A couple of months ago I wrote a post suggesting that 2016 was a landmark year for the history of ideas about race. I thought to follow up on that post with a series of interviews with the authors of the books I highlighted.
I am thrilled to present our readers with an interview I did with Ibram X. Kendi, author of the National Book Award winner for 2016, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Surely one of the most important works in intellectual history in recent years. Kendi is Professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University. He is also a regular contributor and editor at Black Perspectives, the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society. This post will be followed in the next several weeks by two more interviews.
Since this is an interview for the blog of the Society for US intellectual History, I thought to start by asking if you view yourself as an intellectual historian and if you have any interest in or perhaps critique of that category.
I do view myself as an intellectual historian and I understand the role that ideas have long played in history. I seek to understand the role that ideas play in movements. I am a historian of anti-racist and racist ideas and movements. I am concerned with the intersection of intellectual and social movement history. It seems to me that all social movements are based on ideas and all ideas are based on social movements.
What are your thoughts on the recent history of race, your book and others such as Nick Guyatt’s book Bind us Apart and Rob Parkinson’s The Common Cause? Do you view Stamped from the Beginning as part of a movement or a broader project?
I think so. I don’t think I could have completed this book 20 or 30 years ago. I stand on the shoulders of a series of historians and intellectuals who helped me make sense of things that I didn’t necessarily have to make sense of myself. The work of the past has allowed this new generations of historians and scholars to complicate racism much more and I think that we have been able to get at its core, or at least we are heading towards its historical core.
Your book is designed to be quite accessible to a wide audience, so you do not spend too much time arguing with the historiography of race. I was wondering what works influenced you and were there any specific works that you saw yourself as writing against?
I certainly was influenced by a number of more recent intellectual histories of race that were sweeping histories, such as Nell Painter’s History of White People, which immediately comes to mind. Winthrop Jordan’s Black Over White was an extremely important book. In terms of writing against a book, I was writing against the historiography that made the case that assimilationist ideas are in fact anti-racist ideas. One famous book that speaks to that is Herbert Aptheker’s Anti Racism in US History. In that book he portrays a number of people as anti-racist, who I identify in my text as assimilationists, like Cotton Mather and Gunnar Myrdal and many others. And I was also writing against those who frame the periodization of racist ideas from the 1800s to the 1940s. Many books have come out making the case that racist ideology did not emerge until the 1800s and my book shows that it emerged 400 years prior to that.
The first thing that jumped out to me when reading your book, Stamped from the Beginning, is that you tend to do what many historians, especially in US history, don’t feel comfortable with, simplifying rather than the scholarly infatuation with “complicating.” Is that something that you set out to do purposefully?
I think I tried to simultaneously do both. I tried to use simple language that explains complicated phenomena. I was not trying to not show the complexity of these ideas, but I certainly wanted people to understand the complexity of these ideas. I thought the best way to do that was to figure out a way to tell and explain these ideas in ways that most people can understand. I view simplifying the complexity of ideas for general readers as an important scholarly task.
You usually reserve the adjective “racist” to ideas, but sometimes you apply it to people as well. What are your thoughts about saying of someone that they are racist?
I wrote a book on racist ideas because there were so many people in history that expressed both racist and anti-racist ideas. And so how do you classify a person as a racist or even an anti-racist when they believe in both racial hierarchy and racial equality. For that reason I wanted to first allow readers to get a very clear foundation of what is a racist and anti-racist idea before we can really address what a racist is or what an anti-racist is.
Your first book, The Black Campus Movement focused on a relatively short period from 1965 to 1972, that is quite a stark contrast with the timeframe of Stamped from the Beginning. Did it take you a long time to make that transition? Do you have any recommendations for people attempting to make similar transitions?
I would recommend for people to follow their passion, their interest, and the topic that they deem important. That is how I got from writing a book about black student activism in the late 60s and early 70s to a history of racist ideas. Initially I was working on a book about the origins of black studies, in which I was going to show the role black students played in those origins. Along those lines, I planned for my first chapter to show how and why these students argued that the academy was racist, which required them to develop something completely new, which they called Black Studies. I intended to chronicle a brief history of scientific racism up to the 1960s. While studying that literature, I quickly realized that many historians were making the case that scientific racism had become marginal by the 1940s, after Nazism and the Holocaust destroyed its credibility and legitimacy around the Western world. Then I reached a conundrum: black student activists found racist ideas to be pervasive in the 60s, while historians were saying that it had become marginal by the 1940s. That is when I realized that it was based on how both groups were defining racist ideas. Historians were not including assimilationist ideas into the canon of scientific racism, while most of the students—inspired by black power—rejected any notion that African American culture was pathological or that black people should assimilate into superior white American culture. They rejected such notions as racist. This is when I started to look into the history of racist ideas.
Stamped from the Beginning challenges the reader to rethink basic assumptions at every turn. You don’t pull any punches. What kind of reactions have you had to the book?
As you can imagine, all different types of reactions. I started off the book saying that this book is for open-minded people. And of course some closed-minded people who read the book and engaged me in public forums just refused to view their notions that there is something wrong with black people as racist ideas. But I think more people have seemingly read the book with an open mind and challenged their own ideas and perspectives. They realized the origins of these ideas, and even more importantly, they realized why they were fed these ideas: who benefited from them believing that we need to focus on civilizing black people as opposed to challenging racial discrimination. In realizing that, I think that many people were happy to have read this book, just like I am happy to have written it. Because it changed the way I think about racism.
As part of your critical analysis of ideas about race you ascribe racism to such celebrated figures as Garrison and Du Bois. What kind of reactions did you get to your treatment of Garrison, Du Bois and others?
I think again, it is all based on definitions. People think of Garrison as clearly well meaning, he was clearly an abolitionist. And so, people conclude that he can’t be racist because people believe abolitionists cannot be racist. They do not realize that Garrison made the case repeatedly that slavery was making black people literally into brutes—that black people were sub-human people. And so, they reject the notion that this is a racist idea, even though we have all kinds of evidence that shows that enslaved people were hardly brutes. Then you also have people that make the case that black people cannot be racist against black people. From their standpoint, even early Du Bois, who was talking about the barbarism of poor blacks, encouraging black people to assimilate, was not expressing racist ideas. To me the irony is that if white people would have said those things these very people would classify them as racist. And in both cases those ideas called up the theme that there was something wrong with people as opposed to policies.
Where do you see the history of race and ideas about race go from here?
I guess I am hoping we will begin to further complicate historical figures and realize that there were many historical figures who both advanced anti-racist causes and in many ways held back black people. I am also hoping that we begin to further investigate anti-racist Americans and examine their intellectual history, their intellectual upbringing. What caused them to rethink what they were being told by many of the leading figures and thinkers of their time? I am hoping that a very serious investigation of anti-racist ideas and figures would come out of this.
I read on your blog that you are only 34 years old. Many of our readers are junior scholars, in hindsight would you recommend taking on such an ambitious project at a young age? How did people react when you told them of your intentions to write an ambitious and broad history of racist ideas?
Knowing that I won the National Book Award, of course I would write it again. Outside of that type of recognition, I think that I would as well. I think the most important thing for all scholars, and specifically young scholars, to do is write a book that they are serious about, that they are passionate about, interested in, that they feel is going to make a difference. To me that is going to be an expression of their best work. And when it comes down to getting tenure, when it comes down to advancing your career, the most important thing is producing good work. And whatever allows you to produce your best work, to me are the things that we should pursue. I think we should be willing to stand up to any professors who are telling us “no, you have to go the more traditional route” and do this and do that. But if you go the traditional route you will just become another traditional scholar that will not change the status quo.
Many historians prefer to think of their scholarship as separated from their politics? Do you think of your scholarship differently, as a kind of praxis or a kind of activism?
I learned in graduate school and from my dissertation adviser that there is no such thing as objectivity, which was very difficult for me to hear and accept because I had studied journalism in college and objectivity was our hallowed ground. I was also taught that there is no such thing as an apolitical scholar. Every scholarly work either challenges the status quo or maintains the status quo through its neutrality. I don’t get caught up in those false conceptions of objectivity or of being apolitical. My dissertation adviser told me that you can’t be objective, but you can tell the truth and I try to tell the truth the best that I can and I try to engage in work that I feel is going to make a difference, because every piece of work is going to make a difference either in a positive or negative way. So why not engage in intellectual work that makes a positive difference.
Do you think that academic organizations should openly support political campaigns such as the anti Apartheid movement back in the day and the BDS movement today?
The most important job of intellectual organizations is to ensure that their expertise is part of the public conversation of these very public issues. And so, I think scholars from all disciplines who are experts and knowledgeable about Apartheid or any other social issue should be engaged with the public, informing the public, to ensure that the public is making decisions about these issues based on facts rather than alternative facts.
You wrote such a comprehensive and bold book, where do you go from here? What are your future plans?
I am working on a book entitled “How to Be an Anti-Racist.” Talking to people around the country about Stamped from the Beginning, what seems to have influenced people was not only the history of racist ideas in Stamped from the Beginning, but also the history of anti-racist ideas. People seem to be very interested in figuring out how to become an anti-racist. I heard that desire over and over again, and so I ended up deciding to write a book entitled that—that would seek to do that, specifically using my personal story, my own intellectual trajectory. From graduating high school believing many assimilationist and racist ideas, to the point that I became an anti-racist, I plan to intermix my personal intellectual history with larger ideas about what it truly means to think and act as an anti-racist.