Renowned Scholar Joins USC College

Historian and author Robin Kelley comes to USC from Columbia University.
ByKirsten Holguin

Regarded as one of the country’s preeminent scholars in African American history, Robin D.G. Kelley will join the faculty of USC College July 1. He will hold a joint appointment as a professor of history and American studies and ethnicity.

Recruited to USC College as part of the Senior Faculty Hiring Initiative, a drive to bring 100 leading senior-level scholars to USC, Kelley most recently was the William B. Ransford Professor of Cultural and Historical Studies at Columbia University.

“Robin Kelley’s imaginative and forceful brand of history has provided inspiration to almost a generation of graduate students and established scholars,” said Joseph Aoun, dean of USC College. “Students in the College will benefit from his enthusiasm for teaching and his depth of knowledge.”

Kelley said he looks forward to joining the College faculty and working with colleagues in the history department and the Program in American Studies and Ethnicity (PASE).

“USC is a premier institution and the level of scholarship taking place is on par with the top research universities in the country,” said Kelley, who will be on leave in 2006–07 completing a book. “By bringing African American, Asian American and Latino studies under the umbrella of American studies, PASE is the best ethnic studies program in the nation right now.”

Kelley earned his M.A. in African history and Ph.D. in U.S. history from UCLA. Prior to his position at Columbia, he was chair of the history department and professor of history and Africana studies at New York University. At the University of Michigan, Kelley was a professor of history, African American studies and American culture.

At the age of 32, Kelley became one of the youngest full professors in the United States. At that time, he had written numerous articles as well as the book Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression (University of North Carolina Press, 1990) and the collection of essays Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class (The Free Press, 1994).

In Hammer and Hoe, Kelley’s archival research and first-person interviews revealed that thousands of sharecroppers and other non-elites took part in the Sharecropper’s Union and the Communist Party in Alabama in the 1920s and 1930s.

Kelley’s accessible writing style brought attention to his first book from a non-academic audience. That was intentional, he said, primarily because he wanted those interviewed for the book to be able to read it. With almost 150 pages of footnotes, savvy readers will notice most of the theory in Hammer and Hoe is hidden or not mentioned at all.

Throughout his career, Kelley has continued to make his writing accessible to a wide audience. He has written seven books and more than 100 essays, editorials and book reviews. During his time at Michigan, Kelley appeared in mainstream publications including The Nation, Village Voice, The New York Times and New York Newsday.

Combining his academic credentials with personal ties to Los Angeles — he lived in Los Angeles for 10 years during high school, college and graduate school — Kelley has a deeper understanding of the city than many people living inside or outside of Los Angeles.

The first piece he submitted to The Nation was after the 1992 L.A. rebellion. The article was about hip hop and what it could teach people about the construction of Los Angeles.

Kelley’s voice provided a unique perspective, and those first few articles yielded invitations from a number of publications.

“For me, writing those pieces was never about publicity, it really was about trying to make some sharp critical interventions,” he said.

Kelley’s broad research interests include labor history, African American studies, popular culture, the African Diaspora and jazz music.

“His frameworks for researching the interrelationships of labor, capital, race and place integrate popular culture with institutional structure and social stricture,” said Ruthie Gilmore, director of the USC Program in American Studies and Ethnicity. “Robin has an eye for archives, an ear for sound and an engaged sensibility that mixes original interpretations of the past with advocacy for the present.”

In recent years, Kelley focused his research on jazz music. He is currently completing work on a biography of Thelonious Monk, who is recognized as one of the most dominant musicians in the history of jazz. The Thelonious Monk Institute is housed at the USC Thornton School of Music.

“The opportunity to work with the Thelonious Monk Institute is like a dream come true,” Kelley said. “It is the leading program in jazz education in the country, and it attracts some of the world’s leading jazz musicians as teachers.”

Kelley has been working for years with Monk Institute founder Thelonious Monk Jr., who has granted Kelley access to rare historical documents for his biography. No other scholar has ever had such access and support from the Monk family.

Kelley believes his book will come as a surprise to many Monk fans who only think of the musician in terms of his eccentricities. He hopes to have the book completed later this year.

In addition, Kelley is working on two other books: Speaking in Tongues: Jazz and Modern Africa and A World to Gain: A History of African Americans.