Author Interview: Historian Ibram X. Kendi on Two New Versions of “Stamped From the Beginning”

By Blake Maddux

This month has seen the publication of two new versions of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning: a revised edition, which is slated for adaptation by Netflix, and a graphic history, illustrated by Joel Christian Gill.

Ibram X. Kendi. Photo: Janice Checchio

Since 2016, Boston University professor Ibram X. Kendi has become as revered to those who admire his antiracist approach to American history as he has been criticized or dismissed by detractors.

Recognition for the Center for Antiracist Research founder’s work has come in the form of — among many other things — a 2016 National Book Award for Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (which made the then 34-year-old the youngest person ever so honored), a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship, a 2021 MacArthur Fellowship (aka, “Genius Grant”), and a place atop the New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction list for his 2019 book, How to Be an Antiracist. (A complete list of his books is available here.)

On the other hand, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) used his time to question Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson as an opportunity to call out his fear that critical race theory was being taught to children. In doing so, he brandished and/or read from three of Kendi’s books: How to Be an Antiracist (Arts Fuse review), Antiracist Baby (AF review), and Stamped (For Kids). With Justice Jackson now serving as the first Black woman on the nation’s highest court, the net effect of Cruz’s stunt may simply have been to increase one of those book’s sales.

This month has seen the publication of two new versions of Stamped From the Beginning: a revised edition, which is slated for adaptation by Netflix, and a graphic history, illustrated by Joel Christian Gill, a cartoonist and associate professor of art at Boston University.

Dr. Kendi spoke to me via Zoom in advance of his and Gill’s appearance together. brookline booksmith is presenting the event in Arts at the Armory in Somerville on June 26, at 7:30 p.m.

The Arts Fuse: Not many people in their early 30s make it their mission to write a 500-page “definitive history” of something. What motivated you to do so with the history of racist ideas?

Ibram X. Kendi: Initially, I was working on a book on the origins of African-American studies. And in writing that book, I decided for the opening chapter to chronicle the history of scientific racism, because I wanted to show how and why these students who fought for African-American studies were making the case that something new was needed because they considered the existing disciplines to be racist.

The initial draft of that chapter ran like 90 pages, and so I decided to expand it from not just a history of scientific racism into the 1960s, but a book on the history of racist ideas more broadly.

AF: There have been several versions of Stamped From the Beginning for different audiences. At whom is the graphic novel aimed, and which unique purpose does it serve?

IXK: To me, the target audience of the graphic novel adaptation are the people who are more likely to learn and digest this history in a more visual manner, or the people who would prefer a book that’s a little more edgy or even humorous at times, or the people — young or old — who are fans of comics or graphic novels.

AF: What challenge does teaching such a fraught topic in the form of a graphic novel present?

IXK: The history of racist ideas is, on its face, deeply troubling, rather than a funny topic. At the same time, human beings are better able to digest the heaviest stories through humor. We are better able to get past difficult moments or stories through the lightness of humor. Which is why I think this book in particular is going to be widely accessible to many different people.

AF: How did Joel Christian Gill come to be the artist responsible for the graphic novel?

IXK: Luckily, Joel’s literary agent works at the same literary agency as mine. So when I started talking to my literary agent, Ayesha Pande, about a graphic novel adaptation, that was when she introduced me to Joel. And the greatness about Joel as a collaborator on the project is that he isn’t only a cartoonist, he’s also an historian in his own right. So being able to work with someone who is an historian and a cartoonist, and who’s also funny, has made for a beautiful new book.

AF: Are you a fan of graphic novels or comics?

IXK: I actually, particularly in the past seven or so years, have become a new fan of graphic novels. I didn’t grow up reading graphic novels or comics. I do see them as extremely effective in terms of pedagogy. One of the things about graphic novels that is fascinating is the way that they can use dialogue. That was very important for our book because, in many ways, this is a history of debates, and we were really able to flesh out those debates between people through one of the iconic elements of comics, which are the dialogue boxes.

AF: What improvements does the revised edition of the original Stamped From the Beginning bring with it?

Joel Christian Gill Photo: courtesy Random House

IXK: I have a new preface in the revised edition that brings this narrative up, sort of contextualizes it, to this current moment. I was able to really improve some of the language and even the storytelling. I was able to update word choices. There were some bad word choices that I was able to change. We were able to radically expand the Notes section, because I’ve heard from readers that they would appreciate that. I thought that providing even more notes, making it possible for people to reference precisely where things  were coming from, would be helpful in the long haul.

AF: Were you watching when Ted Cruz held up and read from copies of How to Be an Antiracist, Antiracist Baby, and Stamped (For Kids) in front of Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings?

IXK: I was actually in a meeting when it happened. So I didn’t see it live, but I saw it not long after it happened. It was shocking, to say the least, because this is a sitting US senator who has one opportunity to engage with a prospective justice on the US Supreme Court, and instead of talking about her legal philosophy and opinions, you know, he decided to talk about a children’s book. It just goes to show the extent that some will go to try to attack those of us who are engaged in antiracist work, those of us who are trying to ensure that young people and older people appreciate racial equality.

Blake Maddux is a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to the Arts Fuse, Somerville Times, and Beverly Citizen. He has also written for DigBoston, the ARTery, Lynn Happens, the Providence Journal, The Onion’s A.V. Club, and the Columbus Dispatch. A native Ohioan, he moved to Boston in 2002 and currently lives with his wife and five-year-old twins — Elliot Samuel and Xander Jackson — in Salem, MA.

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