Race Rebels

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Robin D.G. Kelley Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class, New York: The Free Press, 1994. pp. xiv, 351. ISBN 0-02-916706-X


In a series of eight essays Robin DG Kelley examines every day forms of resistance utilized by the urban black working class in the 20th century. He emphasizes “infrapolitics” and “hidden transcripts” in order to uncover the daily struggles often overlooked in studies of political action- he argues that these “unorganized, clandestine, and evasive” forms of resistance were in fact political. Using a bottom up approach Kelley looks beyond the black middle class leaders of the Civil Rights movements and instead focuses on the actions of the black working class that created their own forms of resistance to the racism and discrimination.

Kelley examines the black working class’s use of what Paul Laurence Dunbar calls a mask. These members of the black working class would put on this mask of deference and acquiescence in the eyes of whites and even other more privileged blacks in order to hide their more subversive acts of resistance (specifically in the work place). He also examines the way the black working class used leisure spaces to express and define themselves on their own terms. Kelley also examines the contestation of racialized space as seen on public transportation, most notably busses and streetcars. Here, in what he calls a “moving theater” the black working class resisted discrimination by cursing, spitting, telling jokes, talking loudly as well as resisting physically and violently.

Kelley than backtracks and examines black involvement in the the Communist Party in the 1920s and 30s. He then turns to black volunteers in the Spanish Civil War who fought against fascism. Lastly Kelley looks at the hipster subculture that characterized the early life of Malcolm X in the 1940s (zoot suits, bebob, conked hair) and then looks to the 1990s and the rise and the meanings of gansta rap.


Rebecca Adams, Spring 2016

In his work, Race Rebels, Robin DG Kelley examines the black working class in the 20th century, from domestic workers, African American Communists, the early years of Malcolm X and returning GIs to gangsta rap of the 1990s. His chapter on segregation of public transportation Kelley examines not only civilian resistance to the color line but also the resistance of African American GI’s to the discrimination on buses and street cars. Much like David Reynold’s African American soldiers in Rich Relations, these men travelled and lived abroad during the war (Reynolds’ subjects lived and served in Britain), witnessing racial acceptance and in some cases even racial harmony. Upon their return to the United States not only did they believe they deserved respect as soldiers but they had seen first hand that racial segregation, discrimination and violence were not the only ways of life.

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