2020 will perhaps be remembered not only as a year of consuming sorrow and heartache but also as a time when multiple contradictions ruled our daily lives. The invisible enemy made visible a great deal about ourselves, our values and our weapons of mass salvation: kindness, generosity, and good information. The cloistering at home led to revelations, about who we are and what and whom we deem “essential” in a time of crisis.
Many of us turned to essential readings. I went back to Toni Morrison and reread her brilliant introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1996, OUP):
The 1880s saw the collapse of civil rights for blacks as well as the publication of Huckleberry Finn. This collapse was an effort to bury the combustible issues Twain raised in his novel. The nation, as well as Tom Sawyer, was deferring Jim’s freedom in agonizing play. The cyclical attempts to remove the novel from classrooms extend Jim’s captivity on into each generation of readers. (xxxvi)
Those “combustible issues”—as the events of this past summer demonstrated— revealed their force once more, only with added urgency, igniting, demanding new conversations and policies focused on race and racial disparities. Ibram X. Kendi’s memoir offers us a starting point for such new dialogues, in which the painful issues of racism are not “buried,” deflected, or handed over to yet another generation but honestly confronted.
While Kendi’s book is not fiction, it follows the tradition of the Bildungsroman in its tracing of the protagonist’s development from childhood into maturity, all the while concentrating on his evolution into the “antiracist” person he is today, an individual who supports “any idea that suggests the racial groups are equal in all their apparent differences—that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group.” Furthermore, “antiracist ideas argue that racist policies are the cause of racial inequities.” In sharing his life altering experiences, Kendi is also urging the readers to engage in similar acts of self-inquiry to evaluate their own biases and perceptions of race and racial disparities. Change is possible—he points out that “racism is not even 600 years old” and “racist ideas are not natural to the human mind”—but only communal efforts, both personal and public, can eradicate racist policies.
As Kendi demonstrates, the path from the “captivity” of racist thinking towards liberation is an arduous one. His journey takes him from his delivery of a well-received “racist speech” at his high school oratory competition—even after twenty years, he is haunted by the “nightmare” of that event—to his current position as the director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. Looking back, he realizes the extent to which he had been saturated with the dominant culture’s ethos: “a racist culture had handed me the ammunition to shoot Black people, to shoot myself, and I took it and used it. Internalized racism is the real Black on Black crime.”
In narrating his life-story, Kendi pauses to examine the key terms used in discussions of race and identity. In a chapter called “Biology,” for example, Kendi interrogates terms such as “assimilationist” versus “anti-racist”; he examines the idea that even if race is a “mirage” with no scientific basis, “to be antiracist is to also recognize the living, breathing reality of this racial mirage… [and] focus on ending the racism that shapes the mirages, not to ignore the mirages that shape people’s lives.” These dual features of the book—a candid, courageous self-critique accompanied by a methodical dissection of the embedded language of race dynamics—offer the book its unique strength and resonance.
The eighteen topics, each the subject of one chapter, lend the book its tight structure and its usefulness as a “manual,” a handbook on antiracism that uses an accessible language, appealing to a wide audience. But perhaps a more accurate title for Kendi’s book would be “How to become an antiracist” since, as he demonstrates, the journey towards a true transformation is a long and at times painful one which involves, on the one hand, constant self-appraisal and re-evaluation, and on the other hand, civic engagement in creating and activating antiracist public policies. By offering us an education in re-examining such basic concepts as being “white,” or “black,” Kendi compels us to re-think the ways in which we conceptualize not only race but also gender, class, and sexuality, those distinctions that influence our understanding of ourselves and shape our interactions with our fellow human beings.
Kendi has offered us an excellent opportunity to re-examine the convoluted subject of racism, and as his readers, we can enrich the dialogue. We can engage in more extensive examinations of related topics that deserve attention but are missing from his discussion; for example, how technology has reinforced the powers of capitalism in creating and sustaining racism beginning with the advent of slavery. Issues of character and identity formation (being/becoming) in the context of educational policies can also be discussed further.
How to Be an Antiracist is a book for our times. With so much suffering, disruption, and turmoil amongst us, Kendi’s hopeful message about the possibility of initiating social equity and justice is most welcome. Traditional heroes of the Bildungsroman assimilate into the presiding social structure or, resisting it, they strike out for the unknown “Territory,” as Huck Finn does. Kendi offers another alternative: by eradicating those policies that create racial inequities, we can create a social system in which we can all live in communion, in “a world of equity,” a world in which we have a chance “to be forever free.”