Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Books

UF professor wins National Book Award for history of urgent topic of racism

When Ibram X. Kendi won a National Book Award this month, his book was one of three winners whose subject is racism in the United States.

That confluence of books of many genres dealing with the same subject — and they include winners of several other prestigious book prizes as well — is not coincidence. These books were published and honored during a time when racism is a volatile and unavoidable topic in American discourse, especially so during the recent presidential campaign. It's a topic unlikely to fade away any time soon.

"I'm hoping," Kendi says, that the award "sort of demonstrates that people are recognizing we're in a very serious moment in our history, and we're in need of serious books to solve our problems."

Kendi, 34, won the National Book Foundation's 2016 award for nonfiction for his second book, Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. An assistant professor of African American history at the University of Florida, the New York native earned his undergraduate degree at Florida A&M University and his doctorate at Temple University.

"There were a lot of people pulling for me in Florida," Kendi said by phone. He lives in Gainesville, where some of the most "meaningful" congratulations came from his students and colleagues. "I think this book is representative of the kind of work we do in this department (at UF)."

Other National Book Award winners this year included Colson Whitehead, who took the fiction prize for The Underground Railroad, a harrowing, surrealistic account of a young slave's flight toward freedom, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, whose graphic memoir March: Book Three (a collaboration with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell), about Lewis' civil rights activism, won for young people's literature.

Kendi, Lewis and Whitehead join other winners of major book awards this year whose subject is racism. California writer Paul Beatty's incendiary satire The Sellout, about a young black man who reinstitutes slavery and ends up before the U.S. Supreme Court, received the National Book Critics Circle's fiction award and became the first book by an American author to win Britain's prestigious Man Booker Prize. The NBCC's award for memoir went to Margo Jefferson's insightful, elegant Negroland. The Kirkus Prize for fiction winner was C.E. Morgan for The Sport of Kings, an epic novel about the conflict between a black horse trainer and the wealthy white racist who hires him. The winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for nonfiction was Bryan Stevenson for Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, about race and the American justice system.

The judges and committees that award book prizes do not speak publicly about their process. But it's telling that the National Book Award winners were selected the day the prizes were given, a week after the election of a president whose campaign was fraught with racism and openly supported by white supremacists.

Kendi sees current racial conflicts as an integral part of the long sweep of American history. Stamped From the Beginning traces racist ideas and opposition back to the era before the nation's birth. He divides ideas about race into racist, antiracist and assimilationist, a position that combines belief that black people can improve their lot with the belief that they are fundamentally unequal to whites.

Many histories of racism begin with segregationist ideas that arose in the 1820s and '30s, Kendi says, but he realized his book would have to start well before that. "The debate between racist and assimilationist ideas goes back to before colonial America," Kendi says, "because slavery preceded colonial America, and the need to justify slavery required racism."

To structure his book, which he spent three years writing, Kendi built it around five major American intellectual figures: Puritan leader Cotton Mather, founding father Thomas Jefferson, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois and activist Angela Davis. While showing the reader each of them grappling with questions of race, Kendi places them in the wider context of history with graceful, engaging prose and deeply researched details. Stamped is a book that connects everything from Mather's 17th century theological theories about the souls of Africans to Bo Derek's cornrows in the movie 10, and much more.

In his acceptance speech at the National Book Awards in New York on Nov. 16, Kendi said, "I spent years looking at the absolute worst of America, but I never lost faith. For every racist idea, there was an antiracist idea."

For his next book, he says, he's deciding between two subjects: a history of racist policies ("To get rid of racist ideas, we have to get rid of racist policies") or a history of antiracism.

"I wish this wasn't a problem," he says. "On some level, I wish that (Stamped) was obsolete.

"But I hope it will allow people to have a better understanding of our moment."

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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