FAMU alum battles America’s most intractable issue
By April Simpson
Washington, D.C. — Ibram X. Kendi is running behind on a recent Tuesday morning after his now 3-year-old daughter, Imani, refused to get into her car seat. The historian and New York Times bestselling author knows, however, that, like debating with folks about race, negotiating with toddlers can be frustrating.
Carrying a leather messenger bag over a muscular frame, and casually dressed in a maroon polo and dark denim jeans, Kendi resembles a graduate student. It’s tough to hear him in this noisy café on the American University (AU) campus in a well-heeled Washington, D.C., neighborhood.
He teaches history and international relations at AU, where he founded the Antiracist Research and Policy Center.
At that moment, Kendi is on the verge of going global. His latest book “How To Be an Antiracist” (One World) was about to be published in London, England, ahead of the August launch in America. He was prepping for the book tour, which would take him across the Atlantic and, to cities across America.
He explains a key idea in the book.
“In this society, we are raised to be racist,” Kendi says. “Being an antiracist is looking out at the world and seeing the world of inequity as abnormal, seeing the cause of that inequity as racist policies, and seeing the racial groups as equals.”
No one who knew Kendi during his undergraduate years at FAMU is surprised by his success. Back then, he was named Ibram Henry Rogers. (In 2013, he changed his middle name to the Zulu, “Xolani,” meaning peace, and took the last name Kendi after he married Sadiqa Kendi, a pediatric emergency physician from Albany, Ga.)
When he first came to FAMU dreaming of being a sportswriter, Kendi entered the School of Journalism & Graphic Communication. After internships at the Mobile Register and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, by his own account, he soured on sports journalism and began focusing on the issue of racial justice. He graduated from FAMU in 2004 with a second major in African-American Studies.
“I took courses in African and African-American history with Dr. [David] Jackson my senior year and I would have taken them much earlier to get a head start,” Kendi says. “I would have been writing about race all along and not just by my senior year.”
The former Tallahassee Democrat intern and journalism student was always thoughtful and interested in the big questions about racism, injustice and inequality.
David Jackson, Ph.D., is now associate provost and dean of Graduate Studies. Over the years, he has encountered his former student at professional conferences and on campus when Kendi came to discuss his award-winning book.
“Ibram has blossomed into a distinguished scholar,” said Jackson, who saw Kendi’s potential when Kendi was a double major.
“He is doing some dynamic work in the field. One of the things that I respect about him is that he recognized the value of that degree at FAMU.”
Even though Kendi was interested in history, he still had to get newspaper journalism out of his system. He worked as a reporter for The Virginian-Pilot before leaving in 2010 to pursue his master’s and a doctorate in African American Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia. His first teaching assignments were at the State University of New York Oneonta and SUNY Albany. He later taught at Ivy League Brown University and the University of Florida before his current role at American University.
His first book, “The Black Campus Movement,” (Macmillan), won the W.E.B. Dubois Book Prize. He followed up with “Stamped from The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” which the Guardian described “as a timely history of racist ideas in America.”
For his work, Kendi won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. At 34, he was the youngest recipient of the award.
In 2017, he founded the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at AU. The seminal center pairs scholars, policymakers, journalists and advocates to examine racial problems and propose policy solutions. The nontraditional pairings reflect Kendi’s background as a writer and academic who’s delved deeply into activism and policy studies.
“Kendi is a part of a cadre of scholars I have had the pleasure to teach,” Jackson said. “I am glad to see him fly, and I look forward to seeing him reach the highest heights.”
A prolific writer and public intellectual, Kendi’s op-eds and essays have appeared in such national publications as the New York Times, the Guardian, the Washington Post and the Atlantic, for whom he is an ideas columnist.
Behind his buttoned-up and quiet persona, Kendi is relentless about defending his opinions. This is a dude who argues his point, even if unpopular, according to friends. In college, an innocent debate almost came to blows when Kendi, a die-hard Knicks fan, argued that Allen Houston, a New York Knicks shooting guard, was a better player than Michael Jordan.
“The guy is fearless,” said college buddy G. Devan Tripp, who is now a human resources executive in Atlanta.
Still, from graduation to academia to marriage to fatherhood and to national recognition, Kendi has stayed grounded, his friends say. He’s always humble and gracious about his work – just not about the Knicks. He’d never share his accolades with strangers unprompted.
“In the midst of talking trash, he’s working,” says former roommate Jean Brunache, now a seventh-grade science teacher in Fort Lauderdale. Brunache, Tripp and Kendi all lived together in a two-story townhouse in Tallahassee while attending FAMU.
In 2018, though, life took a serious, near-tragic turn. Kendi was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. Kendi kept his cool. Despite the dismal survival rate, friends tried to talk to him as if everything was OK. Sometimes, it seemed the diagnosis hit them harder than Kendi.
“I remember the lack of care that he had about himself and what might happen with his career,” Tripp recalled. “The only thing he cared about was his wife, Imani, his parents; the things that he wanted to do for the world and society.”
In early September, to celebrate the anniversary of his successful surgery, Kendi took to Twitter to remember the ordeal accompanied by photos of him while in the hospital. Back then, his daughter gave him a reason for hope and optimism.
“My prognosis looked bright as my daughter’s eyes who held my hands through the pain in the hospital and demanded to wear bandages when we got home in solidarity with Daddy,” Kendi wrote. “It all started looking up.”
Back then the book project, still in gestation, was on his mind. The drive to finish pushed him to get well.
“I started thinking in the hospital that, when I regained my strength, I could finish the book. I feared Stage 4 cancer would not let me finish. (yes, I was already preparing to write again through reading great prose in the ICU).
A year later that book, “How to Be An AntiRacist,” is a bestseller and inspiring people. Incredible the radical difference a year makes?” he wrote on Twitter.
Kendi wasn’t telling his story just for retweets. Like the fight against racism, he was trying to encourage others in the battle of their lives.
“It was too painful to share these pictures last year, and it is still painful,” he said of the pictures with him in hospital garb. “But I share them first and foremost for anyone in this cancer fight, for anyone nursing someone in this cancer fight, so they can know there is another side to the pain.”
Among Kendi’s other missions is to make history – especially the story of Black America – more widely accessible. He’s working on an African-American history book of text and pictures tentatively titled “400 souls,” which spans 1619 to 2019. Eighty writers will cover their expertise over five-year periods. Ten poets and 10 painters will create original works focused on 40-year stretches.
The academic, who has enthralled readers with his deep thoughts and hefty arguments, understands that the progress of the past 65 years could be endangered if the common man or woman doesn’t know the true story of how far we’ve come.
“I’m trying to figure out ways to make history and ideas accessible to everyday people,” Kendi says. “Instead of me blaming people for not knowing, I’ll always ask myself, ‘What is it that I can do to create a product that will cause them to want to know, or cause them to know?’”