Title: Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class
Author: Robin Kelley
Categories: Cultural History, Hidden Transcripts, Resistance, Race, Civil Rights, Working Class
Place: Urban United States
Time Period: Twentieth Century
Robin Kelley writes a series of eight essays examining the every-day forms of resistance in survival for the urban black working class during the 20th century. He emphasizes James Scott's idea of "infrapolitics" and "hidden transcripts" to recover the daily struggles of subordinate groups as an invisible form of political action. In doing so, Kelley tries to expand the notion of what constitutes political resistance to include everyday "infrapolitics" and also reframes the traditional Civil Rights historical narrative. Kelley argues that the black middle-class leaders of the Civil Rights movement have too often been taken as representative of the black community as a whole. Instead of their "public transcript," he wants to chart the "unorganized, clandestine, and evasive" actions of the black working-class: talking loudly on a streetcar or leaving work early to go to dance halls and clubs, for instance.
Kelley looks at several spaces of black political resistance. In the workplace, he highlights the "Cult of True Sambohood," a conscious use of a deferential mask put on by black workers to hide their more subversive actions - slowing down, petty theft, using company time for personal use, etc. Kelley moves outside the workplace to look at social spaces, which for him constituted a crucial area away from the watchful eye of white authority. He also argues for the importance of secular spaces of leisure and recreation of dance halls, nightclubs, bars, and barber shops, rather than just the more visible, middle-class dominated churches of Civil Rights lore. Finally, in perhaps his most famous chapter, Kelley looks at public transportation as a particularly important "moving theater" of resistance . For Kelley, buses and streetcars served as spaces of very public performance and fierce contestation (the dual meaning of "theater"), as blacks faced an unstable segregation that often arbitrarily moved the color line. Talking loudly, cursing, spitting, and making jokes combined with more confrontational clashes and fights with white riders and drivers to make this a particularly explosive zone of black working-class political action.
In the last two sections, Kelley first examines black involvement in more formal political institutions and then the contours of a particularly black male youth subculture. First, he looks at black involvement in the Communist Party during the 1920s and 1930s, arguing that many of them went against the party's ideology of international unity by emphasizing black ethnic nationalism. After examining a small cadre of black men (and one woman) who participated as volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, he turns to youth male subculture. First he looks at the "hipster subculture" of the 1940s, when black men such as Malcolm Little embraced leisure, misogyny, and markers of cultural difference (zoot suits, conked hair, bebob dance, etc.) in order circumvent white hegemonic culture, still-rural folkways of parental households, and stultifying middle-class black culture. He finally links this legacy to 1990s Los Angeles "gangsta rap" culture, whose turn to violence and misogyny, he argues, should be seen in the historical context of post-industrialism, class separation within black America, and a legacy of black male vernacular culture.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Infrapolitics (James Scott's "Hidden Transcripts"): revamp notion of what constitutes "resistance" and "politics"
- Resistance and survival in the context of every day life
- Reframes typical Civil Rights narrative - tension between black working class and middle-class black civil rights leaders
- "Moving Theater" - public transportation as a flashpoint of both performance and resistance (spitting on the bus as political action)
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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