Boston Review’s current issue features a roundtable discussion about African American protests on college campuses. Kicked off by Robin Kelley and featuring responses from Randall Kennedy, Michael Eric Dyson, Barbara Ransby, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and others, the forum is a welcome discussion of what sparked the campus protests. Further, the substantial critique Kelley offers of the protests and their goals brings a nuance reflecting both Kelley’s desire for the radical transformation of society, and the very place of the university in that society.
Kelley’s essay is, in itself, an intellectual history of African American campus radicalism since the 1960s. He reminds us of the book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, released in 2013 and written by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten. This book is based on ideas of the “guerilla intellectual,” coined by intellectual and activist Walter Rodney decades ago. The idea of the “undercommons” discussed by Kelley reflects the concerns of many of the college student activists across the country—how does one use their education at a university for the benefit of society? While Kelley does believe the university to be an important part of society—and that a college education is crucial for anyone, especially radicals, to obtain—he is also wary of thinking that the university can be radically transformed. Kelley’s critique of the limits of terms such as “micro-aggressions” and “triggers” is also important in consideration of the modern academy: “But how can we embrace our students and acknowledge their pain while remaining wary of a culture that reduces structural oppression to misunderstanding and psychology?”
It is no surprise, by the way, that this collection of essays also includes an online reading list about radicalism and the academy. Above all, Kelley wants to encourage people, especially budding scholars, to read and write critically. Reading groups and healthy discussion of key theories is as important to Kelley as is mobilizing for marches. For they are both part of the same struggle of black liberation. This collection of essays also points to a broader moment—for both the future of the university, and radical African American protest.
As Ben Alpers brilliantly discussed several days ago, it is often difficult (if not impossible) to know how history will change. I would venture to say that most Americans had no clue that the “Age of Obama” would include national conversations about police brutality towards African Americans, or a white supremacist attack on an African American church, or a boisterous debate about Confederate flags and iconography. Safe to say, too, no one would have imagined the rise of Donald Trump as a polarizing political symbol. No one, at least, would have imagined that on Election Night 2008, or even perhaps this time a year ago.
I think it’s also worth noting the recent essay published in Harper’s written by Marilynne Robinson about the modern university. Where Kelley is skeptical, at best, of the use of the university as a transformative tool of society, Robinson argues for the need to continue to see America’s universities—and especially their liberal arts core—as a national asset. For both Kelley and Robinson, the university is an integral part of society. I wonder what future intellectual historians will say about the place of the university in early twenty-first century American society. Whatever they say, it will be impossible to ignore the university as both a political battleground and a necessity for a democratic society.
 Robin Kelley, “Black Study, Black Struggle,” Boston Review, March/April 2016, p. 15.