Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Lauren Routt, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Ibram X. Kendi about his book Stamped from the Beginning (Nation Books), which is among the final five selections in the category of Nonfiction for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Lauren Routt: The title, Stamped from the Beginning, I read, comes from Jefferson Davis’ speech on April 20th, 1860 in which he states the “inequality of the white and Black races was stamped from the beginning.” In what way or ways do you feel the symbol of the “stamp” encompasses the essence of your book?
Ibram Kendi: A number of different ways. First and foremost two kinds of racist ideas have been arguing about the stamp and whether the stamp of Blackness is permanent. One group has stated that this ugly stamp is permanent. While another group has stated that we can erase the stamp of Blackness and Black people can become white and I sort of show in the text the debate between those two ideas. And so not only, I think, does the title come from this very famous quote from Jefferson Davis I think it sort of serves as like an antidote or even a metaphor for the debate between racist ideas throughout the book.
LR: The structure of the book is what I found to be most fascinating. The first chapter we’re thrust into is entitled “Human Hierarchy,” which delves into the origins of, as you state “ethnic...religious and color prejudice of the ancient world.” Then we move to “Origins of Racist Ideas” in which we read of two figures, Richard Mather and John Cotton, who held the belief that “African Slavery was natural and normal and holy.” Then the last chapter of the first section we’re given a focus on Samuel Sewall who stated that “Originally and Naturally there is no such thing as slavery.” Why did you choose to structure it in this way?
IK: I wanted to write a chronological narrative, a history of racist ideas because it didn’t exist. There really isn’t a book that really shares the story of the origin and development of racist ideas over time and so I wanted to sort of do that. Secondly, I wanted to engage readers through having major characters and so I thought sort of showing this larger debate between racist and anti-racist ideas through the lines and ideas of major characters like Richard Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Garrison, W.E. DuBois and Angela Davis I thought would be quite engaging for readers.
LR: From the beginning we see a lot of historical figures such as, W.E. DuBois and Angela Davis as you mentioned and several others. I particularly like the section when you write about W.E. DuBois and his statement that his “followers are the lowest type of Negroes from the West Indies.” So we get this historical figure who has been regarded as such an important figure for Civil Rights but then we get this complication. How does placing this in the book help form the essence and the argument?
IK: First and foremost I wanted to write the history of racist ideas and I wanted to show the ways in which we’ve had people over the course of American history who have held both racist and anti-racist ideas at the same time and I wanted to show that in some of these characters. I thought DuBois in particular was very pivotal in showing how somebody can hold both types of ideas and I actually make the case that his double consciousness, his theory of double consciousness, was actually a double consciousness of assimilationist and anti-racist ideas. I hope that I was able to show the complexity of the human mind, how we can hold sort of conflicting ideas about race just like we can hold conflicting ideas about anything.
LR: There are so many other fascinating pieces of your work but something specifically that jumped out to me was the epilogue. You write “When will the day arrive when Black Lives will matter to Americans?” What do you think the role of literature is in potentially having this day come?
IK: I should say the role that literature has played in making it such that they have not come thus far, has been convincing Americans that the inequities in our society are caused by Black inferiorities as opposed to racist policies and discriminatory policies which are the real racial problem. Generations upon generations of literature has sort of manipulated Americans into believing that there is something wrong with Black people as opposed to the real issue. What I’m hoping through this book and through my work more broadly is that Americans will stop being fooled by racist ideas which will then allow them to see that the real issues we need to be focused on are racist policies and then in recognizing that will of course try to challenge them and undermine them. Then when we are able to eliminate racist policies in our society we’ll then be able to create equal opportunity and in creating equal opportunity we will be able to create an anti-racist America.
LR: During your acceptance speech for the National Book Award you stated that in the years you spent researching for “Stamped from the Beginning”, you didn't lose faith and that for every racist idea there is an anti-racist idea. For those who often lose faith or for those who seem to believe that there can be no relief, what would you say to them?
IK: Cynicism, that type of cynicism, is like the kryptonite of change. Once you stop believing that change is possible then how are you going to motivate yourself to want to bring about change especially when it’s easier to just lay back on the status quo? I think people who are serious about bringing about change whether it’s racial change or any type of change must fundamentally and philosophically believe that change is possible, they must be optimistic. I think that every major activist in human history was an optimist, was somebody who believed that the type of world that they were trying to create was possible.
LR: In researching, were there ever moments while you were writing this book where you thought, “I don’t know how much longer I can go on?” or any times when you were doubting the work?
IK: I think there probably were times and you know it’s a very ambitious text. I was doubting whether I could accomplish it. I was of course doubting whether people would be interested in it and so of course there were doubts. I think people should be willing to be consciously aware of their doubts but they should not allow doubts or discomfort to basically change decisions. In other words, you’ve made a decision to write a book or to engage in a campaign of activism nothing should cause you to stop that until you’ve actually achieved what you’re trying to do. Because you should recognize and I try recognize that it’s a very difficult process and so it shouldn’t be surprising when those struggles and difficulties arise.
LR: Is there anything else that you wanted to share or to anyone who picks up your book, what is one takeaway that you would like them to have?
IK: I studied nearly 600 years of racist ideas that suggested that there was something wrong and inferior about Black people and each and everyone of these theories have never proven themselves to be true. They’re all based on misleading statistics, cultural subjectivities or outright lies. For people, in reading the book, they don’t only read a history of racist ideas. They read precisely how all of these ideas simply are not true and that in fact the racial groups are equal despite their differences whether bodily or cultural. We can still recognize difference is equal.
Ibram X. Kendi is an assistant professor of African American history at the University of Florida. He 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. His writings appeared in The Virginian-Pilot, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Philadelphia Weekly, and the Orlando Sentinel, among other publications. As a professor, he has contributed pieces to a number of publications, including Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Root.com.
Lauren Routt is a an MFA candidate in poetry at The New School. She hails from the sunny palm tress of Miami and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. Join her on her blog at medium.com/@alexandrawrites and Instagram @intrepidwords.