It's Not A History Lesson. New Book Tackles Racist Ideas

Mar 10, 2020
Originally published on March 10, 2020 6:45 am
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One of the more difficult things to talk with students about is race. A new book from a historian and a children's book author tries to tackle racist ideas in a relatable way for young adults. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has the story.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: When you think about the history of racism, what comes to mind? Here's how Emani James, a 10th-grader in Washington, D.C., answered that question.

EMANI JAMES: I go back to, like, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. We don't ever learn about what happened before then.

NADWORNY: Emani is an avid reader and does well in school, but she says she's only learned broad strokes about slavery. There was Harriet Tubman and cotton, but not much more.

EMANI: With history, people like to cut off certain parts that they don't want to tell us. Like, they're not going to tell us the deep, deep stuff.

NADWORNY: But Emani, she wants to know that deep, deep stuff.

IBRAM X KENDI: Getting deep, deep, deep - that really actually protects our young people.

NADWORNY: That's Ibram X. Kendi, a historian and professor at American University.

KENDI: We think we're protecting them by not getting deep; we're actually protecting them by getting deep, by allowing them to really understand this nation's history.

NADWORNY: In 2017, Kendi wrote an award-winning book about the history of racism. But that book was kind of academic, and Kendi, he wanted to make sure that young people, they knew about the history in it. So he begged Jason Reynolds, an award-winning children's book author, to make a remix of that book - a cool new version for young people.

JASON REYNOLDS: There's currency in cool, right? There always has been; there always will be. It matters to them; it mattered to me.

NADWORNY: At first, Reynolds actually told him no. He was a bit intimidated. He was a children's book author, he said, not a scholar. But eventually Kendi convinced him, and the task became translation.

REYNOLDS: I wanted to figure out how to make this really complex thing that he - all this information that he gave the world, how do I take it and make it feel like a fresh pair of Jordans?

NADWORNY: To make the book cool, Reynolds put cultural touch points, like song lyrics, throughout, bringing up Queen Latifah and Public Enemy to connect ideas about slavery and civil rights. Both Reynolds and Kendi are here at Columbia Heights Education Campus in D.C. talking with Emani and two other students about the new book. It's called "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, And You." Reynolds reads from Chapter 1.

REYNOLDS: (Reading) Some may believe race isn't an issue anymore, that it's a thing of the past, old tales of bad times. Others may be certain that race is like an alligator, a dinosaur that never went extinct but instead evolved, and though hiding in murky swamp waters, that leftover monster is still deadly. And then there are those of you who know that race and, more critical, racism are everywhere.

NADWORNY: Seeing race everywhere - that idea really connected with Amir Perkins, a high school junior. Reading "Stamped," he saw the connections between history and his everyday life living in D.C.

AMIR PERKINS: I like how he made me think about me, writing the book for everybody.

NADWORNY: As the book travels through history, it puts ideas and people into three categories. Here's Kendi and Reynolds breaking that vocab down.

KENDI: There's the segregationists, which Jason calls the haters.

REYNOLDS: The haters, yeah. Segregationists are haters. Haters are the people who hate you just because you ain't like them, right?

KENDI: And then there's the assimilationists, who are the likers.

REYNOLDS: Yeah, likers are your fake friends. You know what I mean? Everybody got - everybody know them, too, right? Everybody know the phonies. And they're basically the ones who - they like you, but they like you because you are like them, you know. That - it's contingent upon you being like them, you know.

KENDI: And then there's the anti-racists, who are the lovers.

REYNOLDS: And the lovers, you know, those are - you know, are day-ones, as we say. Those are the ones that we know are ride-or-dies - right? - the ones who love us for being like us.

NADWORNY: "Stamped" focuses on the history of racist ideas because ideas have power; they've been embedded into the structures of our society for centuries. One debunked but historically persistent idea that stood out to Emani is climate theory. The idea is that if African people lived in cooler temperatures, they would become white. This originally came from Aristotle, and even some of the folks who wrote the U.S. Constitution believed this idea.

EMANI: The climate theory - I was like, what?

NADWORNY: Ever since Emani read about it, she cannot stop thinking about it.

EMANI: If we lived in cooler temperatures, our skin wouldn't be the color it is now. Like - what?

KENDI: Makes no sense.

EMANI: What - that's what I'm saying. Like...

KENDI: Because even adults are fascinated by how, in early America, the leading racial theorists were climate theories. I mean, these are the types of figures who were basically articulating climate theory. And they thought that they were so smart (laughter).

REYNOLDS: Meanwhile, Emani's like, this just...

EMANI: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

NADWORNY: And that, it's the idea behind the whole book - to get young people to think about this stuff because history is mixed with the present, and no matter how old you are, the present is mixed with history.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.