On a good day, to be Black in America is to be minding your own business, perhaps eating your toast and jam-only to be snatched from that life and dumped into the all-caps fisticuffs that is the comments section of YouTube. Such was the situation I found myself in while watching the author and intellectual historian Ibram X. Kendi on Oprah Winfrey’s Where Do We Go From Here?, a televised special following the police killing of George Floyd.
Kendi had just hit No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list for his 2019 book, How to Be an Antiracist, of which there are now 1 million copies in print. The moment had also propelled another book of his, the National Book Award-winning Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, onto the list, and Kendi himself into rare company: Among Oprah’s other guests were Nikole Hannah-Jones, of the Times‘s 1619 Project; the director Ava DuVernay; the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II of the Poor People’s Campaign; and the politician and voting-rights activist Stacey Abrams.
A smattering of prize zingers from the YouTube comments section:
“Where do we go from here? JAIL”
“I think Oprah Winfrey should be removed from pancake syrup bottles.”
“Oprah backstabbing whites kinda feels like biting the hands that fed her.”
“Stacey Abrams is unqualified to run a cash register.”
“Enough race pimping already. It’s so 70s…”
If, on a good day, being Black is like being trapped in the racist cul-de-sac of a YouTube comments section, on a bad day, to be Black in America is to die a senseless death simply because you’re Black. To die in the manner of George Floyd.
We’d seen this all before. Michael Brown killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Eric Garner killed for selling loose cigarettes. Ahmaud Arbery killed while jogging in his neighborhood. Breonna Taylor killed by police in her home. But this time was different. The protests that erupted in the streets following Floyd’s death felt straight out of the ’60s. The Black Lives Matter movement went from radical to mainstream. Suddenly everyone wanted to talk about Race in America. And that national conversation needed a leading voice, someone who could translate years of scholarship into the kind of vernacular that would be read and acted upon by Black and white and brown people all over the country.
Enter Ibram X. Kendi, a professor with a Jedi-like prowess for recognizing and neutralizing the racism pervading our society. His method: to apply a laser focus on racist ideas-not mere surface-level epithets but deeply entrenched prejudices with their own intellectual lineage. Kendi’s dismantling of those ideas starts with his very definition of the term “racist,” which he unyokes from the intent or the relative moral goodness or badness of the person expressing it, and instead ties solely to actions that perpetuate racial inequity. He makes clear that the opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist” or “race-neutral”but “antiracist,” and part of the appeal of How to Be an Antiracist is a concise pair of antonyms that lay the foundation for the book’s argument.
Racist: one who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.
Antiracist: one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.
His point is clear: There can be no in-between. You can’t be passive in this conversation.
Kendi, who is 38, isn’t the first to make this case about antiracism; in the 1970s, Angela Davis made the term widely known, famously proclaiming, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist; we must be antiracist.” But much of America wasn’t ready for that idea, especially coming from a female leader of the Black Power movement. Nearly half a century later, the country is finally tuning in to the antiracist frequency, and Kendi is the one broadcasting the message. “He feels like someone who understands,” says Lisa Lucas, the director of the National Book Foundation. “Someone who was born of this moment.” For Jelani Cobb, a New Yorker staff writer and Columbia journalism professor, Kendi’s timing was vital: “He provided that book at a critical moment for people to reach out and be like, ‘Oh, okay, this is a way that we can start this conversation.’ ” To the acclaimed scholar Cornel West, Kendi is simply “an unprecedented phenomenon.”
“You can’t wake up one day and say, ‘I’m out. I am now an antiracist.’ no one ever becomes an antiracist. it’s only something we can start to be.”
Steeped in scholarship, versed in activism, and galvanized by the moment, Ibram X. Kendi has emerged as the antiracist guru of our time, a man with a message that has reshaped the American discourse on race at a critical juncture in our history. Because of that success, he also finds himself at a critical juncture in his life: The sudden, desperate need for Kendi’s voice has transformed his reality in ways he’s still processing. “It’s extremely intense,” he says. “There’s so much that needs to get done with every minute.”
The thing about meeting Ibram X. Kendi is that he looks exactly the opposite of all those African American professors of yore who lecture you while donning either a Brooks Brothers suit or full kente-cloth regalia. Calm and centered as a Buddha, with his cool dreadlocks pulled behind his head a bit like a Macedonian warrior’s, Kendi is what some might classify as hotep-hipster: skinny jeans, a blazer, locs swept away from his high forehead and thoughtful eyes, a kente-cloth mask.
We meet in the Metcalf Trustee Center at Boston University, where he arrived in July to lead the school’s new Center for Antiracist Research, a continuation of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center he created at American University, in Washington, D.C., in 2017. A phalanx of long-dead white men’s portraits gaze down upon us with what seems an air of patrician disdain, but Kendi is quick to invoke the school’s rich civil rights history: The new center is housed in the very same hall where Martin Luther King Jr. once studied theology. “It’s where he came into his own as an intellectual and an activist,” Kendi says. “I mean, six months after leaving B.U., he was helping to lead the Montgomery bus boycott. It’s one of the reasons why I decided to come here. I almost feel a similar duty and weight to speak to those who are dying right now because of the color of their skin.”
Upon his arrival, Kendi was awarded the university’s prestigious Andrew W. Mellon Professorship in the Humanities, which had been previously held only by the late Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. Just as Wiesel became the intellectual embodiment of Holocaust remembrance, so Kendi is already finding himself to be a very public face of the antiracism cause. “I could be walking to the campus at B.U., and someone comes out and says, ‘Oh, hi, Professor Kendi,’ ” he says. “I’ve never met them before.” It’s starting to become overwhelming. “I don’t go out a lot because of that.”
On a typical day, Kendi spends an hour in the morning with his wife and their four-year-old daughter, Imani, before he immerses himself in the nonstop communications that make up the majority of his waking life. “I’m pretty much on Zoom or on the phone until oftentimes 7 or 8 p.m.,” he says. “Then I open up email accounts that have hundreds and hundreds of emails, many of which need urgent responses. And I only have a small amount of time before I have to go to sleep and start it all over again.”
His wife, Sadiqa-a physician known to their friends as “the other Dr. Kendi”-confirms that her husband’s success has utterly upended their reality. “I mean, our lives are crazy,” she says with a laugh. “He’ll have these days where he’s talked to all kinds of famous people all day, and then he comes home and he puts Imani to bed. That’s him. He puts her to bed almost every night when he’s at home.”
Lately, Kendi has found himself making constant media appearances-on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, on CBS This Morning, on a takeover of Selena Gomez’s Instagram account. He has been everywhere. “I have far less time to write because of the amount of interviews and meetings and even friends and family who want to talk about something that they saw,” Kendi says. “It has been an incredible amount.”
It’s taken such an incredible amount of Kendi’s time in part because, before he can even begin to lead our pilgrimage toward antiracism, he needs us to understand our starting point. Racism may seem like a simple enough concept until you realize how many definitions of it exist. There are people of color who’ve long believed that they can’t be racist because racism is tied to a system of power; if you don’t have power in that system, you can’t transfer your prejudices into racism. Then there are white people who believe it takes nothing short of a Klan membership to be racist. Kendi obliterates both notions. “Every time someone racializes behavior-describes something as ‘Black behavior’-they are expressing a racist idea,” he writes in How to Be an Antiracist. “To be an antiracist is to recognize there is no such thing as racial behavior. To be an antiracist is to recognize there is no such thing as Black behavior, let alone irresponsible Black behavior.”
One problem is that most white people think of racism as a moral failing wrapped in an identity. They want to say “I am not a racist” the way Richard Nixon insisted “I am not a crook.” But in How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi argues that policies and actions are racist, not people. You can express a racist notion in one part of a sentence, he says, and an antiracist notion in another.
Kendi breaks down this continuum into three modes: segregationist, assimilationist, and antiracist. Alicia Keys had him join her in some Nickelodeon magic to describe how these viewpoints differ from one another. He likens being antiracist to loving someone and accepting them no matter how different from you they may be. The assimilationist says he likes you only to the degree that you resemble him and incorporate his manners and ways. The segregationist cannot accept you at all because your differences from him are grounds for expulsion from the circle of brotherhood.
“I think that it’s critically important for people to begin there, with those basic definitions,” Kendi says, his down-to-earth manner a bit at odds with our silk-stocking surroundings: the high-back chairs, the polished tables, the portraits in their gilt frames that seem straight out of 1839, when Boston University was founded. People, Kendi says, have to “have the willingness to take themselves on a journey, because it is going to be a journey. You just can’t wake up one day, in this, and say, ‘I’m out. I am now an antiracist.’ No one ever becomes an antiracist. It’s only something we can start to be.”
Kendi doesn’t exempt his fellow African Americans from the charge of propagating racist ideas, including himself-his personal narrative is also one of transformation from racism to antiracism. Born Ibram Henry Rogers, he grew up in Queens in the ’80s and ’90s. In the ’60s, both his mother and his father had been profoundly influenced by the Black Power movement and liberation theology. But by the time Ibram was born, in 1982, his father had become a tax accountant, his mother a health-care-business analyst. When Kendi was 15, in 1997, the family moved to Manassas, in northern Virginia, where he attended Stonewall Jackson High School. There, at a school named after a Confederate general, he won a speech competition with an essay castigating poor Black people who had not “made it.” The memory still haunts Kendi, who says he was in thrall to racist ideas disguised as middle-class striving.
If his younger years were marked by Booker T. Washington-style “uplift” politics, his college days were spent becoming not only woke but a bit woker than thou. Early in his time at Florida A&M, a historically Black university, he announced he would date only dark-skinned Black women, and even parroted a conspiracy theory that white people were from outer space.
Kendi’s initial career path was meandering. He studied journalism and hoped to become a sportswriter, working several newspaper internships before enrolling in a graduate program in African American studies at Temple University, in Philadelphia. He found it hard to get academic jobs after completing his Ph.D., in 2010-he didn’t have a posh Ivy League diploma or even a history degree. He was a relatively unknown assistant professor at the University of Florida when he won the National Book Award.
Kendi’s parents would eventually return to their roots in liberation theology, both becoming ordained ministers in the Methodist Church. And considering he has two ministers for parents, it’s not hard to see how Kendi has come to deliver the antiracist message with some of the zeal of an evangelist. Black liberation theology holds that Christianity has been used as a tool of empire, largely wielded by white colonialists. The goal is liberation from white domination into a different type of empowerment: social reform. Kendi has taken both the proselytizing and the liberation to heart.
“What if we lived in a world in which everyone watched that video and felt a knee on their neck?”
He began that process of liberation on a very personal level: with his name. When he married Sadiqa, in 2013, they jointly adopted the surname Kendi, which means “loved one” among the Meru people of Kenya. At the same time, he also dropped his middle name, Henry, after learning about Prince Henry the Navigator, the 15th-century Portuguese explorer who sponsored the first slave-trading voyages to West Africa, thereby creating a new kind of slavery dealing exclusively in African bodies. As a replacement, he chose Xolani, Zulu for “peace.” Those new names set the tone for their wedding ceremony, which took place on Jamaica’s Montego Bay and was later featured in Essence. “It was the best day of my life,” Kendi recalls, “marrying the woman of my dreams, who was wearing a gold dress and looking straight out of Wakanda.”
Over the next seven years, as Kendi dedicated himself to spreading the gospel of antiracism, he brought to his work such an all-consuming fervor that he often found peace with his loved ones to be in short supply. By late 2017, bouts of fatigue began to lay him flat; even after seeing blood clots in his stool, he put off going to the doctor. It was Sadiqa, an emergency-medicine physician, who urged him to get a colonoscopy. In January 2018, he received a diagnosis of stage IV colon cancer, which has a survival rate of only 12 percent.
Cornel West learned of Kendi’s diagnosis upon visiting Kendi’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in 2019. “I said, ‘Good God, we got to send up some serious prayers,’ ” West recalls. “We got to get some prayer warriors on the move here, because he’s so young and looked like he was so sick, so quick. I said, ‘Oh, Lord.’ “
The prayer warriors got on the move; after chemotherapy and surgery, recent scans have shown Kendi to be cancer-free. But Kendi, ever the analyst of ideas, has continued to mull over the possibility of his body’s somatic response to his research. “Many of my friends suggested that the personal trauma of going through libraries of literature on the worst things that have ever been said about Black people may have impacted my own physical health, may have introduced my cancer,” he says.
Despite his recovery, Lisa Lucas speaks of Kendi in almost martyr-like terms: “The man survived cancer, he had a brand-new baby, he won the National Book Award, his life changed, and then, all of a sudden, the world gets so rotten that, moments after recovering from a life-threatening illness, he’s on the road constantly trying to teach America to be less racist. He’s giving his one good life to this. Because he wants to and he has to. I think there’s something electric about that.”
It’s telling that when you ask Kendi about his cancer, he manages to pivot to a big-picture consideration of inequities in our health system. “A few cities have declared racism a public health emergency, largely due to the recognition that racist policies made conditions that lead to Black people and Brown people disproportionately suffering,” he says. “But studies have also shown that the stressors-whether the policies or certain ideas-can also impact our health.”
As a speaker, Kendi holds forth in mellifluous paragraphs as if reciting James Baldwin, but that changes when he describes the conditions that beget racism. His sentences, spurred by righteous anger, begin to gallop. “Trump has made a living politically out of manipulating white working-class men,” he says, “and he’ll continue to do so. In the same way, the slaveholder could not sustain himself without the support of white non-slaveholding men in the South who usually served as his muscle to be able to control this extremely resistant enslaved population.”
“When he speaks, I can hear the Black church come out. You can tell he’s a preacher’s kid because he’ll start… He’s not really preaching, but he sounds like it sometimes.”
– Sadiqa Kendi
This is a major point in Kendi’s work: how white Americans also suffer under racism. Not simply because it results in a morally bankrupt position, but because it cuts off avenues for their own liberation. In this belief, Kendi echoes W.E.B. Du Bois’s notion of “the wages of whiteness,” as well as the work of activists like Hosea Hudson, the Georgia sharecropper turned labor leader who long sought to unify Black and white workers toward the common goal of fair housing and wages, only to be blacklisted as a communist. Like Hudson, Kendi is adamant about reaching every reader, every listener. “The elevator pitch to everyday people,” he says, “is that instead of thinking about what you could lose if we were to transform this country-because if you are struggling, you certainly are worried about losing-they should be thinking about what they could gain, especially folks who are low- to moderate-income.”
Part of the solution, Kendi feels, is empathy. “For so many Black people who see themselves as George Floyd, part of the difficulty with watching is you literally feel that knee on your neck. I think other people may have some distance, right? Which is a problem. In other words, what if we lived in a world in which everyone watched that video and felt a knee on their neck? I think we’d probably have a very different world.”
When Kendi considers the current protests against racist police brutality, he looks back through centuries of violence. “Look at the history of American policing as it relates to Black people; it originated to patrol runaways,” he explains. “Every plantation basically had a police force, and slavery was maintained through brutality and terror. When we look at the history of American policing from the perspective of Black people, it’s hard to disconnect police from brutality. And so when people are calling for the police to be abolished, what they’re really calling for is the brutality to be abolished.”
Kendi found that brutality particularly chilling in the case of Breonna Taylor’s death at the hands of the Louisville Metro Police Department. A hospital emergency room technician, Taylor was shot repeatedly by police using a no-knock warrant while she was half asleep in the early-morning hours, then was left inside her apartment without medical attention; meanwhile, the criminal the police had been searching for had already been apprehended. When Kendi talks about her death, his voice becomes even more meditative than usual, as if recalling a terrible memory of his own: “The details of somebody sleeping-likely after a very difficult day trying to save the lives of people from COVID-and then suddenly right after you’re awoken you’re killed in your sleep? It’s hard to think of a more horrific way to die.”
When Kendi moved to Washington, D.C., in 2017, he invited the acclaimed young-adult author Jason Reynolds to breakfast. They had met at the 2016 National Book Awards ceremony, where the late congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis was a finalist alongside Kendi and Reynolds, and ever since, Kendi had been thinking through a vision: to have Reynolds write a Y.A. version of Stamped From the Beginning.
“When he moved to D.C., it was like: ‘Yo, I’m in town. I moved here. You’re the only person I know here in the city,’ ” Reynolds recalls. They kept hanging out, and Kendi kept circling back to the same question. “Every time, it was like, ‘Jay, I need you to do this thing for me. I need you to write Stamped: The Remix, ‘ and me saying no over and over again.”
But Kendi could already see the book in his head, and he kept pitching the project until Reynolds finally agreed. Their collaboration, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, was published in March and now sits atop the New York Times Y.A. best-seller list. A picture book, Antiracist Baby, was published in July; it, too, is a best seller.
Other authors might bask in the glory of their success and limit their engagements to only the most career-boosting events, but Kendi seems solely intent on disseminating the cause of antiracism to each and every one of us. The two times I’ve seen him speak, I glanced around the room and noted the silent nods of those on the brink of a religious conversion. Even the thematic language of How to Be an Antiracist is rooted in redemption and transformation: “When someone admits that they were being racist, we can’t immediately, obviously cancel them,” he has said. “The heartbeat of racism is denial, and really the heartbeat of antiracism is confession.”
“I’m certainly not trying to make people comfortable or uncomfortable. I’m trying to tell the truth. I’m trying to provide evidence. I’m trying to provide clarity.”
Sadiqa says as much: “When he speaks, I can hear the Black church come out. You can tell he’s a preacher’s kid because he’ll start… He’s not really preaching, but he sounds like it sometimes.” Others seeking his expertise have bestowed upon him yet another title: public intellectual. It’s a mantle of the elite few, names like James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, Toni Morrison, Cornel West, Ta-Nehisi Coates. We have this idea that a public intellectual is a person on high who dispenses wisdom that we mortals must elevate ourselves to understand; we must, like supplicants or pilgrims, go to the mountain summit to glimpse their truth. But a true public intellectual is someone who brings their great intellect to the wider public, someone whose ideas have broken them out of their discipline to such a degree that the whole country has become their audience. They meet us where we are, a bit like everyone’s favorite high school teacher-the one who goes beyond simply pacing students through the curriculum and instead takes on the role of mentor, like Virgil guiding you on a journey toward enlightenment.
And that is Ibram X. Kendi, the kind, dignified, preternaturally wise, and soft-spoken teacher, indefatigable in his quest to set you on the path toward true knowledge. It’s an odyssey that never ends-not for scholars, not for activists, not even for public intellectuals like Kendi. Chris Jackson, his editor at One World, reflects on Kendi’s evolution and his ability to metabolize criticism: “He’s gotten so many slings and arrows-as every successful author does, to some degree, but especially so for Black authors who challenge the status quo. But he doesn’t get destabilized by it. He doesn’t even flinch, really, because he doesn’t have personal ego invested in his ideas. He cares deeply about these ideas, and the most important thing to him is not being right but getting it right. His superpower is being able to engage with thoughtful criticism so he can improve or expand or correct his ideas-but not get derailed by disingenuous trolls and others whose only goal is to push us backward and shut us up.”
Among those critics, a common refrain-one espoused, for instance, by The New Yorker‘s Kelefa Sanneh-is that Kendi oversimplifies the spectrum of racism, tying three knots along a rope that needs many more notches. Yet for Kendi, that simplicity is his greatest strength. “Specifically for his criticism, I actually view it as a compliment,” Kendi says, “because in many ways, what I’m seeking to do with my work is clarify the complexities so people can understand racism as it relates to people, policy, ideas, and power. And why do I want to be extremely clear about it? Because none of us has very much time.”
Other critiques he finds more ill-informed. Some, he says, feel that he should be writing to make white people feel comfortable, or perhaps uncomfortable. “But my work is not directed towards white people,” he says. “It’s directed towards people. And I’m certainly not trying to make people comfortable or uncomfortable. I’m trying to tell the truth. I’m trying to provide evidence. I’m trying to provide clarity.”
In addition to his work creating the new research center at B.U., Kendi has begun writing his next book, tentatively titled Bones of Inequity, in which he’ll examine the long history of racist policies enshrined in our legal code. He intends to tell a narrative history of redlining, voter suppression, gerrymandering, and a host of other practices instituted long ago but haunting us still. As with all of Kendi’s work, there’s bound to be a challenge for readers, a reminder that we can upend the old paradigms. We can correct what needs fixing.
Not long ago, Kendi got word that this very feeling was on the march in his hometown of Manassas. A petition demanding that Stonewall Jackson High School be renamed had begun circulating. One of those calling for change was a man named Warren Christian, a great-great-grandson of Jackson’s, who argued that the school be known instead as Ibram X. Kendi High School. Twenty years after graduating from the school, Kendi responded to the suggested honor with gratitude and humility, writing on Instagram, “We are not bound by our parents, like we are not bound by our ancestors. We can be different-and make a difference as Christian shows.”
In the end, they didn’t rename the school for Kendi, but for a longtime security officer named Arthur Reed. The decision was one of many changes sweeping through Virginia this summer: In neighboring Fairfax County, Robert E. Lee High School was just rechristened for the late congressman John Lewis. There are, of course, plenty more Confederate names to be retired, so Kendi may get his high school yet. As he well knows, changing names is a pretty natural process, once you’ve done the hard work of changing minds.
ZZ Packer is the author of the short-story collection ‘Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’ and a senior fellow at the Watson Institute at Brown University.
A version of this story originally appears in the September 2020 issue with the title “Antiracism’s Unwavering Scholar”. Photographs by Rog and Bee Walker.