In his office on the second floor of Keene-Flint Hall in the heart of the University of Florida’s campus, Ibram X. Kendi jokes that he has recently become important. His self-effacing laugh makes it clear that he has accepted his recent accolades with grace, but it is true that the professor of African-American history’s most recent book has catapulted him to new levels of notoriety in academia and beyond. The book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, won the 2016 National Book Award for nonfiction, became a New York Times bestseller, and was called the most ambitious book of 2016 by the Washington Post. At 34 years old, Kendi became the youngest recipient of a National Book Award for Nonfiction.
Kendi came to UF in 2015 after earning a Ph.D. from Temple University and teaching in the State University of New York system. His scholarly emphasis is on racist and anti-racist ideas and movements. Kendi has published 14 essays in books and academic journals and a number of op-eds in national publications including the New York Times, Salon, The Huffington Post and The Chronicle of Higher Education. His first book, The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972, was published in 2012.
We spoke with Kendi about his latest book, winning a National Book Award and race relations in the U.S.
Can you tell me about your background and how it shaped your chosen field of study?
I grew up in New York City – in Queens – and my parents were in the church at the time. My father was a minister. Both of my parents met in what was known as the black theology movement, which was a movement in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that was geared toward making the Christian church more relevant to black people in terms of theology; challenging notions of God or even Jesus as white, and imagining that these religious figures were black. They were very concerned with taking the resources and message of the church actually into the community and doing community-oriented projects. So they were very involved in the church but also simultaneously very involved in the community. They wanted to advance the black community. So coming up in that environment with parents who were very invested in social or racial justice issues was of course quite important for my own development.
What was it like growing up in Queens in the ‘80s and ‘90s?
Jamaica, Queens, is the black part of Queens – Southside Queens – and I didn’t really know how quote “rough” it was until I left and started reading from other people who were describing it as rough. And what I’m ultimately trying to say is, growing up there, occasionally you’d see violence or hear about something like that, but it wasn’t something in your literal everyday experience. My everyday experience was pretty typical of kids in other neighborhoods, playing outside and enjoying friends. But of course there is the very popular, what I would consider to be racist idea, that if a neighborhood is black then it’s probably dangerous.
“The book changed me in a lot of ways…so I knew it had the capacity to change other people”
Besides your background growing up, what really set you on your scholarly path?
So when I was growing up I loved basketball, but when I realized I wouldn’t be able to make it to the NBA [laughs], I started thinking that maybe I could become a journalist. So I pursued journalism initially at Florida A&M. As the years went on there I also picked up African-American Studies because I became more and more interested in racial justice work. I ended up graduating and going to Temple to get my masters in African-American Studies because I was thinking that I wanted to cover the black community or racial issues for a publication.
But when I got to Temple, I sort of got a better sense of the life and the types of things that a professor can do – (my thinking) changed. I think that happens more as a graduate student than an undergraduate because you’re really able to get more of a sense of professorial life. And specifically because I had been alienated somewhat from journalism because being an intern or a young reporter, editors are very hands-on in terms of, “you have to do this and you have to do that.” So at the same time, I saw as a professor you pretty much choose what it is that you want to write, you choose the courses that you teach. So there was a lot of freedom that was really attractive.
Tell me about your book that was published last year.
It’s Stamped from the Beginning. It’s a narrative history of racist ideas in America, and it really chronicles the entire history of anti-black racist ideas, from their origins in 15th century Portugal to the present. And most of the bulk of the narrative deals with colonial America and the United States. The book shows a three-way debate between racial ideas – two kinds of racist ideas constantly battling anti-racist ideas.
The two types of racist ideas are segregationist and assimilationist. Segregationist ideas are the notions that black people are inferior by nature and therefore permanently inferior. Assimilationist ideas suggest that black people are inferior by nurture and are therefore temporarily inferior, and therefore can be civilized and developed. The anti-racist ideas state that the racial groups are equal, that black groups are equal and that black people are not inferior by nature or nurture. I chronicle how these three ideas constantly challenge and debate each other.
I ended up finding that our typical line of thinking about the origins of racism are not true. I found that our common idea that ignorance and hate is actually what’s behind racist ideas and it’s these people who have these racist ideas who are the people who institute racist policies – that that’s actually quite ahistorical. When we actually study the conditions that actually led to the development of racist ideas, it was typically the need to normalize existing racial inequities, and those existing racial inequities of course came out of existing discriminatory policies. Therefore, the racist ideas ended up defending the racist policies, and the circulation of those ideas is actually what led to ignorance and hate. So it was actually racist policies leading to racist ideas, which led to ignorance and hate.
I showed this by putting each of these producers of racist ideas within their own historical context and distinguishing them from consumers of racist ideas.
So ignorance and hate is used as a way to justify self-serving policies.
I found that, typically, what was behind racist policies and therefore racist ideas was economic, political, or even cultural self-interest. I think most people can understand that during slavery you had people who were enslaving other people because they wanted to make money. And then they wanted to be able to continue enslaving them so they could continue to make money. And so in order to do so they had to justify that inequality between white freedom and black slavery by saying black people are fit or suited for enslavement and then they circulated those ideas and it caused Americans to consume them and believe them. Then that led to them being ignorant about the fact that black people are human and therefore should be free and led some of them to hate these black people, which then allowed for slavery to continue.
It’s really fascinating. Stamped from the Beginning won the 2016 National Book Award for nonfiction. Did you have any idea when you were writing it that it would gain such notoriety?
I did not. I thought and hoped I had written a good and effective book. And people who had read it really seemed to enjoy it. And the book changed me in a lot of ways really, in the way I thought about race in America. And so I knew it had the capacity to change other people. There are so many good books and there were so many great books that were published last year in nonfiction, and it’s hard to imagine that I was going to think this was going to happen.
So yeah, I didn’t really think about it until I got on the long list of finalists.
What does winning a National Book Award entail?
Basically the way they do it is they have a long list of 10 books and then they have a final list of five books. And this is in four different categories: nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and young people’s literature. And then all of the finalists are brought to an awards ceremony that was held on Wall Street at this huge gala. They consider it like the Academy Awards of books – there was a red carpet and a bunch of media there. Larry Wilmore was the emcee of the evening and it was later televised on Book TV. The winners received a $10,000 award for winning, then you get a National Book Award sticker (on the book cover).
You become a part of that very exclusive group of people who have won a National Book Award. For me, it changed a lot of things. Suddenly I became important [laughs], but I still don’t think I’m that important.
So what’s next? Is there another book planned?
Yeah, I’m actually working on 3 books. So I’m working on a book that I’ve been working on for quite some time on black power in New York. It’s going to be sort of a general survey history of the black power movement as it occurred in New York City, and I’m going to use Malcom X and his life and afterlife as a pivot for the larger narrative.
I’m also working on two follow-up books for Stamped. One is going to be a primer on anti-racist ideas and action, or anti-racism more broadly. It’s loosely titled How to be an Anti-Racist. And then another more heavily researched, deeply scholarly narrative history of racist policies, so it will be similar to Stamped.
What are your thoughts about the current climate of race relations in the U.S.?
In Stamped from the Beginning I actually chronicle a dual history – a history of steady racial progress and a simultaneous progression of racism. I think we’ve largely been taught a singular history of one historical force that’s moving forward and moving backwards. These are the times in which people think of it as moving backwards, while previous to that we were imagining that it was moving forward. In fact, what’s happening is that there are actually two different historical forces that have constantly been at war over the soul of America as it relates to race. And they’ve been progressing, so policies and the ideas that people have deployed to discriminate or demean people – in the case of who I research, black people – have constantly gotten more and more sophisticated over the course of American history. Over the same time you’ve had racial justice activists who’ve achieved the ability to break down barriers and bring about progress. But what’s happened is when these anti-racist activists have been able to break down barriers – which is racial progress – you’ve had people who’ve installed new and even more sophisticated barriers, which is the progression of racism.
What about the climate at UF and perceptions of race relations?
Let me say in general, I write about in Stamped that racist ideas are largely the common sense of Americans, and so it’s hard to find a community that is not infested with racist ideas about black people. So you have a state (Florida) where there are many different ideologies, and I think the conflict of those ideologies are going to surface at the flagship university of that state, and so it’s not surprising that it is.
However I do think it’s one thing for those ideologies to come into conflict in classrooms discussions or even between students in their dorm rooms. It’s yet another thing when students of color feel like they’re being attacked because of interactions in a dorm room or the defacing of buildings, and so I think that clearly is problematic, what’s happening here, but at the same time, that is happening other places too. There are certain people who instead of telling black people or immigrants or Muslims to their face what they think about them, they’re going to do it in this sort of passive way, behind their back by scrawling something. I think if there’s ever a place where we can have those conversations it should be a campus.
What are UF’s responsibilities to issues like this?
I actually like to debate and so I think students and non-students who think that there should be a border wall or students and non-students that think black people are dangerous or students and non-students who think Islam is a religion of terror should be willing and able to say those things publicly and simultaneously should be open to critique and open to admitting that those ideas are bigoted or racist. People should own their ideas and own the labels and the critique that come with that. But most of all people should be open-minded and willing to consider that their ideas could be wrong and racist. My book and my work is only for open-minded people.