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RACE REBELS by Robin D.G. Kelley

RACE REBELS

Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class

By Robin D.G. Kelley

Pub Date: Nov. 15th, 1994
ISBN: 0-02-916706-X
Publisher: Free Press

 A leftist history of unconventional resistance by 20th-century African-Americans to racial, class, and sexual oppression. Kelley (History, Afro-American, and African Studies/Univ. of Michigan; Hammer and Hoe, not reviewed) is a historian with an ax to grind, and he wields it with a will. The perspective here is that of radical historians such as W.E.B. DuBois, E.P. Thompson, and C.L.R. James: the so-called ``history from below'' that interprets events in the prism of class struggle. To his vast credit, in seeking to memorialize history's marginalized, Kelley has brought to the surface events and issues that need to be addressed. For instance, his discussions of blacks' early unorganized, unsuccessful fight for space on buses, of Birmingham's displaced industrial poor, and of tensions between working-poor and middle-class blacks add much to our understanding of the civil rights movement. His narrative of black volunteers in the Spanish Civil War adds a small but moving chapter to that conflict. The problem is that Kelley's leftist orthodoxy clutters his prose and numbs his perspective. ClichÇs like ``empowerment,'' ``refusing to privilege race, class, or gender,'' and ``discursive strategies'' drift like academic deadwood through these pages. The term ``race rebels'' is too elastic, ranging from workers hovering above or below the poverty line to those unmoored by lack of employment or stable families into youthful nihilism (such as Malcolm X in his ``zoot suit'' hustler days and ``gangsta'' rappers, a group to which the author ascribes inordinate importance). Kelley breezily dismisses as bourgeois such analysts of the ``underclass'' as William Julius Wilson. And some of his observations can be jejune, as when he sees the celebration of the pimp in the ``Black Power'' era as at least partly due to ``the image of black female dominance created by the Moynihan report.'' Even Kelley's obvious compassion and excellent research skills are not enough when his analysis of race and class is so clouded by ideology.