
All through Kelleys Black radical history tour we meet dozens
of imaginative activist dreamers, including such celebrated figures
as Lucy Parsons, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Hubert Harrison,
Claude McKay, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, C. L. R. James, Robert
F. Williams, Malcolm X, James Forman, and Amiri Baraka. We are also
introduced to less-well-known but no less fascinating figures such
as Anna Julia Cooper, "Queen Mother" Audrey Moore, and
the Combahee River Collective, whose contributions to the cause
of making the world a better place should be part of the curriculum
of every grade school, high school, and college in the land.
Revisiting the dreams these dreamers dreamed so long ago not only
sharpens our awareness of the "paucity of reality" in
our own time, but also inspires new dreams and therefore new ways
of transforming that reality.
The sixth and concluding chapter of Freedom Dreamsone
of the longest in the bookis devoted to surrealism. Here Kelley
expands on the insights that illuminated his superb introduction
to Aimé Césaires Discourse on Colonialism (2000),
his forceful response to an inquiry in the "Surrealism in the
USA" issue of the journal Race Traitor (Summer 2001), and his
long, searching essay, "Freedom Now Sweet: Surrealism and the
Black World," in Ron Sakolskys Surrealist Subversions
In Freedom Dreams, Kelley points out that "Surrealism
may have originated in the West, but it is rooted in a conspiracy
against Western civilization." This remark appears in his excellent
short survey of the early European surrealists interest in,
and interaction with, Black politics and culturea topic most
academic "experts" on surrealism have preferred to ignore.
After providing the reader with a sound historical and theoretical
context, he moves on to the authentically surrealist dimension within
the Black radical tradition itselfthe surrealism he found
"in the rich, black soil of Afrodiasporic culture. In it I
found a most miraculous weapon with no birth date, no expiration
date, no trademark. . . . The surrealists not only taught me that
any serious motion toward freedom must begin in the mind, but they
have also given us some of the most imaginative, expansive, and
playful dreams of a new world I have ever known. Contrary to popular
belief, surrealism is not an aesthetic doctrine but an international
revolutionary movement concerned with the emancipation of thought
. . . total transformation of society . . . new social relationships,
new ways of living and interacting, new attitudes toward work and
leisure and community. . . ."
Hailing the contributions of surrealists from Africa and the African
diasporathe Martinicans Etienne Léro, Suzanne and Aimé Césaire,
René Ménil, Pierre Yoyotte, Simone Yoyotte, Lucie Thésée; the Cuban
Wifredo Lam; the Senegalese Cheikh Tidiane Sylla; and the African
Americans Ted Joans and Jayne CortezKelley emphasizes their
importance as poets, artists, and agitators in the cause of global
Black liberation. He recognizes, too, the powerful undercurrents
of surrealism in certain works of Richard Wright, and in the music
of Thelonious Monk, as well as the vernacular surrealism so abundant
in blues lyrics. Discussing surrealisms "sexual revolt,"
as exemplified in the work of so many surrealist women, including
Toyen, Valentine Penrose, Leonora Carrington, Meret Oppenheim, Claude
Cahun, and Mary Low, Kelley speculates that this revolt might have
gone even further and deeper had the surrealist women known of the
"poetics of sexual freedom" developed by such blues artists
as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, Memphis Minnie, Lucille
Bogan, and Ida Cox. Although the language barrier impeded that kind
of collaboration in the 1930s, Kelley insists that such "lost"
or unfulfilled connections are well worth dreaming about today:
"Juxtaposing surrealism and black conceptions of liberation
is no mere academic exercise; it is an injunction, a proposition,
perhaps even a declaration of war. I am suggesting that the black
freedom movement take a long, hard look at our own surreality as
well as surrealist thought and practice in order to build new movements,
new possibilities, new conceptions of liberation. Surrealism can
help us break the constraints of social realism and take us to places
where Marxism, anarchism, and other 'isms' in the name of revolution
have rarely dared to venture."
Unlike the lock step art historians, literary critics, and gossip
columnists who dominate "surrealism studies" today, Kelley
obviously feels no need to pretend that surrealism, as an organized
movement, is over and done with:
"From the 1920s on, surrealism has recognized the decadence
of Western civilization, and has never ceased to sharpen its critique
of the Wests institutions and value systems, but it has always
refused to fall into the trap of cynicism or technotopias or fatalism
or false prophets. After all, surrealists have consistently opposed
capitalism and white supremacy, have promoted internationalism,
and have been strongly influenced by Marx and Freud in their efforts
to bridge the gap between dream and action. In other respects, surrealism
is night to Marxisms day . . . turning to poetry as a revolutionary
mode of thought and practice."
Indeed, the principal theme of Freedom Dreams is that the unfettered
imagination is just what the world needs today:
"Surrealism is not some lost, esoteric body of thought longing
for academic recognition. It is a living practice and will continue
to live as long as we dream. . . . Surrealism considers love and
poetry and the imagination powerful social and revolutionary forces,
not replacements for organized protest. . . . Surrealism recognizes
that any revolution must begin with thought, with how we imagine
a New World, with how we reconstruct our social and individual relationships,
with unleashing our desire and building a new future on the basis
of love and creativity. . . ."
Far from diverting our energies away from radical social change,
"Dreams of the Marvelous" arein Kelleys viewthe
heart and soul of that change.
In short, for Robin Kelley, surrealismalso known as poetry,
love, and freedomis "a matter of great urgency":
"Without new visions we dont know what to build, only
what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and
cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series
of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must
Césaire. Discourse on Colonialism. Introduction
by Robin D. G. Kelley. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000. 104
pp. Cloth, $30; paper $14.
Discourse is the most important and influential political
essay by the great surrealist poet and co-founder of Negritude.
Focused on the barbarism inherent in all colonialism, Césaire's
merciless critique of white supremacy and European racial hypocrisy
concludes with a ringing indictment of U.S. imperialism as the most
oppressive force on earth. First published in 1950, the book did
much to shape the theory of anticolonial struggles in Africa, the
Caribbean, and throughout the world. Its attentive readers included
Frantz Fanon, C. L. R. James, Amilcar Cabral, and the young activists
who raised the cry of Black Power in the U.S. in the 1960s. When
the revised, expanded 1955 Présence Africaine edition (translated
here) appeared in Paris, André Breton hailed it publicly (in
a speech at a meeting to protest France's war in Algeria) as "a
de-finitive work in which the argumentation is as rich and solid
as the expression is ardent and beautiful" and as "today's spiritual
weapon par excellence."
D. G. Kelley's superb introduction analyzes Césaire's work
not only in the light of later anticolonial and postcolonial thought,
but also in the light of surrealism. He emphasizes that in fact
the Discourse "should be read as a surrealist text. . . .
It is full of flares, full of humor. It is not a solution or a strategy
or a manual or a little red book with pithy quotations. It is a
dancing flame in a bonfire." Bristling with insights, Kelley's discussion
of the ways in which Aimé Césaire and his brilliant wife
Suzanne "introduced fresh ideas to Breton and his colleagues" and
"contributed enormously to theorizing the 'domain of the Marvelous'"
makes his introduction a key text in the critical reassessment of
surrealism in our time.
is a book that must be read to grasp the real potentialities,
as well as the difficulties, in the global struggle for freedom
in the world today.
Breton. Anthology of Black Humor. San Francisco: City
Lights, 1997. 356pp. Paper, $18.95.
is a sad state of affairs that this classic compilation had to wait
until the end of the century before seeing its first publication
in English. The publisher is to be congratulated! With contributors
as diverse as Swift, Sade, Rimbaud, Jarry, Kafka, Duchamp, and Carrington
(to name only a few), and with Breton's headnotes to all 45 authors
who appear, the diversity and scope of the surrealist appreciation
of black humor is revealed. Breton clarifies the nature of black
humor: both rebellious and nonsensical (in the sense of anti-common-sense),
with its roots in Hegel's "objective humor" and its aplomb scarcely
hiding its craving for a rendezvous with objective chance. At the
same time, the diversity of its character, its method and its sources
make it nearly indefinable, except by example. Paul Garon
Ducornet. The Fan-Maker's Inquisition: A Novel of the Marquis
de Sade. New York: Henry Holt, 1999. 212 pp. Cloth only, $22.
the obnoxious, fashionable cliché that mistakes the Marquis
de Sade for a forerunner of the Nazi concentration camps, Rikki
Ducornet in her new novel argues that if Sade's books had been seriously
read and discussed instead of condemned and burned, there never
would have been any concentration camps. Her splendidly written
story contrasts Sade, the imaginative writer and atheist thrown
into prison for his ideas, with the devout Christian imperialists
who instituted slavery and genocide in Mexico, and reduced the great
Mayan library to ashes. A work of fantasy rather than history, the
author simply does not do justice to the French Revolution of 1789,
or to the Jacobin regime Citizen Sade loyally served for three years
as chief spokesperson for the Section des Piques. But Ducornet's
sparkling language, her deep appreciation of insubordination and
revolt, and her fierce hostility to church, state, bookburning,
and all repression add up to a passionate defense not only of Sade,
but also of poetry, love and freedom.
Blechman, ed. Revolutionary Romanticism. San Francisco:
City Lights, 1999. 250pp. Paper, $15.95
conception of surrealism as the "very prehensile tale" of romanticism
is elucidated and expanded in this anthology compiled by the editor
of Drunken Boat. Often surrealism is explored directly, as
in the contributions by Michael Richardson or Marie-Dominique
Massoni, but just as frequently surrealists themselves‹Michael Löwy,
Annie Le Bruninvestigate aspects of romanticism from a surrealist
perspective. Löwy's investigation of the traces of romanticism
that permeate the works of Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse is
especially compelling. We are living at a time when the romantic
roots of every radical social movement need re-emphasis. The ascendance
of technocracy combined with the unleashing of monumental greed
impels us to oppose those forces with the same spirit the romantics
brought to bear in their opposition to industrialism. Only now the
stakes are higher! Paul Garon
Hall. Labor Struggles in the Deep South and Other Writings.
Edited/introduced by David R. Roediger. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr,
1999. 264pp. 42 illustrations. Index. Cloth, $34; paper $14.
fascinating first-person account of labor struggling in the South
toward class solidarity across racial lines has been published at
last! Languishing for decades as an unpublished manuscript, the
combined efforts of historian David Roediger and the Charles H.
Kerr Company have finally brought this underground classic to the
light of day. Here Hall recounts his lifelong commitment to organizing
white and black lumber and waterfront workers into militant interracial
unions, with particular focus on the Brotherhood of Timber Workers
and the Industrial Workers of the World. Roediger's powerful introduction
articulates the contradictions that Hall struggled with throughout
his life, and assesses his legacy for our time.
true cousin in spirit to IWW bard T-Bone Slim, Covington Hall was
a poet as well as an activist (see his poetry collection, Dreams
and Dynamite, published by Kerr in 1985). In Labor Struggles,
Roediger has appended a selection of Hall's poems, short stories
and polemics (including his mini-manifesto, "In Defense of Dreaming")
to round out the portrait of this intriguing labor organizer, revolutionary
and free spirit who fought for the overthrow of capitalism and dreamed
of the "republic of the imagination." Paul Garon
Buhle. Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany,
Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor. New York:
Monthly Review Press, 1999. 315 pp. Paper, $18.00; Paul Buhle and
Edmund Sullivan. Images of American Radicalism. Hanover,
MA: Christopher House, 1999. 457 pp. Paper, $39.95.
the 1960s Paul Buhle founded Radical America, the leading
journal of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in its most
revolutionary days, during which RA devoted an entire issue to the
Chicago Surrealist Group. Now one of the best known historians of
American radicalism, he has never ceased to be a staunch ally of
the Surrealist Movement. Just out in paperback, Images of American
Radicalism is a sumptuous feast of left iconography, with 800
images, 100 color plates and an illuminating text. In Taking
Care of Business, Buhle ably documents the sorry process by
which shameless bureaucrats, white supremacist, sexist, and pro-capitalist‹in
other words, fundamentally hostile to workers' interests‹came to
dominate organized labor. Reflecting on the recent break-up of Cold
War business unionism and the question of what to do now, Buhle
notes that "Models of solidarity inevitably return to the Knights
of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World, those two historic
movements despised and in considerable part destroyed by the machinations
of Samuel Gompers's AFL."