A little more than 20 years ago, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi delivered the speech that changed his life forever.

Kendi, who grew up in New York and went to school in Virginia, was a finalist in the Prince William County Martin Luther King, Jr. oratorical contest. Hosted by the Delta Theta Sigma Alumnae Chapter, the contest encourages children from across Northern Virginia to display extraordinary oratorical and rhetoric skills in honor of Dr. King.

He took the stage and made a presentation that he later came to regret.

“I more or less expressed many of the ideas that had been circulated around this country about black youth in the 1990s,” he remembers. “I talked about black youth being the most feared group in society — as if it was our fault. To say something is inferior about a racial group is to say racist ideas.”

Realizing the flaw in his argument, Kendi entered a period of intense self-reflection, which led him to study for a postgraduate degree in African American Studies at Temple University.

After publishing his PhD dissertation, a study of African American life he called “The Black Campus Movement,” Kendi developed his ideas into an award-winning book. “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” won him the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2016.

Kendi’s new book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” looks back at his fateful day in the oratorical contest and lays out a way for us all to understand the roots, acts, and definitions of racism in the United States.

“I wanted to introduce for many Americans the term ‘anti-racist’ and show how it is the true opposite of ‘racist,’” he says. “[We] really talk through what it means to be anti-racist, meaning to look at the racial groups as as equals, to support policies that lead to equity and justice.”

With implementing corrective, antiracist policy as his main objective, Dr. Kendi outlines many necessary steps along the way, including to “figure out who or what group has the power to institute antiracist policy, monitor closely to ensure the antiracist policy reduces and eliminates racial inequity, and monitor closely to prevent new racist policies from being instituted.”

Yet, he soon realized that in order to set forth his vision of public scholarship, he’d need a team.

As the Founding Executive Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, Kendi has organized policy meetings and built research teams to engage with policy experts and journalists. He also hosts an Antiracist Book Festival in Washington, DC each spring. 

In turn, students and fellow academics alike have been increasingly supportive of his ideas.

“I think many [students] are concerned about social and racial change, and to be able to engage in these types of issues is exciting,” he says. “I think there’s a certain segment of the academy that wants scholars at the forefront. Essentially, they advocate for public scholarship.”

Redefining the underlying assumptions of American life is challenging enough— but Kendi has done it while fighting for his own life.

“In the middle of writing this book I was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer,” he says. “I wrote most of the rest of the book while going through treatment.”

“In many ways, it focused me,” he says, “I think those chapters that I wrote while undergoing treatment were some of the best chapters.”

Kendi hopes that his ideas will enter the mainstream giving readers the tools to understand racial inequality that stem from either “bad people or bad policy.”

“I’m seeking to really bring clarity so that people can understand which side of this struggle they’re on.”

Published on Feb 11, 2020