March 14, 20209:00 AM ET
Authors Jason Reynolds, left, and Ibram X. Kendi spoke to students at a high school in Washington D.C. about their new book, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You.Elissa Nadworny/NPR
After his award-winning book came out in 2016, Ibram X. Kendi heard from people everywhere, telling him it opened their eyes to a new way of looking at history.
“They were coming up to me and saying, ‘It feels too late now. I wish I had read this in middle school,’ ” he says.
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, follows five historical figures — like the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and the activist Angela Davis — and offers readers unwashed versions of who they were, and the role that racist ideas played in their lives.
Kendi, an author and historian at American University, says history books in schools today too often don’t offer students a deep enough perspective or account of who people were and what they did.
Which led him to take up the challenge of those people who wished they’d learned these lessons in middle school: Give young people access to this history by collaborating with a writer who could take his facts (the history) and write it for a younger audience.Article continues after sponsor message
In his mind there was only one person to do it: the children’s book author, Jason Reynolds. When he let Reynolds in on this plan, he got a surprising answer: No.
“History is not my thing. I’m a fiction writer!” Reynolds explains. But Kendi persisted, and eventually Reynolds caved. “I realized [Kendi] believed in me more than I believed in myself,” he says.
Their new book is called Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, and right from its first few pages the authors promise that, “this is not a history book.” Instead, they say, it’s a book that mixes past with present — in a way that young adults can relate to.
Racism, Antiracism, and You
by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
Hardcover, 294 pagespurchase
“History books are written with the idea of a student in mind, but not the idea of an actual young person themselves,” says Reynolds. So this book sets out to do just that, and Reynolds says it’s filled with “the things that I needed someone to say to me when I was 15 years old.”
In a high school in Washington D.C., NPR met with the two authors and a group of high school students who had read the book. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Jason, why were you hesitant to say yes to Kendi’s request?
Reynolds: I wasn’t sort of a top notch scholar, that I wasn’t a part of sort of my story, my journey. And so if a scholar comes to you and asks you to sort of make an adaptation or translation of work that they’ve poured themselves into, and you don’t necessarily see yourself in the same playing field, it can be a little intimidating.
Once you got to yes, then what? How do you write a remix of something that already exists?
Reynolds: History books are written with the idea of a student in mind, but not the idea of an actual young person, just the person themselves. School is for a few hours a day. But, like, there aren’t history books written for that kid when school is over, when the bell has rung. And so that’s sort of what I’m thinking about this particular book: ‘Can I make this something cool?’ Because there’s currency in cool. There always has been, there always will be. It matters to them. It mattered to me. It still matters to me, right? If it ain’t cool I’m probably not gonna rock with it. This is how I am. I’m still that person. So I wanted to try to figure out how to make this really complex thing that has all this information that he gave the world, how do I take it and make it feel like a fresh pair of Jordans.
Before you read this book, what did you know about the history of racist ideas or racism?
Emani James, 10th grade: I go back to like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and Malcolm X, we don’t ever learn about what happened before then. Who knew about the first person who was ever racist? Like, I didn’t learn about that. And I wouldn’t even think it was in the 1400s!
With history, people like to cut off certain parts that they don’t want to tell us. Like they’re not gonna tell us the deep, deep stuff. You know, like they just gonna tell us the deep stuff.
Do you feel like it’s because you’re young?
James: I mean it partly is because we’re young. But us being young, we still have a great mind.
So, Ibram, did you encounter folks who felt like students were too young to learn this history?
Kendi: There were times in which people would ask, ‘are young people ready for this history?’ And it was a shocking question because it’s so foreign to me that anyone could not recognize how we have so many young, brilliant minds who even, you know, in seventh grade, let alone 10th grade, can understand this history. Not only understand it, but apply it to their own lives. They start to get more clarity about their own lives, they are able to understand their country. And so for me, this getting deep, deep, deep, that really actually protects our young people. So we think we’re protecting them by not getting deep. We’re actually protecting them by getting deep, by allowing them to really understand this nation’s history.
In the book you have three categories that you put people and ideas in. What are those three categories and why use that approach?
Kendi: One of the things we’re trying to do with this book is provide people with the vocabulary of how to speak about and understand racism. Know what intimately racism is and how to identify it with language. What we’re trying to do is give people the ability to name what they see, what they experience, what they should be resisting.
So there are the segregationists, which Jason calls the haters.
Reynolds: The haters. Segregationists are the haters. Everybody knows what a hater is. All right. Haters. Especially when I was in school. And I know it’s no different for y’all. Haters are the people who hate you just cause you ain’t like them.
Kendi: And then there’s the assimilationist. Who are the likers.
Reynolds: Likers. Your fake friends. I mean, everybody, got ’em, everybody knows them too. Everybody knows the phonies. And they’re basically the ones who like you, but they like you because you are like them. You know, that is contingent upon you being like them.
Kendi: And then there’s the anti-racists, who are the lovers.
Reynolds: And the lovers. Those are your day ones, as we say. Our ‘ride or dies.’ The ones who love us for being like us. They love us for who we are, not for who they are, and not for who we are to them, but for who we are to us.
In the book, you apply these definitions to the ideas people have — and often, the same people write about or speak about a combination of the three, meaning people can evolve and change.
Kendi: If people say an assimilationist idea or anti-racist idea or segregationist idea, then you apply it, even if it’s somebody who’s your hero. I also think we should give people the ability to change. So W.E.B. Du Bois was born in 1868 and he died literally the night before the March on Washington in 1963. That’s nine decades. What he was saying, particularly in the 1890s, was more along the lines of assimilationist ideas. But by the time he was in the 1930s and 1940s, he had transformed and was largely articulating anti-racist ideas. This is what we hope for people. We want people to change and we have to give people that ability to change, but also recognize who they were at an earlier time.
Reynolds: I did have friends be like, ‘yo, so I don’t know, man. What you said about Dr. King kind of hurt! And I’m like, ‘first of all, it wasn’t me, blame it on Dr. Kendi. Those are my words, but that’s all his information.’
I do think it’s important that we are honest about even our heroes. It doesn’t make them any less heroes, nor does it make their contributions any less powerful. But it does help us sort of get into the nuances of it all. And it does also show how fluid some of that stuff was, and has been, and is, for a lot of us. But that we should always be aiming toward anti-racism.
James: Who is your target market for this? Is it really for everybody?
Reynolds: I never write void of the scope in which I’ve come. I was a young black person. It is natural for me to speak to young black people. The book is for everybody, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t sort of imagining [Emani’s] face. There’s certain things that I do want to say to black kids, right? Like that part in Chapter 6 when I write, “Africans aren’t savages.” Right. That’s for us. We’re not savages. That was specifically for you.
Amir Perkins, 11th grade: I was surprised there were black people who had racist ideas.
Kendi: Right, you’re talking about Leo Africanus. Just like you have black people today who tell white people what they want to hear in order to improve their standing among white people, black people were doing that back in the 1500s! For me, if anyone is saying that there’s something wrong with black people, they’re saying a racist idea and it doesn’t matter their skin color.
Amir: As educated black men, when you’re in a certain situation, do you sometimes feel as though white people are intimidated by your status?
Reynolds: The thing about anti-racism that to me that sits at the core of who I am is that I should never have to make myself small for everyone else to feel comfortable about my existence. Right. Why? I earned it like everybody else earns it. And I’m going to be proudly who I am in every space that I am, because I belong everywhere that I choose to go. Self-actualization is at the core of an anti-racist world.
Racism Is Death, Anti-Racism Is Life’ Says Author Ibram Kendi
October 24, 202012:03 AM ET
Ibram X. Kendi says he can’t remember the first time he saw the infamous video of George Floyd dying while gasping for breath beneath a white policeman’s knee.
That’s because Kendi — already a respected authority on systemic racism in America, thanks to his books How to Be An Antiracist and Stamped From the Beginning — was almost immediately pulled into a whirlwind of commentary and public contemplation.
Author Ibram X. KendiStephen Voss/Courtesy of Ibram X. Kendi
Ignited by the killing of Black people like Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police, the international reckoning over civil rights and systemic racism led the world to look for authoritative voices who could explain it all. Kendi plunged into a blizzard of appearances and new opportunities, from starting a new Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University to discussing anti-racism with media queen Oprah Winfrey on her Apple TV+ show The Oprah Conversation.
“I feel like I was pulled into this tornado right at that time,” Kendi says. “[But], I’m a big, big basketball fan. And you know, [players] can’t really get tired during the NBA finals. And for those of us who are doing racial justice work, these last few months, it’s like we’ve been in the NBA finals the whole time.”
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As a response, Kendi has created a new companion book, Be Antiracist: A Journal for Awareness, Reflection and Action. Filled with over 150 questions, prompts and quotes from How to Be Antiracist – with room for readers to write down answers and thoughts — the book encourages others to take their own journey toward anti-racism.
As a journalist who writes often on the intersection of race, media and society, I was eager to speak with Kendi about why he created this new book, how he has weathered the deluge of attention, and what he has learned from standing at the center of such a massive civil rights reckoning. (The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
You got to sit down with Oprah; that’s a rare opportunity for a public intellectual. What was that like, to see your message delivered at once to so many people on such a massive platform?
Sitting in that chair talking to Oprah…I think that’s when it all really sort of hit me. [I realized] precisely what was happening all around me, in terms of other people who had decided to turn to my book; folks who were really looking for what they should be in this moment. [They] were aware that racism was a problem, but were really seeking to ask the question, “OK, what now? What should I be doing now? What should our country be doing now? What should I be striving to be now?”
When did race come for you? Describe in detail your earliest memory when you saw the world through a racial lens.
One of many prompts for self-reflection in Ibram Kendi’s new book, Be Antiracist
Which led to Be Antiracist. But you’ve already written a book called How to Be An Antiracist. What’s different about this one?
One of the ways [readers] were able to really relate to How To Be An Antiracist was how deeply vulnerable I was in terms of reflecting on how I, as an individual, was upholding the system of racism. The book really took them on a journey. That led us to think, well, maybe we should write a tool so people can do just that; so people can literally, systematically take their own journey, as I took.
You’re saying the key is sustained effort – like you might put into regular exercise or a healthy diet. But you have to put that effort towards making anti-racist choices every day.
I’m happy you used the term anti-racist choices, because that’s really what this is about. You know, life is about the choices that you make in any given moment. So, when you make a racist choice, you’re being racist. When you choose in a particular moment to be anti-racist and to challenge that racist idea or policy, you’re being anti-racist. But people have to have a clear sense of what a racist and an anti-racist choice is. And that doesn’t come naturally. The book allows people to essentially check themselves when they’ve made a racist choice. And, over time, make more and more anti-racist choices.
In How To Be An Antiracist, you reveal some sensitive things about yourself; your own racial biases, your homophobia. In Be Antiracist, you say you originally didn’t want to reveal that much. What were your worst fears about disclosing so much and did they come to pass?
It took me more than a year to write the first five chapters of How To Be An Antiracist because it was so difficult to bare some of the most shameful moments of my life. It was me stripping my history naked before all people in all of its ugliness. I knew, as somebody raised to believe that only white people can be racist, that there was also a tremendous amount of anti-Blackness within communities of color. And that was going to cause people to deny and strike down at the book because of their own denial, because they don’t want to look in the mirror. I was extremely concerned about that, because I knew everybody was going to come at the book.
So what allowed you to finish the work?
I was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. I was told it was a disease that kills [close to 90%] of people in five years. When you’re facing death, the criticism of people didn’t really matter as much to me anymore….For the better part of my life, I was thinking Black people were the problem, as opposed to that system of racism. And for me to admit that as an individual, I was not challenging this larger system…I’m just going to write that and hopefully, every individual will then look in the mirror, no matter the color of their skin and ask themselves the same question: Have I been challenging the system of racism or white supremacy or have I been upholding it?
What do you think will be the most difficult question for readers of Be Antiracist?
How do you relate to your own identity? For me, it was very, very difficult for me to come to grips with my own anti-Blackness. So I can imagine somebody who is Asian struggling to deal with their anti-Asian feelings. Even for white people…it is going to be difficult for them, I suspect, to really recognize their whiteness. The connection of that whiteness to notions of superiority and even normality. [They] haven’t been able to really reckon with the ways in which [their] whiteness and connection to it have led [them] to be manipulated.
In this terrible summer where you’ve spent so much time talking about racism and anti-racism, have you learned anything new about the nature of racism?
That literally, racism is death. And anti-racism is life.
What do you expect the process of working through Be Antiracist will be like for most readers?
The book really begins with you seeing the outer layer of your own racist ideas. And, as the book goes on, you start getting a deeper sense of your own potential racist or even anti-racist ideas. The more clarity you gain [about yourself], when you come up for air and see our society, the better clarity you get [about everything]. You know, I used to wear glasses before I got Lasik surgery and I would never wipe my lenses. Every now and then, my wife would come around and clean them. And things [would be] so clear…I think, as people see themselves more clearly, they see society more clearly. And ideally, they also see what needs to be changed and get a very clear sense of how to make those changes.
Describe the most racist moment in your life. What should you have done or said differently?
One of many prompts for self-reflection in Ibram Kendi’s new book, Be Antiracist
One issue that I think isn’t talked about enough, is the notion that some people may enjoy the process of oppressing others. How do we deal with the possibility that some people are energized by oppressing other people?
I think it’s important for us to remember that there was a time in this nation’s history when plantations all over the South and plantation owners were looking for those very kinds of people to serve as [slave] overseers. And in many cases, the overseers were precisely those types of folks, because it was their job to regularly engage in terror and brutality. And those who did it – quote – “well” – were those who literally enjoyed watching black people in pain and brutalizing people. Plantation owners felt if they did not have these overseers, then their enslaved people would come and kill them because they feared them that much. And, you know, in many ways, if you’re brutalizing people consistently, that’s a legitimate fear to have. I mention that, because you have some Americans today who are just as happy for the existence of overseers as they were 200 years ago. They believe, if not for the police, these barbaric animals would just go run roughshod all over the country. And when a president or a politician calls for law and order, they feel they can sleep better at night.
This all seems so challenging. How do you find hope that people will embrace anti-racism?
You have to believe you can change in order to bring it about. I can’t engage in something when I think it’s impossible for that thing to actually happen. So I think, philosophically, that gives me hope.
The podcast version of this story was produced by Audrey Nguyen.
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Radcliffe scholar details possible reforms in admissions, faculty representation
BY Colleen WalshHarvard Staff Writer
DATENovember 20, 2020SHARE
ALSO IN THE SERIES
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Ibram X. Kendi came of age in 1980s and ’90s America, when he said many considered Black youth “a menace,” “violent,” “dangerous,” and “super predators.” Around the year 2000, the celebrated antiracist scholar said he began to understand he harbored similar views.
“As a Black youngster, these ideas were directed toward me, and I didn’t realize fully how much I had come to even believe some of these ideas,” said Kendi, director of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research and the 2020/2021 Frances B. Cashin Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. It served as a powerful insight into how broadly and deeply such attitudes had permeated American society.
Kendi delivered his remarks as part of an online conversation about antiracism in higher education co-sponsored by Radcliffe and Harvard College Everywhere, a program that seeks to connect students with activities and resources during the pandemic. During the hourlong discussion, Kendi fielded questions from moderator Radcliffe Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana, three College undergraduates, and some of the more that 2,000 viewers who tuned in.
In her introduction, Brown-Nagin said the events of the past year “have cast longstanding inequities and systemic racism into sharp relief.”
“These developments have prompted introspection in many quarters, and they’ve motivated powerful demands for change. The challenges we face can sometimes seem insurmountable, but we must remain engaged, and we can take heart that our program today is one of many discussions focused on combating racism and achieving equity that are taking place across the country.”
Kendi, whose books include “How to Be an Antiracist” and the National Book Award-winning “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” said his own story, and his career, has been focused on “trying to overcome this early conditioning that the problem is Black people and trying to unlearn those ideas that were showered onto me” and to help others do the same. With his comments, Kendi pushed for dismantling the racist policies and ideas that fuel systemic racism.“There is no destination, it’s a journey of really consistently ensuring that we’re supporting antiracist policies and policy-makers and that we’re articulating antiracist ideas, and we’re constantly unlearning this conditioning.”— Ibram X. Kendi
Brown-Nagin wondered how to apply Kendi’s antiracist framework to the work of creating diverse and inclusive college campuses. The author took aim at the college admissions process, noting that standardized tests advantage those who can afford expensive test prep courses. Black students also often can’t access advanced placement courses at their high schools, Kendi said, or are simply steered away from them by guidance counselors. “So how is that admissions factor race-neutral when Black students can’t even necessarily compete?”
One radical solution, Kendi said, would be to fundamentally rethink the concept of intelligence and academic potential so that applicants would be judged not by test scores but their desire to learn. “I would rather have in my class students who have a tremendous desire to know, rather than the kids who think they know it all,” said Kendi, adding that such a metric would cut across ethnicity, class, race, gender, and sexual orientation.
Efforts to achieve faculty diversity, another important step toward fostering antiracism on college campuses, said Kendi, should go well beyond compiling demographic data on professors. Institutions of higher education should be keeping close track of who is applying for positions and then who is getting interviews, campus visits, job offers, promotions, and tenure. And who is not. “All of that data that allows the university to have a baseline and then start instituting policies and practices, particularly at the points where the disparities are the worst,” said Kendi. Such work, he added, is never-ending.
In response to a student question about reparations, Kendi said not only does the U.S. government need to examine its historic role and seek to repair and eliminate the racial wealth gap it helped perpetuate through its support of slavery, so too do institutions like Harvard. “Because either you’re going to assume that you possibly did contribute, and then you’re going to do a serious study, and then you’re going to repair, or you’re going to assume somehow that you’re not racist, you never contributed, which is no different than a president who is contributed to racism and then turns around and says he’s the least racist person in the room.”
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Turning from education to equality more broadly, Kendi said his work also examines the nature of human complexity and the idea that “people hold both racist and antiracist ideas and obviously support both racist and antiracist policies.” The key to remember, he said, is that “no one becomes an antiracist. It is only something we can strive to be … there is no destination, it’s a journey of really consistently ensuring that we’re supporting antiracist policies and policy-makers and that we’re articulating antiracist ideas, and we’re constantly unlearning this conditioning.”
Kendi held up the Black Lives Matter movement as an example of that ongoing work. As the number of African Americans being unjustly killed by police rose, some in the nation were “blaming those Black people for dying” while prosecutors were refusing to bring charges, said Kendi. In response the women who founded the movement embraced the antiracist value that black lives do matter. Those three words, he said, became “the defining three words of our time.”
Black Lives Matter “has been everything for me,” said Kendi. “I know it’s been everything for many people.”