A History Book That Isn't: Finding A Way To Teach Racism To A New Generation
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 at history.
"They were coming up to me and saying, 'It feels too late now. I wish I had read this in middle school,' " he says.
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 their lives.
Kendi, an author and historian at American University, says history books in schools today too often don't offer students a deep enough perspective or account of who people were and what they did.
Which led him to take up the challenge of those people who wished they'd 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 younger audience.
In his mind there was only one person to do it: the children's book author, Jason Reynolds. When he let Reynolds in on this plan, he got a surprising answer: No.
"History is not my thing. I'm a fiction writer!" Reynolds explains. But Kendi persisted, and eventually Reynolds caved. "I realized [Kendi] believed in me more than I believed in myself," he says.
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, it's a book that mixes past with present — in a way that young adults can relate to.
"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 it's filled with "the things that I needed someone to say to me when I was 15 years old."
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 and clarity.
Jason, why were you hesitant to say yes to Kendi's request?
Reynolds: I wasn't sort of a top notch scholar, that I wasn't 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 they've poured themselves into, and you don't necessarily see yourself in the same playing field, it can be a little intimidating.
Once you got to yes, then what? How do you write a remix of something that already exists?
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 aren't history books written for that kid when school is over, when the bell has rung. And so that's sort of what I'm thinking about this particular book: 'Can I make this something cool?' Because there's 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 ain't cool I'm probably not gonna rock with it. This is how I am. I'm 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 of Jordans.
Before you read this book, what did you know about the history of racist ideas or racism?
Emani James, 10th grade: I go back to like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and Malcolm X, we don't ever learn about what happened before then. Who knew about the first person who was ever racist? Like, I didn't learn about that. And I wouldn't even think it was in the 1400s!
With history, people like to cut off certain parts that they don't want to tell us. Like they're not gonna tell us the deep, deep stuff. You know, like they just gonna tell us the deep stuff.
Do you feel like it's because you're young?
James: I mean it partly is because we're young. But us being young, we still have a great mind.
So, Ibram, did you encounter folks who felt like students were too young to learn this history?
Kendi: There were times in which people would ask, 'are young people ready for this history?' And it was a shocking question because it's 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 we're protecting them by not getting deep. We're actually protecting them by getting deep, by allowing them to really understand this nation's history.
In the book you have three categories that you put people and ideas in. What are those three categories and why use that approach?
Kendi: One of the things we're 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 we're trying to do is give people the ability to name what they see, what they experience, what they should be resisting.
So there are the segregationists, which Jason calls the haters.
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 it's no different for y'all. Haters are the people who hate you just cause you ain't like them.
Kendi: And then there's the assimilationist. Who are the likers.
Reynolds: Likers. Your fake friends. I mean, everybody, got 'em, everybody knows them too. Everybody knows the phonies. And they're basically the ones who like you, but they like you because you are like them. You know, that is contingent upon you being like them.
Kendi: And then there's the anti-racists, who are the lovers.
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 to us.
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 and change.
Kendi: If people say an assimilationist idea or anti-racist idea or segregationist idea, then you apply it, even if it's somebody who's 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. That's 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 earlier time.
Reynolds: I did have friends be like, 'yo, so I don't know, man. What you said about Dr. King kind of hurt! And I'm like, 'first of all, it wasn't me, blame it on Dr. Kendi. Those are my words, but that's all his information.'
I do think it's important that we are honest about even our heroes. It doesn't 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 toward anti-racism.
James: Who is your target market for this? Is it really for everybody?
Reynolds: I never write void of the scope in which I've come. I was a young black person. It is natural for me to speak to young black people. The book is for everybody, but I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't sort of imagining [Emani's] face. There's certain things that I do want to say to black kids, right? Like that part in Chapter 6 when I write, "Africans aren't savages." Right. That's for us. We're not savages. That was specifically for you.
Amir Perkins, 11th grade: I was surprised there were black people who had racist ideas.
Kendi: Right, you're 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 there's something wrong with black people, they're saying a racist idea and it doesn't matter their skin color.
Amir: As educated black men, when you're in a certain situation, do you sometimes feel as though white people are intimidated by your status?
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 I'm 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. [Copyright 2020 NPR]