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Ibram X. Kendi on Surviving Cancer & His Anti-Racist Reading List for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam

StoryFebruary 15, 2019
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As we celebrate the remarkable life and legacy of Frederick Douglass on his 201st birthday, we are joined by Ibram X. Kendi, a professor of history and international relations and founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. Kendi spoke Thursday night at the Library of Congress at an event honoring Frederick Douglass. He is the National Book Award-winning author of “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” and a contributing editor at The Atlantic.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to celebrate the remarkable life and legacy of Frederick Douglass on his 201st birthday. We’re joined now by Ibram X. Kendi, professor of history and international relations at American University, founding director of its Antiracist Research and Policy Center.

Professor Kendi spoke last night at the Library of Congress at an event honoring Frederick Douglass, where he quoted the renowned abolitionist, who once said, quote, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle.”

Those are the words of Frederick Douglass quoted by Ibram X. Kendi, who is a National Book Award-winning author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. His forthcoming book, How to Be an Antiracist. He’s also a contributing editor at The Atlantic magazine.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.

IBRAM X. KENDI: It’s a pleasure to be on the show.

AMY GOODMAN: How does Frederick Douglass inspire you, in this week of the anniversary of his birth?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Well, I think that many, many people are trying to sort of imagine how to bring about a new world, based on everything that’s been happening in recent years. And Frederick Douglass constantly sort of told us that the road is not going to be easy, but the road must be a road of struggle. And so, for me, he constantly sort of tells me, as you sort of mentioned in that iconic sort of message, that we have to struggle, and we can never stop struggling. And the only way that we will be defeated is if we stop struggling.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about what’s happening in Virginia right now, the top three embattled officials of Virginia, starting with Governor Northam. The Democratic governor continues to resist mounting calls for his resignation, after a photograph appeared on his medical school yearbook page that showed a man in Ku Klux Klan garb next to a man in blackface. At first, Governor Northam apologized for this, suggesting he was one of these two men, and then he said it wasn’t him, although he did wear blackface to impersonate Michael Jackson at another point that same year. Can you respond to what this means? You had a very interesting piece on blackface and suggestions for what Governor Northam should read, not to mention what he should do right now.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Yeah. So, I mean, I think, like many people, that he should resign, and that, you know, for a very long time, African Americans and other Americans have felt offended from blackface, felt as if Americans weren’t listening to them as we told them that this was not certainly something that should be going on. And now African Americans in Virginia and other Americans are calling on the governor to resign, and he’s not sort of respecting them in that way, either.

But if he decides to stay into office and he decides to take up more of a racial equality platform, as his advisers are suggesting, then I think he should embrace that fully and truly seek to be an anti-racist governor and truly seek to look at the racist policies that are causing all of the racial inequities in his state. But first and foremost, he should seek to recognize how and why blackface is so offensive, by going on a binge of reading of anti-racist texts. So I sort of offered some of those texts he could read and get into.

AMY GOODMAN: What are some of those texts?

IBRAM X. KENDI: Oh, man. So, I mean, he could, of course, start out with some political memoirs and The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. He can read essays like Between the World and Me or even The Fire

AMY GOODMAN: By Ta-Nehisi Coates.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Yeah, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, or The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin or The Fire This Time by Jesmyn Ward, her anthology. Or he can read books on slavery, like—and so, I mean, I think there are so many texts that he could read, if he was seriously interested in learning about racism in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have just finished a book, How to Be an Antiracist. How?

IBRAM X. KENDI: I think, first and foremost, for us to recognize there’s no such thing as a “not racist.” And so, typically, when Americans are charged with expressing racist ideas or defending racist policies, Americans like to respond by saying, “I’m not a racist.” And I have yet to figure out what it means to be a “not racist.” And so, I think, first and foremost, for Americans to stop being in denial about their racist ideas, about the policies that are causing racial disparities, and recognize that there’s only racist and anti-racist ideas, notions of racial hierarchy and notions of racial equality. There are only racist and anti-racist policies, policies that yield racial equity and policies that yield racial inequity. And then there are only people who are supporting either or both. And so, I think, for us, first and foremost, to recognize that there’s no such thing as a “not racist,” and for us to recognize we can only be racist or anti-racist.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Kendi, you wrote a beautiful piece in The Atlantic magazine about, well, this period, this last year that you’ve been writing your book, How to Be an Antiracist. You also went through a health crisis yourself, being diagnosed with fourth stage metastatic colon cancer, what, over a year ago?


AMY GOODMAN: Eighty-eight percent of people don’t make it. Talk about the diagnosis and how you came through this.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Yeah, so, I mean, I—yeah, around this time last year, I think January 10th of last year, I had a colonoscopy. And we were shocked when the doctor came in and said that she saw something abnormal, which she thought was cancer. And then, the next day, they scanned my body and found that that colon cancer had spread to my liver, and there were tumors in my liver.

And so, being—I think I was 35 years old—I was completely shocked. I didn’t have any of the risk factors. But at the same time, they said there was a chance, you know, a chance that I could recover. And so, of course, I went, did six months of chemotherapy. And almost immediately the tumors started to shrink. And ultimately, I did surgery at the end of the summer, and the surgeons went in and found that there were no cancer cells left.

And for me, the way that I got through that process was, more or less, sort of thinking about writing, of course, the book, but even sort of thinking about what was possible. I mean, I tried to really appreciate the little things in life and just know that if there’s a possibility, then I want to be that possibility.

AMY GOODMAN: You have a little girl.


AMY GOODMAN: When you were diagnosed, how old was she?

IBRAM X. KENDI: She was about—she was about 1. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how did it change your views? You wrote in the piece, “[T]he more my fear of death changed into the wonder of survival, the more I reflected on what I was writing. If I could live on, why not live on to be antiracist? Why not live to be fully human and see all others as fully human, and fight to ensure our policies see and treat all humans fully and equitably?”

IBRAM X. KENDI: Yeah, I mean, it really—I mean, in many ways, a cancer diagnosis and the fight, of course, it was extremely difficult going through six months of chemo privately. But I think, for me, it allowed me to recognize just how precious our time is on this Earth, just how short our time is on this Earth and just how serious we should be about our time on this Earth. And so, for me, that’s what it really was. I mean, we need to take every moment that we have on this Earth seriously. And for me, that seriousness was trying to create a new anti-racist world.

AMY GOODMAN: You talked about a kind of cocoon of women around you: your little girl, your partner and your mother.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Yes, yes. So, my mother, when we told her that I more than likely had cancer, her response was, “Well, we’ll deal with it.” And that was it. And that’s typically how she responded to adversity, that “We’ll deal with it.” And so, you know, for me, I was like, “OK, we will deal with it.”

And my partner, as well, who’s a physician and who knew how serious it was—I didn’t even know that 88 percent of people with stage 4 colon cancer are likely—basically die. But she knew. But she, of course, was extremely supportive throughout.

And then, my daughter, who of course didn’t know what was going on, and expected her daddy to be acting the same way even if I got chemotherapy earlier in the day—and so, how could I not act the same way?

AMY GOODMAN: So how does it feel to be part of the 12 percent?

IBRAM X. KENDI: I mean, it feels good. And, of course, I’d like to continue to be in that 12 percent.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it is a pleasure to spend this time with you, and we look forward to interviewing you on your book when it comes out this summer.

IBRAM X. KENDI: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Ibram X. Kendi, professor of history and international relations, founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. I’m Amy Goodman, in Washington, D.C. Thanks so much.

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