Wednesday, June 20, 2018
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.

Comments
5 fiction writers who've turned their attention to Donald Trump

5 fiction writers who've turned their attention to Donald Trump

He might not have intended it, but Donald Trump has been good for book publishing.
Published: 06/15/18
What’s Neal Thompson, author of ‘Kickflip Boys,’ reading?

What’s Neal Thompson, author of ‘Kickflip Boys,’ reading?

Neal ThompsonFor Father’s Day, we checked in with Neal Thompson from his Seattle office. In his new book, Kickflip Boys, Thompson weaves together a story on raising his two independent, passionate sons while giving us an honest look at the underbelly...
Published: 06/15/18
What is Jen Waite, author of the memoir

What is Jen Waite, author of the memoir "A Beautiful, Terrible Thing," reading?

Jen Waite It is June. Romance and weddings are in the air, and with that comes the paperback release of A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal by Jen Waite, 33. The book, based on Waite’s heartbreaking wedding story, fi...
Published: 06/07/18
Review: Jake Tapper’s ‘Hellfire Club’ a fictional thriller sharpened with real 1950s politics

Review: Jake Tapper’s ‘Hellfire Club’ a fictional thriller sharpened with real 1950s politics

Washington, D.C., is a city in crisis, the operations of the federal government all but paralyzed by the conspiracy theories of a powerful politician who behaves as if the bounds of protocol and decency don’t apply to him. As he distracts the nation,...
Published: 06/06/18
What’s Helen Rappaport reading?

What’s Helen Rappaport reading?

Helen RappaportWhile delving into archives and researching her new book about the murder of the Russian imperial family 100 years ago, The Race to Save the Romanovs, Rappaport celebrated the digital age. "I am able to go back so far in time and look ...
Updated one month ago
Review: Lauren Groff’s ‘Florida’ explores a state beyond the boundaries

Review: Lauren Groff’s ‘Florida’ explores a state beyond the boundaries

In "Flower Hunters," one of the stories in Lauren Groff’s stunning new book Florida, a character gets a reader’s crush on 18th century explorer William Bartram, an early chronicler of the state’s flora and fauna: "She’s most d...
Updated one month ago
Notable: Books for the beach

Notable: Books for the beach

NotableBooks for the beachSuit up: It’s time for a few new books built for vacation reading.By Invitation Only (William Morrow) by Dorothea Benton Frank is the latest serving of Frank’s trademark warm humor and engaging characters, set around two wed...
Updated one month ago
Judy Blundell brings on summertime on Long Island in ‘High Season’

Judy Blundell brings on summertime on Long Island in ‘High Season’

NightstandJudy BlundellSince it’s Memorial Day weekend, we decided to touch base with Judy Blundell, whose new book is High Season. The novel’s protagonist is Ruthie Beamish, director of a small museum who, to make ends meet, rents out her seaside ho...
Updated one month ago

Events: Pulitzer winner Jack Davis to discuss ‘The Gulf’ at Oxford Exchange

Book TalkUniversity of Florida historian Jack E. Davis (The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea) will discuss and sign his Pulitzer Prize-winning book at 1 p.m. May 27 at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Admission $5, applicable towar...
Updated one month ago
Review: Family matters in David Sedaris’ ‘Calypso’

Review: Family matters in David Sedaris’ ‘Calypso’

David Sedaris gets right to the point in the opening of the first essay in his new book, Calypso: "Though there’s an industry built on telling you otherwise, there are few real joys to middle age. The only perk I can see is that, with luck, you’ll ac...
Updated one month ago