- Black Radicalism, Marxism, and Collective Memory: An Interview with Robin D. G. Kelley
This interview was occasioned by the twentieth anniversary of Robin D. G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), an anniversary that fell amid the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Conducted in Los Angeles during 2011, it has been since edited and revised. It aims to clarify the historical lessons of the black freedom and radical labor struggles in the 1930s for confronting the current crisis.
2010 marked the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Hammer and Hoe. It began as your dissertation in the history department at UCLA, which you completed in 1987. Can you talk about how the conjuncture shaped your study?
The timing is really important. The project was conceived in the early 1980s. My interest was in southern Africa, specifically the South African Left. At the same time, the Jesse Jackson campaign and the Rainbow Coalition was taking off, as was the idea of multiracial and multiethnic organizing actually led by people of color. I was involved in campaigns at UCLA and was simultaneously trying to write about an original rainbow coalition. My dissertation began as a comparative study of radicalism in South Africa and the US South. I ended up dropping the South Africa piece because I was denied access to the country. Yet with a South African framing of what became a US story I was forced to think hard about things like intraracial class tensions and conflicts. I had to look at Alabama differently. I couldn’t look at the black working class as a kind of solid whole, nor could I look at the white working class in the same way. Part of what Hammer and Hoe tried to do was look at Alabama society as whole, not just black workers. [End Page 215]
How have you felt about its reception over the past two decades?
It’s been interesting. I am really happy with that book. Looking over it again, I am not sure what I would do differently because I said what I needed to say. The reviews over all have been great, but more importantly the way a number of activists and organizers on the Left have talked about that book has been very heartening. For many readers, the book does three things. First, it demonstrates that substantial, effective organizing can occur under the worst of circumstances; that immense poverty, depression, and violence weren’t successful deterrents to movement building.
Second, that even the most ardent racists are not fixed in their ideology. People can be transformed in the struggle. Racism is definitely a fetter to multiracial organizing, but Hammer and Hoe shows how people built a movement across the color line in the most racist place of all. Anyone watching footage of Bull Connor in Ingram Park in 1963 could not believe that thirty years before that there had been an interracial group of five thousand people in Birmingham standing on the street demanding relief, jobs, and an end to police brutality.
Third, that class politics are alive and well. But any class politics that pretend that race and also gender get in the way of class organizing miss the point altogether. You can actually build white support for antiracism, male support for antisexism, and black support for white working-class justice. People can and do cross the boundaries that historians and scholars impose on people. The levels of empathy that many of the people in Hammer and Hoe showed—the fact that people were willing to be beaten or die for others—is an extremely important lesson. We spend so much time theorizing race, class, and gender and wondering whether or not you can get people of a particular identity to move, but we don’t even ask the question “Can you get Steve to risk his life for Hosea Hudson?” It is not that Steve is supporting Hosea Hudson because he is black and male; Steve is supporting Hosea Hudson because he is part of a...