Ibram X. Kendi: Why the coronavirus is hitting black people so hard

Ibram X. Kendi and co-author Jason Reynolds on their new YA book "Stamped" and the legacy of racism, then and now

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published April 30, 2020 9:00AM (EDT)

Ibram X Kendi, D Watkins, & Jason Reynolds (Salon)
Ibram X Kendi, D Watkins, & Jason Reynolds (Salon)

"There's never been anything wrong with black people as a group," bestselling author Ibram X. Kendi told me this week on our latest at-home edition of "Salon Talks. "And there's always been wrong with the way in which we've been forced to live in this country."

When I was growing up, I often felt like being born black came with bad luck. Don't get me wrong, I always loved myself and my community. But I only saw black people being harassed by police and I only saw black schools falling apart with old books and broken heating systems. The white schools we visited for basketball tournaments were much nicer. I saw black people being portrayed as criminals every time I switched on the nightly news. The sum of these events often made me think that there was something inherently wrong with me. 

It wasn't until I became older and started reading and studying history that I began to understand the role Africans and African Americans played in the development of America. It's not our fault. We just played the terrible hand America has dealt us from slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, blockbusting, redlining, legal discrimination — the list goes on.    

Four years ago, Kendi brilliantly documented the origins of these problems in his book "Stamped From the Beginning," identifying racism as the culprit, defining its origin and then following its journey from the 16th century until modern times. On the heels of that book's success, Kendi recruited Jason Reynolds, a best-selling YA author, to translate it into a version for younger readers, "Stamped," so that the next generation won't have to be confused as I was, growing up, about the origins of racism and racist ideas.

Watch my "Salon Talks" with Reynolds and Kendi right here to hear more about "Stamped," how the coronavirus pandemic has been disproportionately been affecting African Americans and how they've both been surviving lockdown — whether writing the next book on race or inspiring students at home. 

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What are some of the things that you guys have been doing to cope with physical distancing during coronavirus and all the craziness that has been going on?

Jason Reynolds: I've just been pouring my energy into the kids. My life is exactly the same except I can't go outside. But in terms of just keeping my mental space clear, because I'm a dude that does suffer with some mental illness, I can't really afford to allow my mind to go down that rabbit hole. I've just been pouring all of my mental energy into the ambassadorship and making sure that I'm still engaging with these young people and not being hard on myself. Working and doing my thing right, but when that doesn't come, I'll just lay on the couch and play video games like everybody else.

Jason, you're also reading to young people on Instagram too.

Reynolds: Yeah, I do these writing prompts on Tuesday and Thursday. A little shorty did a piece and then his mom sent it to me. The prompt usually goes "What would you say to your hero if you could write a letter to your hero?" but my prompt was "What would your hero say back? What would your hero respond to you?" This kid wrote about Sam Jackson and about how Sam Jackson would tell him that he's proud of him and that he's going to overcome his stutter and all of this. Sam Jackson replied to little homie. It was super cool to see that happen in real time.

Ibram, you've been out there doing interviews and talking about some of the things that especially black people have been facing in this difficult time.

Ibram X. Kendi: Yeah. I think four weeks ago I started writing essays in The Atlantic calling for the need for racial data because we didn't even have any. They didn't have much racial data about who's being infected, who's being killed. Then eventually some of the states started releasing racial data. I actually was able to then partner with the COVID Tracking Project and we're now creating this COVID racial data tracker. States continue to release their racial data that we're collecting it, making it available to people, analyzing it, reporting on it, ensuring that the narrative is not that black people are dying at higher rates because there's something wrong with them, but that the narrative is there was something wrong with this society that even was before this COVID-19 pandemic. This pandemic is showing us that yet again. Will we do something about it?

What do you identify as the biggest issue right now in terms of the response by the president and various governors?

Kendi: I think right now the most immediate issue is when the governor of Georgia talks about opening back up the state of Georgia. That's devastating to me because my wife, Sadiqa, her hometown is Albany, Georgia, which right now has one of the highest death rates in the country. Seventy-five percent of the people in Albany, Georgia, are black. Then a few counties over, you have majority black counties that also have some of the highest black death rates in the country.

Essentially, southwest Georgia has some of the highest death rates in the country, in mostly black counties. The governor of Georgia is saying, "Oh, things are cool. We can open back up the state." That shows me not only that he doesn't really value black lives, but also that many people are going to suffer as a result of his policy.

Some people in Georgia are saying that they're continuing to stay quarantined and not fall into the foolishness of whatever Kemp is doing down there.

Kendi: Yeah, I saw that too. That's, of course, heartening. Obviously many Georgians do not view him as their legitimate governor anyway, so they're not really going to listen to him. They're certainly listening to Stacey Abrams who is urging people as rightfully a governor of Georgia who actually cared about Georgians equally would be doing so.

Let's talk about your guys' book, "Stamped." How does our nation's top scholar on race hook up with one of the best writers to collaborate on a book? This is a dream team project. What was that first meeting like?

Kendi: I think first, the meetings were many meetings because Jason was like, "No, I'm straight. I'm not writing any of that." It took me a while, or I should say it took him a while, or it really took both of us while to launch this writing project. I'm just so happy that he did.

Reynolds: Hey, everybody would be like, "I don't know why you would say no. I don't know why you would turn it down." Dude, if he came to you, would you say yeah?"

I'm a fan. I would've said, "Hell, yeah." But Jason, you told Kobe no.

Reynolds: Yeah, I did. I told Kobe no for the same reasons. Look, at the end of the day, I've got a lot of respect for him. When you respect what people do, you just don't jump in anybody's water, bro. I didn't build that pool. Right? He did. And so for me to just go jump in that water just felt a little disrespectful. It was like, can I even manage it? Is it too much for me? I don't have that kind of ego. I've got an ego, but I don't have that kind of ego that allows me to believe that I could do everything. It just took me a minute to work up the nerve to take on the task.

Ibram, I read your original book, "Stamped From the Beginning." The one that you and Jason recently released together is for the younger generation. The tone is different. I'm not going to say fun, but it's extremely engaging and important and relevant. I think it works. How did you approach this remix of the book?

Kendi: I was sort of shocked and what I mean by "shocked" is that I knew I couldn't do it. You know what I'm saying? I knew this was not a book that I could completely transform and remix in a completely different register with a completely different tone, spoken directly to young people and older people.

When I actually read that first draft and Jason had pretty much did that, I was shocked because I didn't know if it was even possible. Not only shocked, but just excited because I had a feeling that it would do precisely what it's done since it's been released, in which people all over have been not only getting the book, but reading the book and being impacted by it.

Do you feel like there's been like a whole lot of antiracist language being spread, the way you guys wanted it to be spread through writing the book? Has the conversation been shaped the way you wanted it to be?

Reynolds: We played a long game, you know what I mean? Here's what I will say, we'll know for sure this time next year because what happens is we got to give schools time to get it into the curriculums, right? COVID has put a bit of a wrench in that, but we've seen a beautiful groundswell. It's doing this thing and the conversation is definitely bubbling, but this time next year after schools are back in and we can see the incorporation of the book into curriculums, then we'll really start seeing how it all shakes out.

The fun part for me is just when you think about yourself in context of the stories that are in the book. For me, it was the part about Rocky and understanding how "Rocky 2" was actually a symbol of white victory. You're like, "Damn, I used to like Rocky when I was a kid."

Reynolds: Yeah, I liked the "Planet of the Apes" franchise. I was blown up. I can't even watch it no more. That's messed up. But it is what it is. The truth is important. Fortunately, he sent me a list: These are the non-negotiables. These things need to be in this book, these moments in history, you cannot leave out this stuff. That gave me a roadmap and then I could build around everything else.

What do you felt like those moments were?

Reynolds: I knew Gomes Eanes de Zurara, the first racist. I knew that had to be there.

Right, it had to be in there.

Reynolds: It had to go. I knew that Cotton Mather had to be in there, right? I knew, of course all the Thomas Jefferson stuff. Basically he was like, "Thomas Jefferson needs to be in the book," right? All of this stuff has got to be in the book. Then they were other moments. He made sure that we had to talk about women and what were the responses from women? You see that there's never a moment where, whether it's Sojourner Truth, whether it's Ida B. Wells, whether it's Zora Neale Hurston, he was very clear and thoughtful about making sure that that was in there.

We had to make sure that we mentioned indigenous people. Even though we're talking about anti-black racism, we can't talk about America without discussing indigenous people, which was a good call that he made sure he put that in there. He was super-thoughtful and careful about that stuff.

There's going to be a lot of high school students, especially in Baltimore, who will watch this interview because a lot of them are going to be reading the book. People are talking about it like crazy. What would you say directly to them? What are some of the things you'd like to say to them as far as being antiracist and what that looks like, and how they can incorporate that in their daily lives, especially with what's going on right now with coronavirus?

Reynolds: Look, I'm going to go first because I know if I don't say it, he's going to steal it, so I'm going to say first. I think the one thing that I would say is to Baltimore City and to all of the young folks in Baltimore is that ain't nothing wrong with you. There's nothing wrong with you. All right? America will have us believing that there is something wrong with us, that we are a problem or that we have a problem, when the problem has more to do and everything to do with American policy and racist policy and racist ideas, not with us.

We are who we are and we're not ... The way that it's spun in media, the way that it's spun all over the place that there's something wrong with us, and we start actually believing it. I think that that belief metastasizes into a cancer that is really hard to defeat.

Kendi: Yeah. To specify that, for our current moment in which we see black people dying of COVID-19 at a higher rate, then let's say, white people, the question is why? You have some folks who are like, "It's because black people are not taking the virus seriously. It's because black people are not staying inside and social distancing. Black people are to blame for why they're dying at higher rates." But what we also know through the surveying of people of different races is that black people are actually taking this virus more seriously than white people. We also know that black people are being infected at a higher rate because they're less likely to work in jobs which they can work from home, and more likely to have to take public transportation where they're stuck on a train or a bus and it's hard, essentially, not to get infected.

Then they come home and if they're infected outside by doing their job, they come home and infect everyone else. It's not their fault, but you compare them to a white person who did not even have to leave and can work from home — now we can understand why so many black people are getting infected.

Then we ask, "OK, why is it that we're dying?" It's not because there's something wrong with black people. It's because we live in neighborhoods where there's environmental hazards, where there's pollution, so that causes young black kids to have asthma. We live in food deserts where it's hard to get access to high quality, cheaper food. That causes people to be more likely to suffer from heart disease and you suffer from respiratory disease, which then is going to make you more likely to die. We're just showing through this book, over time, there's never been anything wrong with black people as a group and always been wrong with the way in which we've been forced to live in this country.

When you wrote "Stamped From the Beginning," you came up with an anti-racist reading list. Do you guys think you can put together one for young adults? Jason has written about 40 books, so he can fill that list out all by himself, but are there some antiracist young adult books that can be paired with "Stamped"?

Reynolds: Actually, there's a list in the book. We put a list at the end of the book. There's a book called "This Book is Anti-Racist," which is dope. There's so many novels that talk about these things, whether it be ... I'll shop my own, "All American Boys" or whether it be "Anger Is a Gift" by Mark Oshiro. Right. This is all YA fiction stuff. Walter Dean Myers' "Monster." Bro, what happens in that story has everything to do with what we're talking about. Right now there's so many books, I think, that lean into it.

Also, we don't have to limit them to just books categorized as "young adult." That's all marketing, right?  There's a lot of books. There are high schoolers who are reading "The New Jim Crow" and they should be. There are high schoolers who are reading "Just Mercy."

When I was in high school, they gave me "Gifted Hands" about Ben Carson. No bulls**t. This is why I didn't read coming up.

Reynolds: We all had to get it. I got that joint. We all had to get "Gifted Hands" every Black History Month. They used to be like, "You could be Martin, you could be Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman." And there was always some teacher who was like, "Or, if you want somebody new, you could be Dr. Ben Carson." I'll never forget, "You be Dr. Ben Carson." I never chose Dr. Ben Carson. I was always rogue. I'm trying to be Martin Luther King.

In closing, what are you guys working on now? Anything we should look out for?

Reynolds: Man, look, I'm working on my ambassadorship basically. That's at the forefront and then I've got some secret happening that I can't really talk about. I can hint, I can't talk about the details of it, but I'm writing a fable. I'm interested in why we don't write fables anymore. Why all of a sudden allegory became a bad word? This is the way a lot of us learn. This is a real thing. I'm working on a contemporary fable, which is cool and different and interesting. Then I'm working on some other secret stuff that I can't talk about.

Kendi: I'm finalizing a book right now. With "How to Be an Antiracist," one of the things that we found is in many ways it was very personal for people and people wanted a way to reflect on their personal racial journey as they're reading through the book. One of the things we decided to work on is basically a guided journal based on "How to Be an Antiracist." I'm working on that right now. We're loosely titling it, "Be Antiracist: A Guided Journal of Self and Societal Reflection." It takes the reader through really reflecting on themselves and their society from an antiracist standpoint.

You got the antiracist baby book coming out too, right?

Kendi: Yes. In June, "Antiracist Baby." Obviously it's a board book for the youngest of readers.

There are some racist babies out there?

Kendi: Oh yeah, there are. Actually, to be real, studies show that babies as early as three years old, start thinking their racist ideas. We need to start with these kids as early as we can.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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