I’m told that names with X or Z in them stand out and are easier to remember, but having an interesting name isn’t what put Ibram X. Kendi on Time magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People of 2020. Rather, Kendi’s intentional name change (according to Wikipedia, his middle name Xolani is a Xhosa and Zulu word for "peace" and his last name, "Kendi" means "the loved one" in the language of the Meru people of Kenya) is a small testament to the focus with which he has lived his life, dedicated to the research of racist ideas and their influence on American society.
As I described this ambitious structure to my husband and confessed that I was having trouble holding all of the information in my head so that I could make sense of it, he suggested that, as far as reading history goes, it can be particularly hard to find a narrative through-line in an intellectual history like this one. Kendi tells a story for sure, but, as I write about elsewhere this month, it is easier for a reader like me to digest the information when the story centers around one person, like in The Lemon Tree. Kendi is onto something when he tries to encapsulate chunks of time in the lives of each of those influential figures, but if you pick up this one, know you’re in for some hard work.
As I compiled my reading from this month, I realized that my selections each raised issues of American myths, myths like these that Kendi addresses in his book:
-That hate and ignorance led to racism and discrimination
-That racism is in the past
-That Americans have a troubled history but have been generally engaged in racial progress
-That anti-racism is intuitive and easy
In his preface to the paperback edition, Kendi explains that in his research, he “did not see a singular historical force taking steps forward and backward on race. [He] saw two distinct historical forces. [He] saw a dual and dueling history of racial progress and the simultaneous progression of racism. [He] saw the antiracist force of equality and the racist force of inequality marching forward, progressing in rhetoric, in tactics, in politics.” (x)
He goes on to explain:
“If Barack Obama came to embody America’s history of racial progress, then Donald Trump should come to embody America’s history of racist progress. And racist progress has consistently followed racial progress.
“It is this dueling duality that I present in Stamped from the Beginning, taking away the shock of Trump’s election, and showing its striking consistency within America’s history. Trump was shocking for me, but then again not shocking at all. This history prepared me for Trump, and all the other Trumps that could rise one day on the timeworn back of bigotry.” (xi)
This idea of a “dual and dueling history” really resonated with me, especially after reading Her Gates Will Never Be Shut by Bradley Jersak last month. In detailing biblical and historical perspectives on Hell, Jersak challenges the reader to consider the teachings of the pre-Nicene church (Christianity before 325 A.D.) as a path to thinking beyond the possibilities that the world and heaven are either consecutive ages or two separate spaces in different dimensions but rather “are two coexistent realities constantly competing for our allegiance.” (163)
The Bible says that the more we seek God, the more the devil will try to turn us from him. Kendi’s idea of racist progress following racial progress parallels this.
Kendi posits that “hate and ignorance have not driven the history of racist ideas in America. Racist policies have driven the history of racist ideas in America… Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify racist policies of their era, in order to redirect the blame from their era’s racial disparities away from those policies and onto Black people.” (9)
Reading this did not make me proud to be an American. Beyond that though, it highlighted the incredibly disappointing fallibility of mankind. To begin with, I just don’t understand how generations of people could dedicate themselves to the study of whether groups of people can be categorized into a hierarchy. Just because Aristotle embraced it doesn’t mean we should follow suit. Please read the first few chapters of Kendi’s book and feel the fury. Or better yet, listen to the audiobook and pair the placid cadence of the reader’s voice with the audacious history depicted in his words. (And if you can listen to this book while on a cross country road trip where your children compete for your attention as they demand movies, music and snacks, you’ll experience the madness in a more palpable way.)
Do you ever picture yourself in history? Do you ever imagine how you would have acted during that time? In antebellum American, women were using their voices through narrative, as Jessie Morgan-Owens writes in her incredibly researched book Girl in Black and White. Could I have written something like Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Okay, perhaps not, but if I had been living in Little Rock, Arkansas, would I have tried to help the new Black students feel welcome at Central High School? Images from Melba Pattillo Beals’ memoir Warriors Don’t Cry remain seared in my mind from when I read it as a teenager, and yet, Kendi points out that I missed the bigger picture -- why Beals had to seek alternative education in the first place.
This is an example of where I struggled with Kendi’s message to tease apart what actions were segregationist, assimilationist or anti-racist. According to my reading of his words, to encourage Beals and her classmates to attend Central High School would have been an assimilationist act. How would that help the kids at Horace Mann High School (from where Beals transferred) get a better education? He suggests that perhaps the anti-racist action would have been to pour funds and resources into that school, instead of implementing bussing of kids to better schools in a different part of town. Would I have been so focused on welcoming Melba and others that I would have missed the opportunity to build up the communities that needed it? What about the Blacks that didn’t want to go to white schools?
Over the 511 pages of the paperback edition, Kendi weaves the complicated story of racist ideas from multiple perspectives. There is no one Black perspective, just as there is no one white perspective. As I read more this book, I began to understand the need for places like Kendi’s Center for Antiracist Research, work he first began at American University but now continues at Boston University as of July 2020.
I would like to read Kendi’s book How to be an Anti-Racist so that I can continue to learn about how to practice anti-racism, something I’m finding might not come as intuitively as I first thought. And yet, according to Kendi, it all comes down to this straightforward belief:
“That is what it truly means to think as an antiracist: to think there is nothing wrong with Black people, to think that racial groups are equal.” (11)
That is the whole foundation. That is the place to start.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.