Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Two decades after I delivered the lecture at Dartmouth that would become the seed for my 2002 book, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, the world caught fire. In the late spring of 2020, some 26 million people around the world took to the streets to protest the public execution of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the vigilante murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, and the killing of Breonna Taylor. For the last decade, videos of police killing unarmed Black people in the United States and Canada had become routine, but so had the protests. This was different.
An unprecedented number of people risked their health and safety to face down riot police, tear gas, rubber bullets, and the COVID-19 pandemic to demand justice and a radically different approach to public safety. Activists proposed cutting police budgets and abolishing prisons to fund housing, healthcare, living wage jobs, universal basic income, green energy, and a system of restorative justice. The Minneapolis city council passed a dramatic resolution to defund its police, and at least sixteen cities pledged to significantly cut expenditures on law enforcement. Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti agreed to cut funding to the police by $150 million dollars. Seattle’s city council pledged to reallocate 50 percent of the police budget to other programs, but Mayor Jenny Durkan rejected their proposal.
The “Black Spring” rebellion of 2020 sparked a renewed interest in Freedom Dreams. But the book was never intended as a roadmap. It did not predict the future or present a plan of action or claim to be the catalyst for new radical insurgencies. Instead, it humbly offered a different take on histories of a handful of social movements by centering their visions of a better future for all.
I was responding to a particular cultural moment. Despite what seemed to me an abundance of radical organizations in the 1990s, they looked nostalgically to the 1960s—especially to the Black Panther Party—for what they believed were “successful” models of revolution. But I wondered, what does “success” mean for movements committed to fundamentally transforming society? Does it mean winning campaigns? Taking state power? Passing laws that are transformative? What does it mean to “win,” and why does it matter? The focus on winning was not limited to college students aspiring to become revolutionaries but had been baked into movement culture with the expanded role of the “non-profit industrial complex.” Back then—and, to a large degree, even now—U.S. social movements depended on foundations. Funders put their money behind “winnable campaigns,” often undercutting the difficult and patient work of collective thinking, base building, and cultivating a vision of the world they are trying to build. Freedom Dreams was an attempt to move beyond this narrow understanding of social movements as targeted campaigns to focus instead on the collective radical imagination that conjures and sustains visions of freedom even in the darkest times.
Where are we twenty years later? The Black Spring has given way to a white winter of “wokeness fatigue,” racist reaction, and liberal compromise. Protests dwindled, BLM signs were removed or power scrubbed into oblivion, and cops kept shooting us: Jacob Blake, Dijon Kizzee, Anthony McClain, Kendrell Antron Watkins, Daniel Prude, Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo, Ma’Khia Bryant, Andrew Brown Jr., ad infinitum. After throwing a $10 million bone to a bunch of Black organizations in the name of Black Lives Matter, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos proceeded to cut employee hazard pay, spend millions to crush a union drive in Bessemer, Alabama, and launch plans to begin colonizing space. Cities such as Minneapolis quietly watered down their initial promises to defund their police, and several Republican-dominated state legislatures passed laws expanding criminal penalties for protesting.
Meanwhile, Democrats urged us to squash talk of defunding the police and get behind the effort to elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. The future of democracy depended on defeating Trump. Biden prevailed with the largest vote total in history; Trump lost, with the second largest vote total in history. Before Biden-Harris could take office and begin deporting Haitian asylum seekers, bombing Syria, threatening war with China, and extending sanctions on Cuba, Trump’s people attempted a coup d’etat. On January 6, 2021, as Congress prepared to count the electoral votes and certify Biden’s victory, thousands of white people, mostly white nationalists and neo-fascists, stormed the Capitol building in order to stop the process. The insurgents were drawn not from the suffering “white working class,” but largely from middle-class entrepreneurs, paid alt-Right organizers, and, especially, the warrior class—veterans and active military personnel, and off-duty cops. Leading the charge were people drawn from the ranks of the same forces who beat us back with rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, and batons during the Black Spring protests—the same folks who killed, maimed, and detained Afghanis and Iraqis.
The attempted coup didn’t surprise us in the movement. We knew that unless we stopped fascism and police power, these kinds of attacks were inevitable. In 2017, I wrote, “Today’s organized protests in the streets and other places of public assembly portend the rise of a police state in the United States. For the past five years, the insurgencies of the Movement for Black Lives and its dozens of allied organizations have warned the country that unless we end racist state-sanctioned violence and the mass caging of black and brown people, we are headed for a fascist state.” The current generation of activists was already pessimistic about the future long before the Capitol insurrection.
In the face of growing pessimism, Freedom Dreams may come across as too hopeful and “optimistic.” But the book’s title does not suggest wishful thinking or dreaming. The Black radical imagination is not a kind of dream state conjured and nurtured despite day-to-day struggles on the ground. It is rather forged in collective movements. My central point is that we cannot divorce critical analysis from social movements. The challenges of solidarity and a deep understanding of the mechanisms of oppression generate the conditions and requirements for new modes of analysis, new ways of being together. Therefore, it is not enough to imagine a world without oppression (especially since we don’t always recognize the ways we ourselves practice and perpetuate oppression). We must also understand the mechanisms or processes that not only reproduce subjugation and exploitation but make them common sense and render them natural.
Indeed the book does not prioritize “freedom dreams” to the exclusion of “fascist nightmares.” If anything, freedom dreams are born of fascist nightmares, or better yet, born against fascist nightmares. The very context for the book—today and twenty years ago—was the nightmare of global war, neoliberalism, and racialized state-sanctioned violence. I first proposed the book idea to my editor at Beacon Press, Deb Chasman (now co-editor of this journal), on February 28, 2000, two days after 3,000 of us marched down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue to protest the acquittal of the officers who killed Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant shot forty-one times after police reportedly mistook his wallet for a gun. By the time I completed the manuscript, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had stolen an election, the Department of Homeland Security was a reality, the World Trade Center was rubble, bombs were raining down on the Afghan people, lower Manhattan was under martial law, and the U.S. was preparing to invade Iraq.
I’ve had to remind readers that the movements featured in the book arose in much darker times than the early Bush years. The Black search for (home)land took place at the height of racist reaction as the Bourbon South defeated Reconstruction, stripped Black men of the vote, made lynching the primary mode of discipline and punishment, and established the Jim Crow racial regime. Black Communists spread their message of liberation during the worst global economic crisis and at the height of the Red Scare. In the 1960s and ’70s, a group of Black radicals envisioned the imminent collapse of the American empire just as U.S. militarism and the national security state expanded and police violence intensified. Ida B. Wells and Anna Julia Cooper boldly asserted that genuine human freedom was impossible without the emancipation of Black women during what many historians considered to be the darkest period of African-American history since chattel slavery. Angela Davis produced startlingly radical visions of freedom from a cage, and the Combahee River Collective drafted its famous statement as sexual violence and femicide against Black women was rising across the country.
These movements were fueled not by false optimism but by a deep understanding of reality. They were trying to sustain life by beating back the death-dealing structures of gendered racial capitalism. The only way to ensure survival for Black people was to envision a radically different future for all and fight to bring it into existence. The fight itself forged, clarified, revised, or discarded those visions.
The start of the new millennium certainly felt like dark times. Freedom Dreams was written on the heels of eight years of organizing against Clinton-era neoliberalism and during the first months of the Bush era, when new movements had emerged to resist the war on drugs, the war on terror, anti-Black and anti-immigrant racism, Islamophobia, prison expansion, police violence, gendered and racialized violence against women of color, queer and trans people, and the ongoing struggle for reproductive justice. Organizations fighting against these issues were not without flaws or contradictions, nor were they fighting for the same things. But taken together, they represent a convergence of movements that had spent years resisting state violence and neoliberalism, sharing a vision of a future grounded in love, mutual care, cooperative economies, transformative justice, and abolition.
There are many organizations and activists that have been doing the work of imagining and fighting for a different future before, during, and long after the book came out. Freedom Dreams is a product of my relationship with them. Two, who are now with the ancestors, deserve special mention: revolutionary philosopher Grace Lee Boggs and poet Sekou Sundiata. Grace agreed with the book’s premise that the catalyst for political engagement has never been misery, poverty, and oppression but the promise of constructing a new world. Grace wanted to leave the old protest strategies behind and focus on creating a society that promotes self-sufficiency, ecological sustainability, values of cooperation, mutuality, non-violence, equality, and love. Making revolution meant remaking ourselves, insisting that the fundamental question facing humanity was how do we “grow our souls.” The community of organizers she helped nurture in Detroit spent the next two decades—and counting—putting this vision in practice.
Sundiata was my other chief interlocutor. His impact on both the birth and afterlife of Freedom Dreams has been profound. A few weeks after the twin towers came down, we met for lunch to talk about it. He had spent much of his life fighting things American—racism, imperialism, economic inequality, hubris, xenophobia, arrogance—and suddenly felt heartbroken for the American people. This was not the same as patriotism or national loyalty. He told me a story about a crowd of young Black men in Harlem who had cheered the attacks on the World Trade Center without considering the loss of human life. As with so many victims of American racism, vengeance came to resemble justice, prompting Sekou to ask whether love, compassion, and human solidarity are possible in these United States. His questions haunted me because I had never questioned the romance of violent revolution or the human costs of anti-imperialist wars. My talk with Sekou prompted me to reflect on how we might remake “Ground Zero” as a symbol of how we might remake the planet.
Since the book’s publication, movements and dreams have changed and grown, exposing the limits of my own political imagination and pointing to a wider horizon of possibility. I’ve had the privilege of learning from thousands of activists, artists, students, and intellectuals who have engaged in this work and advanced a vision of freedom far more expansive, more complex, more radical than what I had originally written. If I were to write this book today, here are other paths of the Black radical imagination I would examine:
Queer and Trans Liberation. Queer futures, or what the late theorist José Muñoz called “queer futurity,” hold the promise of a radically different definition of the “human” that could finally demolish the inherited, heteronormative constraints of gender and sexuality. Although the LGBTQI community has always played critical organizational and leadership roles in movements, they’ve often had to sacrifice their public identity or face harassment, marginalization, even violence. We’ve witnessed a significant shift over the past two decades, as the leadership of Black radical movements has become predominantly queer, trans, and non-binary. #Black Lives Matter, the Ferguson rebellion, BYP 100, and many other contemporary Black liberation movements not only have queer leadership but center queer and trans liberation in their politics. Certainly, this means more than visibility or rights, or even the end of capitalism, racism, ableism, violence, and war, but new ways of being free that center joy and pleasure.
Mutual Aid. My daughter, Elleza Kelley, taught me to look for freedom dreams in the spaces of enclosure and fugitivity. Her scholarship explores how Black communities transformed plantations, ghettos, rooftops, prisons, and the like, into commons, spaces of fugitive praxis and mutual care. She first schooled me on the importance of mutual aid as a potentially radical practice of prefiguring the future we want to build. The irony, of course, is that my mother modeled a practice of mutual aid and passed it down to us. I even hinted at it in Freedom Dreams when I wrote that my mother raised us “to help any living creature in need, even if that meant giving up our last piece of bread. Strange, needy people always passed through our house, occasionally staying for long stretches of time.” What I understood as values or a moral duty, Elleza helped me see as political practice. Abolitionist and legal scholar Dean Spade also helped me see mutual aid as an essential ingredient for revolution, since it is fundamentally about building solidarity and practicing a culture of collective care in lieu of a neoliberal culture of individualism and the market. He explains, “Social movements that have built power and won major change have all included mutual aid, yet it is often a part of movement work that is less visible and less valued. In this moment, our ability to build mutual aid will determine whether we can win the world we long for, or whether we will dive further into crisis.”
Disability Justice. The absence of any discussion of disability in Freedom Dreams is a major oversight. Disability justice embraces an abolitionist framework—which is to say, it demands nothing less than the overthrow of ableism and all of the structures that undergird it. Consider what it means for a disability rights movement to wage a successful struggle against institutionalization while leaving intact a racist, capitalist, heteropatriarchal system. Disabled people who are poor, Black, Brown, Indigenous, and gender non-conforming are more likely to end up homeless, incarcerated, or subjected to police violence. I’m especially indebted to Aurora Levins Morales, feminist writer and disability justice activist, and Rich Feldman of the Boggs Center, for helping me imagine a world without ableism. Morales, for example, has demonstrated how climate justice is disability justice by drawing attention to how toxins—in the ecosystem, personal care products, common solvents, and cleaning chemicals—are disabling. Feldman, whose son has a cognitive disability, reminded me that, similar to residential schools for Native children, mental institutions were responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of patients, many buried in unmarked graves. In the face of a genocide that is hardly acknowledged, Feldman asked, “What does it mean to be human?” The answer, he conceded, will depend on our capacity to embrace “revolutionary values.”
Decolonization and Indigenous Thought. Although Freedom Dreams discusses anti-colonial movements, it is silent on decolonizing Turtle Island or Black-Indigenous solidarity. Coincidentally, my mother had started a doctoral program at the University of California, Berkeley in Native American Studies just as I was completing Freedom Dreams. The more she shared with me, the more I came to see gaps in my own work. She made me rethink the question of land and reparations. How could I reconcile the creation of all-Black towns as acts of self-determination and limited freedom when they were built on stolen land? How has the biblical story of Exodus been used to erase indigenous inhabitants from the “promised land” of Canaan? Now, when I revisit the chapter on reparations, the absence of Native people and indigenous critique is glaring. It reminds me that if we are going to think of dispossession, genocide, and slavery as inseparable pillars upholding the settler-colonial regime and its ongoing policies of extraction, we must also think about reparations and decolonization together. But is it possible to reconcile reparations for slavery and structural racism with decolonization? Only if we think about reparations as a project aimed at building power for social movements, eliminating all forms of oppression, and creating an economy geared toward collective needs and redistribution rather than accumulation. Unfortunately, most contemporary “plans” for reparations do not challenge the terms of racial capitalism or settler colonialism; their logic is firmly rooted in property rights, documentation (proof that one is a descendant of slaves), and compensation without transformation.
At the same time, until fairly recently decolonizing imperial North AmeriKKKa seemed out of reach, almost utopian. Then two developments helped me see that decolonization was not only possible but absolutely necessary. First, Indigenous movements at the forefront of the climate justice movement, from Idle No More to Standing Rock to the Kanaka ‘Ōiwi struggle to defend Mauna Kea, have been clear: five hundred years of settler-colonial capitalism has brought the planet to the brink of ecological collapse. The choice before us is decolonization or extinction. Decolonization means ending capitalism and returning the land, not as “property” but as the source of life to be stewarded by its original inhabitants, where animals, plants, and humans can co-exist and thrive together. Second, visiting South Africa and Palestine, bearing witness to existing settler colonialism and its historical legacies, and learning from radical, decolonial movements in both places really brought home Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Wang’s point that “decolonization is not a metaphor.”
My first trip to South Africa occurred on the heels of the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements, where students demanded a decolonized university, a decolonized nation, and ultimately a decolonized world free of exploitative and hierarchical relationships, racism, capitalism, patriarchy, and all phobias. They exposed the “post-apartheid” state as a chimera, a neoliberal betrayal of the Freedom Charter’s promise that the people shall govern, share the wealth and the land, and enjoy equal rights, security, and housing. I met with an impressive group of radical thinkers and activists who continually underscored the paramount importance of decolonization and land in the Black radical imagination.
In South Africa, as in most of the world, dispossession was ongoing. I saw it in places such as the “environmentally conscious” Shamwari Game Reserve, sitting on Xhosa land in the Eastern Cape. My son and I briefly stayed there at a lodge named after Sarili kaHintsa, the nineteenth-century paramount chief who followed the prophecy of a fifteen-year-old girl named Nongqawuse, who in 1856 called on the people to kill the cattle and destroy the crops to incite spirits that would drive out the white settlers. Recognizing where my sympathies lie, he then shared that he descended directly from Sarili, his family had been forced off the land and reduced to farm laborers, and that the grave sites of his ancestors had been disappeared by commercial farms and game reserves. Every African employee at Shamwari quietly disclosed their dreams of taking back the land as a source of livelihood, sustenance, reconstruction, and nation-building. We couldn’t help but notice the dilapidated shacks on the other side of the highway where some of the employees of the big game reserves lived, or the irony of how the project of conserving biodiversity was deployed in the service of privatization, turning capitalists into the environmental guardians of the planet while rendering indigenous people landless. As we were about to leave, the head of staff informed me that he may soon be out of a job: the property had just been sold to Dubai World.
When I traveled to Palestine in 2012 and 2018, I witnessed first-hand settler colonialism and apartheid in its most brutal and direct form. Whether visiting any number of West Bank refugee camps, traveling along racially segregated highways in the shadow of a massive apartheid wall, or walking through Hebron where settlers moved into Palestinian homes and regularly attacked the Palestinian market with bricks, garbage, and human feces, the violence of colonialism was everywhere. In Palestine decolonization begins with ending the occupation, guaranteeing the right of return, and restoring all stolen land and property. On my second trip, I happened to spend most of my time on the bus talking to a young Diné organizer named Melissa Tso. She pointed out similarities between the occupied territories and reservations, compared the detention of Palestinian children with boarding schools, and commented on how Palestinians passing through checkpoints or living in Israel were treated like Indigenous people in settler towns situated on the edge of reservations. She introduced me to the Red Nation.
Launched in 2014 by Indigenous scholars/activists Nick Estes (Kul Wicasa) and Melanie K. Yazzie (Diné), the Red Nation was formed in response to the murders of Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson, two houseless Diné people who were sleeping on the street in Albuquerque. Two weeks after Israel began its deadly assault on Gaza and three weeks before Ferguson police killed Mike Brown, protests erupted in Albuquerque demanding accountability for the murders of Gorman and Thompson and protection for unsheltered Indigenous people and those who lived in “border towns.” Border towns are municipalities surrounded by reservations—which, technically, are sovereign nations but in practice occupied territory. Border towns are products of Indigenous dispossession, relocation, and ethnic cleansing; they render Native peoples vulnerable to state and vigilante violence, precarity, and dependence on a settler-run economy; they exploit Native bodies—living and dead—to promote tourism; and as occupied territory, they are marked by fences, walls, and checkpoints. The Red Nation organized against border town oppression and, more precisely, to bring an end to settler colonialism.
The Red Nation issued a document laying out the most extraordinary vision of a liberated future I’ve seen. More than a manifesto, The Red Deal: Indigenous Action to Save Our Earth is a plan for decolonization that entails eliminating all forms of oppression and violence—racism, patriarchy, ableism, capitalism, imperialism, settler colonialism, and ensuring sexual and reproductive freedom. Grounded in Indigenous thought, The Red Deal advances a vision of freedom based not on possession or anthropocentrism, but on balance, assembly, and mutuality. It makes no promise of triumph, but instead it promises a path for new ways of living and being together, where every life belongs, is valued, heard, respected, and protected under a system of justice that is non-punitive, non-carceral, and transformative. It calls for nothing less than the reversal of colonial structures that have deliberately attempted to erase other ways of knowing through genocide.
The Red Deal reflects and refracts the freedom dreams of virtually everyone discussed in Freedom Dreams, demonstrating once again how social movements are the great “incubators of new knowledge” and the keepers of old. The Red Nation’s decolonial vision speaks to other horizons of solidarity. “We draw from Black abolitionist traditions,” they write in The Red Deal, “to call for divestment from carceral institutions like police, prisons, the military, and border imperialism in addition to divestment from fossil fuels.” They carry forth another sort of Black and Red alliance absent from the book but present in the streets. Before Black Spring, Black Lives Matter activists showed up at Standing Rock, and throughout Canada, Indigenous and Black solidarity has been a fundamental feature of anti-police protests. The question is, what are their shared freedom dreams? What kinds of futures are we imagining and creating together?
We can never really know. It should be clear by now that Black radical imagination does not stand still; it lives, breathes, and moves with the people. The best we can do is catch a glimpse of how people in motion envisioned the future and what they did to try to enact that future. But every freedom dream shares a common desire to find better ways of being together without hierarchy and exclusion, without violence and domination, but with love, compassion, care, and friendship. My daughter Elleza grasped this core truth with astonishing clarity. When asked by an interviewer whether progressive movements can retool citizenship as a way to reproduce a culture of care, she replied:
Better ships than citizenship include friendship, relationship, or even a pirate ship, where unauthorized, motley formations are bound together to disrupt notions of the private, of property, of wealth and its concentration. . . . I think one of the worst aspects of citizenship is that it needs authorization, or that its expression is tied to what is given by a governing (or ruling, more precisely) body. The kind of citizenship I dream of is one where we acknowledge our attachment to each other, desire to be attached to one another, in relations other than property relations. Where serving the other is a way of serving the self. It sounds very romantic, but isn’t that the origin of all the things we want to make and bring into the world? The power of the love letter is that it is written without the guarantee of a response.
And what are radical social movements if not love letters?
Editors’ Note: Adapted from the 20th-anniversary edition of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination by Robin D. G. Kelley (Beacon Press, 2022). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.
Robin D. G. Kelley, Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA, is author of Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times and Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.
…we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Epiphanies can prompt us to view the world differently, a new book contends. But they are no substitute for ethical and political debate.
Harm reduction strategies, like those pioneered by queer men of color, have the best chance of stopping this disease.
Join us as we welcome twelve philosophers to discuss everything from bureaucracy and gender to Black existential freedom and beyond.