Robin D.G. Kelley is a historian at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of several books, including Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Before participating in a UCLA / Zócalo panel discussion about urban riots—“Can Urban Riots Cause Change?”—he talked in the Zócalo green room about Los Angeles sunshine, vegetarian sandwiches, and not trying to be famous.
Who’s your favorite person with the name Robin?
Robin Givhan. She’s a writer for the Washington Post, and a friend from way back when I lived in Michigan.
You held the Harmsworth Chair of American History at the University of Oxford. What’s one of your favorite cultural differences between the U.S. and the U.K.?
I have one good and one bad. The bad is that they don’t believe in turning on the heat. The good is that at Oxford, at least, they still have the commons. The fact that there’s still a tradition of communing is a spectacular thing.
What advice do you give students who are thinking about going into academia?
Make your intellectual choices according to your loves and political interests. Don’t follow trends. Don’t try to be famous. Do the work even if it’s unpopular.
What’s one of your favorite things to do in Los Angeles?
Not drive. I like to walk in the sunshine all year.
If you could meet any musician tomorrow, living or dead—besides Thelonious Monk, whom you wrote a book about—which musician would you choose?
You’ve taught and studied at universities all around the country. Do you have a favorite state?
New York. I’ve taught at two outstanding universities there.
Do you have a favorite sandwich?
Something vegetarian. Grilled cheddar cheese with avocado and tomato. I don’t normally eat sandwiches.
What’s your biggest weakness?
I ask too many questions. My wife wants to divorce me. “Why do you always question the question?”
What musical instrument makes the most beautiful sound?
A Bösendorfer piano. It’s the most expensive, most amazing piano ever made. It has four extra keys in the bass. If my wife does divorce me, I’m going to take all my money and buy one.