THURSDAY, MARCH 4, 2021
But do his assessments make sense?: Professor Ibram X. Kendi was featured in Sunday's New York Times. He was also featured in Sunday's Washington Post.
Especially over here in Our Town—much less so in towns where Others reside—he has become a major figure in the effort to figure how to deal with our nation's brutal racial history and with its ongoing effects. We return today to the way he was featured in Sunday's New York Times.
Kendi was featured in the weekly "By The Book" interview in the great paper's Book Review section. As we noted yesterday, we became instant Kendi fans on the basis of something he said about the way he regards Sadiqa Kendi, his partner and his wife.
We like the values which Kendi expressed in that one short statement. We wish that boys and young men were exposed, on a regular basis, to instruction of the type.
("I get the joy of rediscovering you?" We always let the analysts cheer when they hear Journey singing that lyric. According to an extensive search, big giant male rock stars rarely make statements like that.)
We became instant Kendi fans on the basis of his remark in that area. We were also struck by his account of his life when he was a child and a teen
His life at that time didn't go by the book(s). This is what he said:
NEW YORK TIMES (2/28/21): What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
KENDI: I was not much of a reader as a child. In high school, I almost never read books. When teachers assigned books, I read their CliffsNotes. My little bookcase was full of little yellow CliffsNotes. It is embarrassing to talk about now. Then again, the books assigned to me were boring and irrelevant. No one was assigning me books by Walter Dean Myers. And unfortunately for me, there weren’t books available by Jason Reynolds, Angie Thomas, Nic Stone, Laurie Halse Anderson, Elizabeth Acevedo, Frederick Joseph, Ibi Zoboi, Tomi Adeyemi, Tiffany Jewell, Renee Watson, Kim Johnson, Nicola Yoon and Kwame Alexander. I did not become a reader until my English 101 class at Florida A&M University. That’s when a professor introduced me to James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Richard Wright, Maya Angelou and Charles W. Chesnutt.
For our money, that was a fascinating exchange—and it sent us drifting back.
Kendi didn't become a reader of books until he was in college. With regard to that exchange, we're only sorry that Kendi says he finds his high school behavior embarrassing.
By the way, all praise to the professor at A&M whose class triggered Kendi's interest. Ideally, that's one oif the things we'd most like professors to do.
For ourselves, we did read books as a child. It was what you did on Everell and Marshall Roads in the town where we lived through seventh grade.
We're embarrassed to say that the books we seem to remember best were the million and one big-league sports novels by Joe Archibald. In Archibald's novels, the hero always made a leaping catch at the wall, but he also had a girl friend.
We also read more classic texts—we read Little Women and Little Men—but the book we remember being inspired by was Lancelot Hogben's The Wonderful World of Mathematics. For some inexplicable reason, we were given the book as a Christmas present when we were in sixth grade.
It's a book you can buy in hardback today for as little as $920.99. We'd love to see what was in that book, but the price remains a bit steep.
(As an adult, our favorite literary genre is books which don't make sense on a very high level. We start with the "Einstein made easy" books, but the greatest example of a book which doesn't sense on a very high level is Rebecca Goldstein's Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel (2006).
(We especially admire the parts in which she discusses Bertrand Russell's invention of the nonsensical and utterly silly pseudo-conundrum, Russell's Paradox. That book really doesn't make sense, on the highest levels!)
Back to the subject at hand:
We were struck by Kendi's description of his high school years. The books he was assigned to read struck him as boring, irrelevant. He defaulted to Cliff's famous Notes.
Our experience was the same, and yet different. We did read the famous books we were assigned at Aragon High. Along the way, we were being taught the ways to get 5's on that era's AP tests.
That said, we felt increasingly detached from the books we were being assigned. Why were we reading Huckleberry Finn (or The Heart of Darkness)? What did these books have to do with us?
Increasingly, we had no idea.
It seems that Kendi, as a high school kid, felt a similar sort of detachment. We'll guess that millions of American teenagers do, not always for the same reasons. But in such ways, "education" fails.
Kendi's literary intellect came alive when he was assigned certain authors as a college student. At this point, we reach a possibly humorous aspect of his "By The Book" interview session:
As we noted yesterday, By The Book is a weekly feature in the Sunday Book Review. As we noted, the interviews sometimes seem perhaps a bit performative. Occasionally, performance may even seem to give way to something more like exhibitionism.
There's nothing evil about such behaviors, but we may tend to chuckle a bit at such entirely human times. We may have chuckled a bit during Kendi's interview, which started exactly like this:
NEW YORK TIMES: What’s the last great book you read?
KENDI: I can’t just name one. I want to highlight three great books I recently read on America’s political economy. The first, “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership,” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, is an expertly told history of the post-civil rights emergence of what Taylor terms “predatory inclusion.” The second, “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century,” by William A. Darity Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen, is the best booklong case for reparations. The third, “The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States,” by Walter Johnson, adroitly examines a U.S. history of imperial racial capitalism with its crosswinds centered in St. Louis.
Kendi has recently read three great books, not just the one asked for. Beyond that, it's possible that he has recently read five classic novels for the first time, though the actual number could possibly be larger:
NEW YORK TIMES (continuing directly): Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
KENDI: I recently read “Passing,” by Nella Larsen, published in 1929. I’m working my way through a stack of the classic novels from the Harlem Renaissance. Shout out to Penguin Classics! I also recently finished two books from the Harlem Renaissance that address colorism: “The Blacker the Berry,” by Wallace Thurman, and “Black No More,” by George S. Schuyler. These two books moved me to grab two current page-turners on the subject of colorism: “The Vanishing Half,” by Brit Bennett and “We Cast a Shadow,” by Maurice Carlos Ruffin.
Are the five books he names all novels? In case they aren't, he also cites that other stack of classic novels, the ones from Penguin Classics.
Already, many books have been named! And as the session continues, we see an exchange which is quite familiar within this New York Times format:
NEW YORK TIMES (continuing directly): Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
KENDI: At night, I like to wind down with a book in my hands. I don’t remember the last time the pages of a book were not the final thing I saw before departing off for sleep. Since moving to Boston, I’ve been reading in bed, with a night light, straining to see the sentences. Months ago, I purchased a comfortable chaise longue chair. Pandemic-slow, it finally arrived. I read for the first time on the chair the other night. The experience was ideal. And as expected, I stayed up later than normal with the book: learning, reflecting, thinking, calming my mind. I’m hoping this ideal experience helps me read 50 books this year.
If that's the way this (highly literate) person reads, there's no reason not to say so. As we noted yesterday, we tend to view this familiar type of exchange as an example of branding on the part of the New York Times, less so on the part of the individual "By The Book" subject.
Because we've cited Huckleberry Finn, the Times may have felt the need to mention that title as well. Our youthful analysts shrieked in response to what Kendi said:
NEW YORK TIMES: You’re at the forefront of a recent wave of authors combating racism through active, sustained antiracism. How do you advise readers to approach books like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” books with conflicted or hard-to-parse racial attitudes?
KENDI: I’d advise readers of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to ensure they are also reading books like “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo, Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” “White Rage,” by Carol Anderson, Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All,” Edward Baptist’s “The Half Has Never Been Told,” Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s “The Condemnation of Blackness,” Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted,” Janet Mock’s “Redefining Realness,” Brittney Cooper’s “Eloquent Rage,” “Between the World and Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law,” Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “Thick,” “Fatal Invention,” by Dorothy Roberts, “Begin Again,” by Eddie Glaude Jr. and Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy”—to name a few of the critically acclaimed nonfiction books that can nurture an antiracist critical eye. I’d advise readers to approach all books with an antiracist critical eye, even books on race. When we actively read with a critical eye, we protect ourselves from unknowingly consuming a book’s hard to parse racist ideas. But this isn’t just about books. How we read old and new books is no different from how we read society, past and present. We must read all characters—living and dead, fictional and real—with respect and not diminish them, or allow them to be diminished because of the color of their skin. At the same time, we cannot allow racism to be diminished and overlooked in literature, in policy, in power.
The anguished youngsters tore at their hair as they read Kendi's statement.
"No one will ever read Huck Finn," one of these spirited youngsters cried, "if they have to read fifteen other books before they can even get started!" Indeed, she had named just "a few" of "the critically acclaimed nonfiction books that can nurture an antiracist critical eye!"
(A quick aside. For adult readers, is Huckleberry Finn really a book "with a conflicted or hard-to-parse racial attitude?" In most settings, it might be a difficult, painful book to "teach" to groups of children, or to classes of high school students. But do adults need to read fifteen books to help themselves find their way through the minefields of the book? We're willing to guess that some won't.)
By now, it was clear that Kendi hasn't been reading any sports/romance novels of late. As sometimes happens in By The Book sessions, he rattled an endless list of books, all of which seemed to be concerned with issues of racial justice.
Given the nature of national and global history, there's no reason why Professor Kendi shouldn't be reading such books. We did think he struggled with several trick questions—with such "trick questions" as this:
NEW YORK TIMES: Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
KENDI: I feel like this is a trick question! All the subjects I think more authors should write about I’m planning to write about (or I privately urge a more qualified author to do so). But that means writers should write the books we want to read. Write the books readers want written. Write the books you were nurtured to write.
Kendi seems like a genial person. (It's a very good way to be.) We'll guess that his instant response was offered tongue in cheek.
That said, Kendi seems to read books on one subject alone. Perhaps for that reason, this question about other desirable topics qualified as a trick.
Books stopped seeming boring to Kendi when he came upon his principal subject of interest. In our view, it's a very good thing when that happens—when a teacher or professor or friend helps someone make that discovery.
Today, it sounds like Kendi never stops reading books. It sounds like they're all on that one basic topic—and, it might be imagined, it sounds like they all adopt a roughly similar point of view:
("Writers should write the books we want to read," he somewhat dangerously said.)
We've been perhaps a bit snarky today, but only for an excellent reason. Especially in the streets of Our Town, Professor Kendi has become a very significant person.
His ideas about race—more specifically, his ideas about "antiracism"—play an important role in Our Town's flailing culture. It's obvious that he's a good decent person—we refer you to what he said about love and gender—but it's in this other highly important area that his influence has grown.
We've been a bit sardonic today because of some of his views in that sprawling realm. Tomorrow, we'll look at what he was quoted saying in the Outlook section of Sunday's Washington Post.
Kendi was quoted by Matthews Yglesias on the front page of Outlook. His statement might help explain the way the New York Times reports on the lives and the interests of the millions of good, decent kids who attend our nation's low-income schools.
Does Professor Kendi's quoted statement make sense? We share a basic point of concern with what he said in the Washington Post, but we also think the New York Times' education reporting is extremely hard to defend.
Those schools are full of good, decent kids. How should the schools they attend be discussed?
Tomorrow: What Kendi said about public schools. Also, a puzzling prescription