Writing History's Wrongs:
Conversation with Ibram X. Kendi
By Charles Bane, Jr.
Ibram X. Kendi is an assistant professor of African American History at the University of Florida. His second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, was released by Nation Books. Described as "engrossing and relentless," Stamped was recently featured in The Washington Post’s summer reading list. Kirkus billed Stamped as “magisterial” in its starred review. Kendi also authored the award-winning book, The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972. He has received research fellowships, grants, and visiting appointments from a variety of universities, foundations, professional associations, and libraries, including the American Historical Association, Library of Congress, National Academy of Education, Spencer Foundation, Lyndon B. Johnson Library & Museum, Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis, Brown University, Princeton University, Duke University, University of Chicago, and UCLA. Before entering academia, he worked as a journalist. A frequent public speaker and writer of op-eds, Kendi lives in Gainesville, Florida.
Boston Accent: You've won the 2016 National Book Award For Nonfiction for Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History Of Racist Ideas In America. Can you describe your feelings about the recognition and what it represents?
Ibram X. Kendi: I was pleasantly surprised. I never even dreamed of winning the National Book Award. But when I did I was elated, not only for myself but for all the personal and intellectual communities I come from, like Black Studies and History and the University of Florida and Black Millennials, as well as my alma maters, Florida A&M University and Temple University. To me, it represents the serious journey many Americans are on to understand this country's racist past in order to forge an antiracist future, a future that is possible despite the recent election.
BA: The book has a huge narrative drive. Were you determined to write a non-academic work?
Kendi: Well, I would not say that the book is a non-academic work. It is possible to write a seriously researched and carefully thought out academic work that is accessible; that everyone can read. And that is precisely what I set out to do. I decided to write a scholarly history that could be devoured by as many people as possible because racist ideas and their history have affected all of us. It was my job as an academic and writer to convey the complexities in a manner all of us can understand. Historians have started to write more histories on the masses of Americans: what we call social history. But historians need to start writing more histories for the masses of Americans.
BA: What does it say about racism that it was so carefully honed by American intellectuals?
Kendi: There is a reason that racist ideas have been the common sense of generations of Americans. There is a reason that even in our time so many Americans are still consuming racist ideas that blame Black people instead of discrimination for the nation's racial problems, for racial inequities and disparities. And that reason is that these racist ideas were carefully honed by some of the finest American minds. So many brilliant Americans have crafted racist ideas that were believable, that could rationalize the unequal status quo of their eras. And so many consumers of racist ideas have been manipulated into thinking something is wrong with Black people by some of the greatest American intellectuals. This shows that intellectuals can be a force for opening or closing the door of human reality.
BA: There have been over 400 reported incidents of hate crimes since the Presidential election. Is America establishing a new racist template?
Kendi: Yes, and no. In Stamped from the Beginning, I chronicle racial progress and the simultaneous progression of racism. The hate crimes that followed Donald Trump's election, just like the hate crimes that followed Barack Obama's election and reelection, are indicators of the progression of racism and bigotry in America.
BA: Can you share some thoughts about your nearly-completed Black Apple: A Narrative History Of Malcolm X And Black Power In New York, 1954- 1974?
Kendi: Not yet.
BA: What can readers expect from your planned sequel to Stamped from the Beginning?
Kendi: Stamped from the Beginning central shows our common conception that ignorance and hate is causing people to express racist ideas, and it is these racist people who create racist policies is largely ahistorical. My research into the motives behind the production of racist ideas actually shows the opposite: racist policies leading racist ideas. I narrate how racist ideas came out of the need to justify and defend racist policies, especially their products: racial disparities. So, I often suggest that if Americans truly want to rid the nation of racist ideas, then they should focus on ridding the nation of racist policies. And so, I am thinking about narrating an American history of racist policies from their origins to the present.
Charles Bane, Jr. is an American poet and author, and the Nonfiction Editor of Boston Accent Lit. Read more of his work here.