CAAS Distinguished Lecture April 14 Focuses on Journalist Grace Halsell

Robin D. G. Kelley

Prize-winning author Robin D.G. Kelley will deliver the Center for African-American Studies 17th Annual Distinguished Lecture at 8 p.m. April 14. Kelley is a professor of American studies and ethnicity and history at the University of Southern California.

His topic will be, “Faking It for Freedom: Grace Halsell’s Amazing Journey through the Minefields of Race, Sex, Empire and War – A 20th Century Love Story.” The lecture is based on Kelley’s new project – a biography of the late journalist Grace Halsell. Halsell, a white journalist, spent a good part of her life masquerading as others and traveling the country and the world in order to understand the experience of subjugation.

“Halsell is an interesting figure: she ran toward crisis and found ways to insert herself, and each time it tested her liberalism, her faith, expanded her feminism, and reinforced her anti-racism, while simultaneously revealing the limits (and evolution) of her perspective,” Kelley says. “And every encounter, every journey she made, provides a unique window on to critical moments in the history of the United States and the world.”

In 1968, after reading John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me,  and in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination, Hassell decided to chemically darken her skin and live as a black woman for a year—six months in Harlem, six months in the Mississippi Delta.  Her experiences were published in the best-selling Soul Sister (1969).  She would go on to write 12 more books, including an expose about living as a Navajo and working as a domestic in a California suburb (Bessie Yellowhair [1973]), a book about passing as an undocumented worker from Mexico and crossing the border three times (The Illegals [1978]), and several other unrelated texts.  In her final masquerade, she passed as a right-wing Christian fundamentalist and traveled to Israel with Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority.”  As a result, she published Journey to Jerusalem, a personal account and critique of the Christian Right’s uncritical support of Israel and what she regarded as the unjust treatment of Palestinian Christians, Muslims, and Arab Jews.  She also investigated the Christian Right’s embrace of Armageddon or “new dispensationalism,” resulting to two more small books.

In addition to his talk, Kelley will be a CAAS Distinguished Lecture in Residence April 13-15. He will speak to faculty and staff at the Academic (Technology) Roundtable at noon, April 13 in Olin Library.

He also will lead a “pre-talk” on race, war on the poor and other struggles in the age of Obama, at 4:15 p.m. April 13 in Judd Hall. The topic will be “Creating the Beloved Community: Revitalizing non-racial democracy in the age of Neo-liberalism.”

Kelley is the author of is the author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (The Free Press, 2009); Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (University of North Carolina Press, 1990); Race Rebels: Culture Politics and the Black Working Class (The Free Press, 1994); Yo’ Mama’s DisFunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (Beacon Press, 1997), which was selected one of the top 10 books of 1998 by the Village Voice; Three Strikes: Miners, Musicians, Salesgirls, and the Fighting Spirit of Labor’s Last Century, written collaboratively with Dana Frank and Howard Zinn (Beacon 2001); and Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Beacon Press, 2002).

He also co-edited To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans (Oxford University Press, 2000), a Choice Outstanding Academic Title and a History Book Club Selection. To Make Our World Anew was an outgrowth of an earlier collaboration with Lewis, the 11 volume Young Oxford History of African Americans (Oxford University Press, 1995-1998), of which he authored volume 10, titled Into the Fire: African Americans Since 1970 (1996).

He is completing Going Home: Jazz and the Making of Modern Africa (Harvard University Press, forthcoming 2011), and a general survey of African American history co-authored with Tera Hunter and Earl Lewis to be published by Norton.

Kelley’s essays have appeared in several anthologies and journals, including The Nation, Monthly Review, The Voice Literary Supplement, New York Times (Arts and Leisure), New York Times Magazine, New York Times Book Review, Rolling Stone, U. S. News and World Report, Color Lines, Code Magazine, Utne Reader and several others.