A Temple Alum Twice Over Discusses National Book Award Win
by Zach Epstein
Called "the most ambitious book of 2016" by the Washington Post, Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning examines the origins of racism throughout history.
Now an assistant professor of African American studies at the University of Florida, the scholar and author told us how he developed the idea for Stamped and why Temple shaped the ideology encompassed in his latest work.
How did you come up with the concept for the book? It certainly feels relevant given the country's current social and political climate. Was the idea long-gestating, or did it come about more recently? Where did your motivation come from?
I had not planned to write Stamped from the Beginning. My first book, The Black Campus Movement, chronicled how Black student activists organized, demanded, and protested for the diversification of higher education. One of their principal demands was Black Studies. As a follow up to my first book, I started working on a history of the origins of Black Studies in higher education in the late 1960s. I decided to write my first chapter on the history of scientific racism, to show what the founders of Black Studies were struggling against. The draft of that first chapter was around 90 pages. But more importantly, I had a series of new revisionist thoughts about the enduring history of racist ideas, especially how racist ideas are defined and what ideas and figures have been left out of the history. I realized I had a book on my hands around the time we all learned about the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. The more I researched, the more I wrote, and the more I learned about other unarmed and armed Black people who were killed because of the color of their skin, the more I realized how much we needed this book to understand exactly why Black lives don’t matter. Racist ideas are the reason why Black lives don’t matter.
The book has received an incredible reception. Has anything about the reaction been particularly gratifying? Unexpected? Interesting?
I had no idea what the reception for the book would be like. I just wanted a lot of people to read the book with an open mind. I just wanted readers to self-reflect on their own racial ideas, and realize that there is nothing wrong with Black people as a group, but there is everything wrong with the racist policies that are creating racial disparities. It has been particularly gratifying for me to learn that so many people are doing just that and more.
Describe the moment you found out you’d won the National Book Award. What moments stand out from the ceremony?
I was pleasantly surprised. I did not attend the ceremony confident I would win, but when I did I was elated. I was elated for all the communities and families I came from, like Black Studies, and especially the world’s first Black Studies doctoral program at Temple University. I am happy to be a member of this intellectual (and personal) family. And I am glad one of us won this award.
You got your master's and PhD here at Temple. What about Temple’s programs made them your choice?
Temple’s programs are iconic in Black Studies, but I did not know how iconic the programs were until I arrived in the fall of 2005. I did know that Temple University sat in the heart of the most incredible Black laboratories in the world: North Philadelphia. I did know that one of the world’s most impactful and prolific scholars was at Temple, Molefi K. Asante. I did know that Temple’s programs were the intellectual home of the globally circulating intellectual approach and philosophical perspective known as Afrocentricity. I did know that Temple’s programs — and faculty — had a reputation for unapologetically pushing the boundaries of academic thought and action. After all, what are we as intellectuals if we are not pushing the boundaries of thought?
How did your studies at Temple shape your interests? Your path?
I think an easier question for me to answer is how did they not. I would certainly be a different intellectual and a different person if I did not have the honor and pleasure of doing my graduate studies at Temple University. I would certainly be on a different path. I would certainly not have been able to write Stamped from the Beginning, and especially share the racist ideas of all those “assimilationists” who regarded Black people as culturally inferior. I am consciously aware that our intensive study of the cultures of African people was crucial in opening my eyes to the transition of racist ideas from biological ideas to cultural ideas during the mid-20th century. Other scholars have narrowly defined racist ideas as biological ideas. Other scholars have claimed that racist (or biological) ideas were marginalized in the 1940s. Other scholars have written assimilationist ideas out of racist ideas. But Stamped from the Beginning defines assimilationist ideas of Black cultural or behavioral inferiority as racist, and brings these ideas into the history of racism, and shows how these ideas were stamped from the beginning of America and still reside in our minds today. While in other graduate programs students develop a racial critique and maybe a class critique and maybe a gender critique and maybe a sexual critique, it was at Temple I developed a well-honed cultural critique. It was at Temple that I developed many other critiques that were crucial to my analysis in Stamped, especially my well-honed anti-racist analysis of continental Africa and African people.
I remember asking Dr. Mazama in class, 'If we should not strive to be objective, then what should we strive to be?' And she responded, 'We should strive to tell the truth.'
But the architects of the studies of students are their faculty, and the chief architect of my studies was my dissertation adviser, Ama Mazama. I still remember the day I asked her if she would become my adviser. I was extremely nervous, well aware of her reputation for being extremely selective of her advisees. I learned from Professor Mazama about the extreme importance of valuing our time, not wasting our time on people who are not serious. Even though I had done well in her courses as a master’s student, I still did not know if she thought I was serious. I still did not know if she would be willing to become my adviser. When she agreed, I was elated, but then also a new set of nerves rushed into me because I now knew that my path would be a serious one. I knew that Dr. Mazama expected me — as she did all her students — to make a serious challenge to the racist canon that devalues African ideas and lives.
I still remember when Dr. Mazama rocked my journalist sensibilities (my undergraduate degree was in journalism) when she lectured in one of her classes that there was no such thing as objectivity. I remember reading Dr. Asante’s conception that objectivity is nothing but a “collective subjectivity.” I remember asking Dr. Mazama in class, “If we should not strive to be objective, then what should we strive to be?” And she responded, “We should strive to tell the truth." I remember walking to the train station that night with my mind spinning. And it spun for weeks. When it finally stopped, I had started on a path of realizing all the subject standards that mask themselves as objective and judge Black people as inferior. I tell this story as another example how my studies at Temple shaped my intellectual path, as I am full of stories like this. Exposing these subjective standards as racist ideas was another crucial contribution of Stamped.
I am just full of stories and gratitude for the opportunity to study with Dr. Mazama and Dr. Asante and other faculty, as well as some of the history professors, like Kenneth Kusmer, Teshale Tibebu, and Kathy Walker (who has since retired). I am also thankful for all those amazing students I studied with, women and men who are now among my closest friends, women and men who are still inspiring me and shaping me.