An Anti-Racist Syllabus for Virginia Governor Ralph Northam

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American University historian and National Book Award-winner Ibram X Kendi offers a reading list to embattled Virginia Governor Ralph Northam in the wake of his blackface scandal.

Here are some of the books on Kendi’s list:

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told

Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh

Leon Litwack, North of Slavery

Eric Foner, Reconstruction

Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis

Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy

Read Kendi’s entire piece at The Atlantic

Strivings In Their Souls

Du BoisCheck out historian Ibram X. Kendi‘s recent piece at The Paris Review on the cultural context in which W.E.B. Du Bois’s wrote his famous work The Souls of Black Folk (1903).  Kendi situates the work in the context of the Sam Hose lynching of 1899.

No lie circulated as far and wide over space and time as the original racist one that prefigured the Negro a beast. “No other news goes out to the world save that which stamps us as a race of cut-throats, robbers, and lustful wild beasts,” Ida B. Wells wrote in her 1892 antilynching manifesto, “Southern Horrors.”

Beasts, most agreed, did not have souls.

A beast could be traded and enslaved. A beast should be segregated and lynched. A beast cannot stop raping and killing. A beast could be subdued by only a mob or a jail cell. A beast so brutal even trained police officers fear for their lives. The Negro a beast.

“They lived like beasts, without any custom of reasonable beings,” wrote Gomes Eanes de Zurara in his 1453 cradle of racist ideas, defending Portugal’s pioneering slave trading of Africans. A century later, pioneering British slave trader John Lok described Africans as “people of beastly living.” In 1899, the Wilmington Messenger reprinted an 1898 speech of Georgia’s Rebecca Felton, who in 1922 would become the nation’s first female U.S. senator. If “it requires lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from ravening, drunken human beasts,” she said, “then I say lynch a thousand a week.” In 1900, the best seller of segregationist demagogues was the Mississippi professor Charles Carroll’s Mystery Solved: The Negro a Beast. Thomas Dixon brought this thesis to life in his best-selling 1902 novel, The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden, the first step in the march toward D. W. Griffith’s fanciful film The Birth of a Nation.

It is difficult to comprehend how daring it was for W. E. B. Du Bois to publish the most acclaimed book of his career in the face of this avalanche of beastly labels rushing down onto the Negro. Du Bois stared into the grisly faces of the racist past and present and decreed that blacks were not soulless beasts. “Ain’t I a human?” he seemed to be asking, just as fifty years earlier the legendary black feminist Sojourner Truth famously asked, “Ain’t I a woman?”

In publishing The Souls of Black Folk, on April 18, 1903, Du Bois argued, implicitly, that the world needs to know the humanity of black folk by listening carefully to the “strivings” in their souls….

Read the entire piece here.

Jefferson, Secession, and Monuments

Lee

Last night on CNN, host James Lemon had African-American public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson on his program.  Lemon asked Dyson to respond to the comments Donald Trump made yesterday about historical monuments.  Trump said:

So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down.  I wonder, is it George Washington next week?  And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop.

All day the commentators on CNN have been outraged that Trump would compare Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.  Dyson responded by saying that Lee and Jackson seceded from the union, while Jefferson and Washington, despite owning slaves, formed a “bulwark” against slavery by articulating the ideals that eventually brought the institution to an end.

On one level, I found Dyson’s comment refreshing.  When commentators say that we can’t find a usable past in Western Civilization because it is tainted by the sin of slavery, I often cringe.  Yes, Western Civilization has been inherently racist.  Yes, Western Civilization brought us slavery.  But at the same time, Western Civilization brought us the ideas and ideals–liberty and freedom especially–that were eventually applied to the slavery and ultimately brought it to an end.

I have little patience for defenders of Western Civilization who fail to acknowledge its relationship with race.  I have little patience for those who demonize Western Civilization without acknowledging the historical complexity I wrote about above.  I read several books and articles this summer that propagated both fallacies.

But when it comes to Jefferson, things are even more complicated than this.  If you read Ibram X Kendi’s recent New York Times op-ed you will learn that some of Jefferson’s ideas contributed to secession.

So should the Jefferson monuments come down?

The conversation continues.

(See my last post where I discussed this more fully).

What Would Jefferson Say?

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What would Jefferson say about the events that took place this past weekend in Charlottesville?  The short answer is: “I have no idea.”  We can speculate, but we can’t bring Jefferson back from the grave to give his opinion.  It is an impossible question to answer and this is why we need to approach these kinds of queries with caution.

Having said that, historians can offer reasonable suggestions about what Jefferson may have thought about a troublesome moment like this. And since white supremacists marched through the campus he founded on Friday night, it is worth trying to think together about how he would have responded.

This is what historian Ibram X Kendi did in yesterday’s Washington Post.  Kendi teaches history at American University and is the National Book Award-winning author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

Here is a taste:

In sum, Jefferson’s legacy embodied the clash that snatched and harmed human life in the city of Jefferson over the last few days.

Confederate leaders revered Jefferson long before they seceded from the Union. To some he was a direct relative. He was the second cousin-in-law of Lee.

To others, he was an inspiration. Jefferson Davis was not just named after him. As a slaveholder, U.S. senator and then Confederate president, Davis shared Jefferson’s values: states’ rights, limited federal power over their property, extended federal military power over their captives, racist ideas and constitutional protections for slavery.

Although Confederate leaders traced their ideological and relational roots to Jefferson, they also knew that his most famous words threatened their plantations. The Confederates seceded from Thomas Jefferson when they seceded from his independent Union. If Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence remains the soul of the United States, then Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens revealed what historian Henry V. Jaffa termed “the soul of the Confederacy” on March 21, 1861. Both justified their new nations and laid out their ideals.

Read the rest here.

Did the Civil Rights Act Spur Racist Progress?

Lyndon_Johnson_signing_Civil_Rights_Act,_July_2,_1964

Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964.  According to National Book Award winner and historian Ibram X. Kendi, the Act “spurred all sorts of racial progress–from desegregating Southern establishments to driving anti-discrimination lawsuits, to opening the doors of opportunity for the new black middle class.”

But Kendi’s recent piece in The Washington Post also calls our attention to what he believes to be an overlooked aspect of the Civil Rights Act.  He argues that the Act “also spurred racist progress.”  He adds, ”

Here is a taste:

After the passage of the act, Americans quickly confused the death of Jim Crow for the death of racism. The result: They blamed persisting and progressing racial disparities on black inferiority. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) had been complaining throughout the 1960s about those “dependent animal” creatures on welfare. Criminologists like Marvin Wolfgang were writing about urban blacks’ “subculture of violence.” Sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Johnson’s assistant secretary of labor, pointed to the black family as a “tangle of pathology” in a 1965 report.kendi

As new racist ideas and anti-racist demonstrations spread in the late 1960s, first President Johnson and then Richard Nixon turned away from civil rights toward “law and order” — a phrase that came to symbolize and pardon the progress of racist ideas and policies. The Nixon White House branded black people as the real source of the racial problems, rather than the Americans who quietly responded to the 1964 act by backing “race neutral” policies that were aimed at excluding black bodies.

For many Americans, it was this violent subculture, emanating from the weak and dependent black family, that caused the hundreds of urban rebellions that followed in the days, months and years after the Civil Rights Act. As the Wall Street Journal headline on Aug.16, 1965, explained: “Behind the Riots: Family Life Breakdown in Negro Slums Sow Seeds of Race Violence: Husbandless Homes Spawn Young Hoodlums, Impede Reforms.”

Read the entire piece here.

“The Impending Crisis”

Hinton_Rowan_Helper_(1829-1909)Over at Time, National Book Award winner and historian Ibram X. Kendi introduces us to Hinton Rowan Helper, the author of The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It (1857). Kendi compares the influence of Helper’s book to Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Here is a taste of his piece:

Helper pierced the heart of slaveholding society in The Impending Crisis of the South. He knew that the small group of enslavers of four million people depended on the loyalty of the roughly five million non-slaveholding whites to keep their system going. Helper tried to mobilize these poor and humble white people against this small slaveholding aristocracy.

Helper was no antiracist. He did “not believe in the unity of the races,” and he called for black people to be sent back to Africa. But Helper was an abolitionist. Slavery shackles industrialization, he argued, holding back economic progress and the opportunities of non-slaveholding whites.

Horace Greeley, the nation’s most powerful editor, promoted the book in the nation’s leading newspaper, the New York Tribune. On March 20, 1858, Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts cited the book in a Senate debate on slavery. Energized, Helper and Greeley partnered in soliciting funds and Republican endorsements to produce a smaller, inexpensive version to distribute during the political campaign of 1860. Published in July 1859, the mass-market version became an instant bestseller in antislavery circles and an instant dartboard in proslavery circles, polarizing the nation as have few books in American history.

By December 1859, the New York Tribune, the main distributor of The Impending Crisis, was mailing off 500 copies a day. Some of those copies reached southern towns where the book became like an illicit drug. Southerners were arrested and jailed for possessing a copy. Southern Congressmen spent the winter of 1859-1860 denying Ohio Representative John Sherman the Speaker of the House position because he had endorsed the “insurrectionist and hostile” book.

The Impending Crisis gave secessionists the proof they needed to argue that the Republican Party, which had branded itself as the party of free white soil, was on its way to forming “an Abolition Party in the South of Southern men,” as the Charleston Mercury feared. If that happened, “The contest for slavery will no longer be one between the North and the South. It will be in the South, between the people of the South.”

Read the entire piece here.

Are You an Intellectual?

kendiIbram X. Kendi‘s book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America recently won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.  Last week he delivered the doctoral commencement address at the University of Florida where he teaches in the history department.  His address, titled “Are You Intellectual,” is worth reading in full.  He has posted it to the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society.

Here is a taste:

The point of my address is to ask you a simple question: are you an intellectual?

I am asking this question because you need to know that having a doctorate does not make you an intellectual. It is so embarrassing, but there are doctorates who are not intellectuals. Just like there are MDs who are not healers. Just like there are JDs who are not about justice. Just like there are Reverends who are not about God. Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a Reverend who is not about God? Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a JD who is not about justice. Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a MD who is not a healer? Isn’t that a tragedy walking: a doctorate holder who is not an intellectual?

Today you are joining the illustrious academy of doctoral recipients. But I want to talk to you today about joining the even more illustrious academy of intellectuals. No doctorate degree is required to join the intellectual academy. This is an inclusive academy with all types of people with all types of backgrounds. There are people with only a GED in this intellectual academy. There are incarcerated people in this intellectual academy. There are homeless people in this intellectual academy. There are poor people in this intellectual academy.

When I say intellectual, I am not referring to someone who knows a wealth of information. How much you know has no bearing on how much you are in intellectual.

I define—and many others define an intellectual as someone with a tremendous desire to know. Intellectuals are open-minded. Intellectuals have a tremendous capacity to change their mind on matters, to self-reflect, to self-critique. Intellectuals are governed by only one special interest that is rarely self-serving—the special interest of finding and revealing the truth.

Read the entire address here.