Authors Jason Reynolds, left, and Ibram X. Kendi spoke to students at a high school in Washington D.C. about their new book, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You.
NPR, Elissa Nadworny
After his award-winning book came out in 2016, Ibram X. Kendi heard from people everywhere, telling him it opened their eyes to a new way of looking athistory.
They were coming up to me and saying, It feels too late now. I wish I had read this in middle school, hesays.
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, follows five historical figures like the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and the activist Angela Davis and offers readers unwashed versions of who they were, and the role that racist ideas played in theirlives.
Kendi, an author and historian at American University, says history books in schools today too often dont offer students a deep enough perspective or account of who people were and what theydid.
Which led him to take up the challenge of those people who wished theyd learned these lessons in middle school: Give young people access to this history by collaborating with a writer who could take his facts (the history) and write it for a youngeraudience.
In his mind there was only one person to do it: the childrens book author, Jason Reynolds. When he let Reynolds in on this plan, he got a surprising answer:No.
History is not my thing. Im a fiction writer! Reynolds explains. But Kendi persisted, and eventually Reynolds caved. I realized [Kendi] believed in me more than I believed in myself, hesays.
Their new book is called Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, and right from its first few pages the authors promise that, this is not a history book. Instead, they say, its a book that mixes past with present in a way that young adults can relateto.
History books are written with the idea of a student in mind, but not the idea of an actual young person themselves, says Reynolds. So this book sets out to do just that, and Reynolds says its filled with the things that I needed someone to say to me when I was 15 yearsold.
In a high school in Washington D.C., NPR met with the two authors and a group of high school students who had read the book. Our conversation has been edited for length andclarity.
Jason, why were you hesitant to say yes to Kendisrequest?
Reynolds: I wasnt sort of a top notch scholar, that I wasnt a part of sort of my story, my journey. And so if a scholar comes to you and asks you to sort of make an adaptation or translation of work that theyve poured themselves into, and you dont necessarily see yourself in the same playing field, it can be a littleintimidating.
Once you got to yes, then what? How do you write a remix of something that alreadyexists?
Reynolds: History books are written with the idea of a student in mind, but not the idea of an actual young person, just the person themselves. School is for a few hours a day. But, like, there arent history books written for that kid when school is over, when the bell has rung. And so thats sort of what Im thinking about this particular book: Can I make this something cool? Because theres currency in cool. There always has been, there always will be. It matters to them. It mattered to me. It still matters to me, right? If it aint cool Im probably not gonna rock with it. This is how I am. Im still that person. So I wanted to try to figure out how to make this really complex thing that has all this information that he gave the world, how do I take it and make it feel like a fresh pair ofJordans.
Before you read this book, what did you know about the history of racist ideas orracism?
Emani James, 10th grade: I go back to like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and Malcolm X, we dont ever learn about what happened before then. Who knew about the first person who was ever racist? Like, I didnt learn about that. And I wouldnt even think it was in the1400s!
With history, people like to cut off certain parts that they dont want to tell us. Like theyre not gonna tell us the deep, deep stuff. You know, like they just gonna tell us the deepstuff.
Do you feel like its because youreyoung?
James: I mean it partly is because were young. But us being young, we still have a greatmind.
So, Ibram, did you encounter folks who felt like students were too young to learn thishistory?
Kendi: There were times in which people would ask, are young people ready for this history? And it was a shocking question because its so foreign to me that anyone could not recognize how we have so many young, brilliant minds who even, you know, in seventh grade, let alone 10th grade, can understand this history. Not only understand it, but apply it to their own lives. They start to get more clarity about their own lives, they are able to understand their country. And so for me, this getting deep, deep, deep, that really actually protects our young people. So we think were protecting them by not getting deep. Were actually protecting them by getting deep, by allowing them to really understand this nationshistory.
In the book you have three categories that you put people and ideas in. What are those three categories and why use thatapproach?
Kendi: One of the things were trying to do with this book is provide people with the vocabulary of how to speak about and understand racism. Know what intimately racism is and how to identify it with language. What were trying to do is give people the ability to name what they see, what they experience, what they should beresisting.
So there are the segregationists, which Jason calls thehaters.
Reynolds: The haters. Segregationists are the haters. Everybody knows what a hater is. All right. Haters. Especially when I was in school. And I know its no different for yall. Haters are the people who hate you just cause you aint likethem.
Kendi: And then theres the assimilationist. Who are thelikers.
Reynolds: Likers. Your fake friends. I mean, everybody, got em, everybody knows them too. Everybody knows the phonies. And theyre basically the ones who like you, but they like you because you are like them. You know, that is contingent upon you being likethem.
Kendi: And then theres the anti-racists, who are thelovers.
Reynolds: And the lovers. Those are your day ones, as we say. Our ride or dies. The ones who love us for being like us. They love us for who we are, not for who they are, and not for who we are to them, but for who we are tous.
In the book, you apply these definitions to the ideas people have and often, the same people write about or speak about a combination of the three, meaning people can evolve andchange.
Kendi: If people say an assimilationist idea or anti-racist idea or segregationist idea, then you apply it, even if its somebody whos your hero. I also think we should give people the ability to change. So W.E.B. Du Bois was born in 1868 and he died literally the night before the March on Washington in 1963. Thats nine decades. What he was saying, particularly in the 1890s, was more along the lines of assimilationist ideas. But by the time he was in the 1930s and 1940s, he had transformed and was largely articulating anti-racist ideas. This is what we hope for people. We want people to change and we have to give people that ability to change, but also recognize who they were at an earliertime.
Reynolds: I did have friends be like, yo, so I dont know, man. What you said about Dr. King kind of hurt! And Im like, first of all, it wasnt me, blame it on Dr. Kendi. Those are my words, but thats all hisinformation.
I do think its important that we are honest about even our heroes. It doesnt make them any less heroes, nor does it make their contributions any less powerful. But it does help us sort of get into the nuances of it all. And it does also show how fluid some of that stuff was, and has been, and is, for a lot of us. But that we should always be aiming towardanti-racism.
James: Who is your target market for this? Is it really foreverybody?
Reynolds: I never write void of the scope in which Ive come. I was a young black person. It is natural for me to speak to young black people. The book is for everybody, but Id be lying if I said that I wasnt sort of imagining [Emanis] face. Theres certain things that I do want to say to black kids, right? Like that part in Chapter 6 when I write, Africans arent savages. Right. Thats for us. Were not savages. That was specifically foryou.
Amir Perkins, 11th grade: I was surprised there were black people who had racistideas.
Kendi: Right, youre talking about Leo Africanus. Just like you have black people today who tell white people what they want to hear in order to improve their standing among white people, black people were doing that back in the 1500s! For me, if anyone is saying that theres something wrong with black people, theyre saying a racist idea and it doesnt matter their skincolor.
Amir: As educated black men, when youre in a certain situation, do you sometimes feel as though white people are intimidated by yourstatus?
Reynolds: The thing about anti-racism that to me that sits at the core of who I am is that I should never have to make myself small for everyone else to feel comfortable about my existence. Right. Why? I earned it like everybody else earns it. And Im going to be proudly who I am in every space that I am, because I belong everywhere that I choose to go. Self-actualization is at the core of an anti-racist world.
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