March 19, 2020

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi

‘I’m absolutely jealous of young black boys today.’
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi shares about what a book like Stamped would have meant to him as a teenager, what he feels Jason Reynolds added to his work and his advice for young change-makers today.
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When Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s landmark work of history, Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, Kendi became the youngest writer to ever receive that award. Now Kendi has partnered with award-winning children’s and YA writer Jason Reynolds on Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, a book that will introduce young people to the ideas in Kendi’s work.

BookPage spoke with Dr. Kendi about what a book like Stamped would have meant to him as a teenager, what he feels Reynolds added to his work and his advice for young change-makers today.

Your co-author, Jason Reynolds, has probably read your book Stamped From the Beginning quite a few times. Had you read any of his books before you embarked on this project together? If so, which ones were your favorites and why?
I’m absolutely jealous of young black boys today and of young people in general. Completely jealous. I was not much of a reader in middle school and high school. I wish I could jump back into time with all of Jason’s books. It is hard for me to choose a favorite. Ghost? Possibly because it’s the first Jason Reynolds book I read; possibly because of how he weaved together difference and made those four kids strikingly different and strikingly the same. Perhaps the whole Track series? Perhaps All American Boys because of how it resonates and captures our political moment? It is hard to say.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Jason Reynolds shares what the process of creating Stamped was like for him.

How important and impactful would a book like Stamped have been to you if you had encountered it as a teenager?
Utterly life-changing. I spent 20 agonizing years figuring out what we drop in Stamped. To have learned this as a teenager would have saved me from so much, would have protected me from so much, would have clarified so much for me.

As you read Stamped, was there anything that Jason brought to the proverbial table that surprised you? Anything that made you see your own past work in a new way?
Stamped From the Beginning is about 500 dense though accessible pages. The original manuscript was two or three times the number of pages. I had no idea how to capture this complete and comprehensive story in so few pages, in so few words.

But he did it, shocking me. And the book tracks this ongoing debate between two kinds of racists—segregationist and assimilationist—as well as antiracists. Jason brilliantly remixes these people as haters, likers and lovers.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Stamped.

Young people today have a lot to feel discouraged about and even more to feel disempowered by. What would you say to a young person who feels like the seismic shifts they hope for are too far out of reach and that their own individual actions—particularly while they’re young—will never lead to real impact?
I would tell young people that the shifts are out of reach if they are reaching alone. But the shifts are not out of reach if they are joining with other young people, with other older people to reach collectively at power and policy change. There are organizations and institutions and campaigns working on those seismic shifts, and young people can figure ways to join or support these collectives of people. 

What advice would you give to teens and adults seeking to open up spaces for communication across generations about racism and antiracism?
The lines of communication should be opened by definitions of racism and antiracism. We can be speaking the same language and using the same words, but if we have different definitions, then it is like we are speaking a different language with different words. We need common definitions. And we have to develop the antiracist capacity to admit when we are being racist, to challenge our own racism as we challenge racism in society.

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