The Washington Post Magazine

The Anti-Racist Revelations of Ibram X. Kendi

Meet the historian who’s asking America to rethink the very nature of bigotry — and how to fight it.

(Photograph by Michael A. McCoy)

Ibram H. Rogers, 17, hadn’t even told his parents that he was entering a Martin Luther King Jr. Day oratorical contest. They found out after he won one of the early rounds and they got a videotape of his performance. “We’ll never forget that Saturday morning we put the tape in and watched him,” Larry Rogers, Ibram’s father, told me recently. “We were really surprised.” Ibram was a bright but underachieving senior at his Northern Virginia high school. His GPA was below 3.0; his SAT scores were just above 1000. He thought he wasn’t smart enough for college, even though he had been admitted to historically black Florida A&M University.

The Prince William County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, sponsor of the competition, saw to it that the finale, in January 2000, was filled with pride. The MLK Community Choir serenaded the mostly African American audience of 3,000 that filled a local chapel. “It was a very proud moment,” recalls Carol Rogers, Ibram’s mother. “An awesome event.” Six students out of more than 100 contestants made it to the final round to deliver 10-minute speeches on “Dr. King’s Message for the Millennium.”

The contestants dressed like young business people — except Ibram, who wore a loud golden-brown blazer, black shirt, bright tie and baggy pants. (The fact that the public school he represented, Stonewall Jackson High School, was named for a Confederate general was one of those ironies that, in the moment, was too deep to dwell on.) For his speech, Ibram adopted the persona of an angry King come back to life to scold black youth for thinking “that the cultural revolution that began on the day of my dream’s birth is over. ... How can it be over when kids know more about Puff Daddy than they know about me? ... How can it be over when many times we are unsuccessful because we lack intestinal fortitude?” The speech swelled into a jeremiad of disappointment. Ibram paced around the pulpit as he reeled off more supposed failings of young black people: “They think it’s okay to be those who are most feared in our society! ... They think it’s okay not to think! ... They think it’s okay to confine their dreams to sports and music!”

The audience loved the message, reacting with “whoops of agreement,” according to a Washington Post account at the time. Ibram didn’t win the top prize, but, two days after the big night, a picture of him speaking was spread over three columns in The Post, with the headline: “Students Give New Voice to King’s Dream.”

Ibram H. Rogers has grown up to be Ibram X. Kendi, 37, a leading voice among a new generation of American scholars who are reinvestigating — and redefining — racism. In 2016, at 34, he became one of the youngest authors to win the National Book Award for nonfiction, for “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” — which, gushed the award judges, “turns our ideas of the term ‘racism’ upside-down.” The following year, American University recruited him from the University of Florida to join the faculty and create the Antiracist Research & Policy Center. (The very evening in September 2017 when Kendi introduced the center at a gathering of students, faculty and administrators, someone stuck cotton balls to fliers depicting Confederate flags and posted them around campus.) More recently, the crowds turning out to hear Kendi discuss his new bestseller, “How to Be an Antiracist,” have been so large that bookstores have resorted to holding readings in churches, synagogues and school auditoriums.

Kendi’s ideas — that few, if any, are free of racism; that we should confess to our own racism as a first step toward becoming anti-racist; that racism begins not with the prejudice of individuals but with the policies of political and economic power — are bracing and challenging. They also constitute a very different take on race from the speech he gave at 17. For years afterward, he had vague memories of his MLK oration, and they were troubling. The competition, he told me, had been “a pivotal moment in my life” — one that gave him the confidence to believe that he was college material after all and that his future would involve communicating ideas to a larger public. Yet he also recalled how, a couple of years ago, when he took the time to watch his performance on a DVD that his father had made, “I cringed and was completely ashamed.”

The speech, he saw, had been a litany of blame, implying that there was something wrong with young African Americans as a group and that they could conquer white racism by behaving differently. How did these perspectives get lodged in the young orator’s brain? Why did the African American crowd respond with such enthusiasm? To his chagrin, Kendi realized his own experience was a prime example of how racist ideas quietly worm their way through the culture. It also showed all too clearly how one can be anti-racist in some contexts yet sick with racism in others.

Reflecting on the shame he felt at his words, he realized that the best way to communicate his newest message would be to hold out his journey as an example. Whereas his previous book, “Stamped From the Beginning,” had been built around five historical characters — Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois and Angela Davis — he reluctantly concluded that his next book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” must be based on the errors and evolution of Ibram X. Kendi.

I think even the book got better after his diagnosis,” says Kendi’s wife, Sadiqa. “I think he was writing for his life.

“Initially, I was like, that central character will not be me,” he told me. “I’m too private. I don’t want to show all of my bones and all of my baggage and all those shameful moments that I’m still ashamed of. I don’t know — I don’t want to do that. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized: How can I ask other people to share those shameful moments, to free themselves of their baggage, to confess the most racist moments of their lives, if I’m not willing to do that, too?”

And so his work and his life have built to this moment of invitation to his readers, his audiences, America. After a precocious scholarly career spent demonstrating the depressing pervasiveness of racism, he stands uncommonly hopeful, inviting us onto a path forward. “We know how to be racist,” he writes. “We know how to pretend to be not racist. Now let’s know how to be antiracist.”

Recently, Kendi’s life and work have fused in another way, too — this one potentially tragic. In January 2018, after having drafted about five chapters of “How to Be an Antiracist,” he received a diagnosis of Stage 4 colon cancer. About 88 percent of people in that condition die within five years, he was told.

Kendi was devastated but still detached enough to fold his illness into his work. He began to make sense of racism through cancer, and to make sense of cancer through racism — essentially seeing both as diseases that can be systematically fought. He wrote through months of chemotherapy and recovery from surgery, taking naps when he was too weak to remain at his keyboard, then awakening to write some more. “I was like, you know what, I want to finish this book before I die,” he told me. Sadiqa Kendi, his wife, a pediatric emergency medicine doctor at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, kept watch to see that at least he didn’t work himself to death. “I think even the book got better after his diagnosis,” she says. “I think he was writing for his life.”


Kendi​ speaks about his new book, “How to Be an Antiracist,” at the Atlantic Festival in September. (Photograph by Michael A. McCoy)

Have you noticed that almost everyone self-identifies as “not racist”? Consider: In June, responding to backlash over his fond recollections of working with segregationists in the Senate in the 1970s, Joe Biden insisted, “There’s not a racist bone in my body.” The following month, in response to backlash over his attacks on four women of color in Congress, President Trump tweeted, “I don’t have a Racist bone in my body!”

Kendi has little use for such protestations, for two reasons. First, he thinks “racist” should be treated as a plain, descriptive term for policies and ideas that create or justify racial inequities, not a personal attack. Someone is being racist when he or she endorses a racist idea or policy. Second, he doesn’t acknowledge “not racist” as a category. At all times, people are being either racist or anti-racist; in Kendi’s view, “there is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’ ” Through his scholarship, Kendi has traced nearly six centuries of racist and anti-racist ideas. He could not do the same for “not racist.” It’s an identity without content.

All policies, even the most trivial, are either racist or anti-racist, he argues — they support equity or they don’t. A do-nothing approach to climate change is racist because climate change overwhelmingly affects people of color on the planet. Forgiving student debt and offering universal health care would be anti-racist policies because people of color are more likely to have student debt or lack health care, so those policies would lessen if not erase those inequities.

In Kendi’s analysis, everyone, every day, through action or inaction, speech or silence, is choosing in the moment to be racist or anti-racist. It follows, then, that those identities are fluid, and racism is not a fixed character flaw. “What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what — not who — we are,” he writes. In studying the history of racist ideas, Kendi has found the same person saying racist and anti-racist things in the same speech. “We change, and we’re deeply complex, and our definitions of ‘racist’ and ‘anti-racist’ must reflect that,” he told me. Those who aspire to anti-racism will, when accused of racism, seriously consider the charge and take corrective action. They will not claim to lack any racist bones. “The heartbeat of racism is denial,” he writes in his new book. “The heartbeat of antiracism is confession. ... Only racists shy away from the R-word.”

As for where racism comes from: A popular explanation for the gen­esis of racism assumes that people’s ignorance and hatred harden into racist ideas, which lead to racist policies. “But that gets the chain of events exactly wrong,” Kendi writes. From slavery to Jim Crow, from redlining to mass incarceration to the unequal distribution of government largesse, power has been the first link in the chain. Power, he argues, devises racist policies for economic self-interest and then justifies the racist policies with racist ideas of hierarchy, inferiority, necessity, greater good and otherness. These racist ideas are consumed and reproduced at large, giving rise to ignorance and hate. Stop focusing on people, Kendi advises: The smart anti-racist identifies racist policy and attacks the racist ideas justifying it.

Contemporary thinkers on race say Kendi’s approach represents a bold extension of previous work on the subject. Molefi Kete Asante, who in 1988 created the nation’s first PhD program in African American studies at Temple University (where Kendi got his doctorate in 2010), told me he recalls when Kendi returned to campus in February and presented his idea that racism begins with policies. “I remember how shocked we were when we first heard him lecture on that, and people, you know, had to go back and reread [his argument] to figure out how he does this work,” Asante says. “I think it’s a wonderful innovation. ... There were questions, and he defended himself quite well.” Kendi, he adds, “is really the ascendant African American intellectual of his time. ... He has attempted something that is in the Afrocentric tradition ... and that is: Let’s redo almost everything. Let’s look at everything and ask ourselves the question, What if we turned it upside down?”

Kendi’s contention that racist policies spur the creation of racist ideas, not the other way around, is not fully embraced by all scholars, including his doctoral adviser at Temple, Ama Mazama, professor of Africology. “I don’t think that the power of ideas can necessarily be minimized,” she says. “It would be great, like he suggests, if we want to do away with racism, we could have anti-racist policies. ... I’m not sure if it would work. ... Maybe too much damage has already been done, too much ignorance that would be very difficult to eradicate through anti-racist policies.” Still, she is proud of her “brilliant” former student: “His work is important. ... He’s also looking for solutions. It’s not just an intellectual exercise, it’s something much more than that.”

Members of Kendi’s own generation of scholars praise his ability to break through to a wider audience. It certainly helps that his writing is lyrically accessible. (Two years ago, Kendi contributed a short piece to a special issue of The Washington Post Magazine, in which he proposed an anti-bigotry constitutional amendment.) “I think it’s just astonishing that someone is able to have an intellectual history like ‘Stamped From the Beginning’ influence so many people’s thinking about understanding the undercurrents of white supremacy in the United States and its durability over such a long period of time, and then pivot to actually spending time with people to rethink the strategies of their own choices in their own life,” says Marcia Chatelain, associate professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University, who, after the 2014 police shooting and subsequent protests in Ferguson, Mo., organized scholars to develop the Ferguson Syllabus, a curriculum aimed at digging into the marginalization of black and brown communities. “Ibram represents a generation that I see myself as part of where we take our ideas in a number of places and we take the feedback from a number of audiences, and we really struggle and grapple with how our work isn’t just confined by the traditions of academia, but is really defined by its ability to resonate in people’s lives and help them to move closer to the types of worlds that people have long imagined but never realized.”

At all times, in Kendi’s view, people are being racist or anti-racist; “there is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’ ”

One of Kendi’s early racial memories is from when he was 7 and his parents brought him to check out a private school on Long Island where he might attend third grade. The family, including Kendi’s older brother, Akil, lived in Queens at the time, but Carol and Larry Rogers were looking to send their children to a school outside the neighborhood. It was after school hours and the third-grade teacher, an African American woman, met them at the door. Are you the only black teacher? Ibram asked with uncomfortable directness. She was. Why are you the only black teacher?

“The beauty about being 7 years old is that chances are we’re not hypocritical, chances are we’re not filled with contradictions, and chances are we see the world for what is in the world,” Kendi told me, recalling the moment, which he also describes in “How to Be an Antiracist.” He credits his parents with anchoring him at an early age with enough pride in being black to make such an observation. Both rose from poverty to the new black middle class and had been inspired by the Black Power movement of the 1960s. His mother became a business analyst for a health-care organization, and his father became a tax accountant and later a hospital chaplain. As committed Christians, they were steeped in black liberation theology. They gave Ibram piles of books from a junior series on black achievers, which he devoured.

Kendi’s mother tried to explain all this about her son to the taken-aback teacher at the school, but they ended up not sending him there anyway. Instead, Kendi went to another school, where his third-grade teacher was white, and he engaged in his first anti-racist protest: After the teacher ignored the raised hand of one of his black classmates, and called on a white student yet again, Ibram sat in the school’s chapel and refused to return to class. The principal was summoned, and his parents were called.

“We tried to raise both of our sons, Akil and Ibram, to think for themselves, and if they want to challenge authority, then they have to be willing to suffer the consequences,” Carol Rogers told me. (Akil is now an event specialist for Sam’s Club in Florida, where Carol and Larry Rogers are retired.) Such was the anti-racist path his parents set Ibram on from an early age, but it’s a deceptively hard one on which to keep your footing. “How to Be an Antiracist” takes the form of a memoir, with Kendi interspersing his experiences with analyses of types of racism that he has found in himself: ethnic racism, bodily racism, behavioral racism, cultural racism, color racism, class racism, gender racism and queer racism. It’s hard to believe one person — let alone a scholar of racism — could have encompassed so much bigotry, but that’s Kendi’s point: Anyone can.

In college at Florida A&M, he wore honey-colored contact lenses for a time, until he realized this was a form of racism, privileging a look associated with another race. He dated a light-skinned woman, until he realized what a warped sensation this was causing among some of his friends, who wished they were dating light-skinned women, too. He dropped her and vowed to date only dark-skinned women — until he realized this was an equally twisted obsession, driven by racist colorism. During another phase in college, he determined that the problem with white people was that if they were not devils, maybe they were just plain destructive by nature — until he realized judging white people as a group is as racist as judging black people as a group.

He came to see in retrospect that even his parents had sometimes strayed from the anti-racist path. Like others in the black middle class, he writes, “My parents — even from within their racial consciousness — were susceptible to the racist idea that it was laziness that kept Black people down, so they paid more attention to Black people than to [President] Reagan’s policies, which were chopping the ladder they climbed up and then punishing people for falling. ... Americans have long been trained to see the deficiencies of people rather than policy.”

It’s hard to believe one person — let alone a scholar of racism — could have encompassed so much bigotry, but that’s Kendi’s point: Anyone can.

Kendi is harder on no one than himself. “I arrived at Temple as a racist, sexist homophobe,” he writes of the dawn of his graduate school career. His most important mentors in shedding those views — in learning how racism, sexism and homophobia intersect — were fellow graduate students Yaba Blay and Kaila Adia Story. “I learned from them that I am not a defender of Black people if I am not sharply defending Black women, if I am not sharply defending queer Blacks,” he writes. They held court in one of the common areas during study breaks and sent him scurrying to bookshelves for works by Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks and Kimberlé Crenshaw.

“What’s so wonderful about Ibram is that even though he talks about his journey, and here he is meeting me and Yaba and he’s some kind of black male patriarch homophobe, he never gave us that reception,” says Story, an associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Louisville. “He said, ‘Okay, these women, if I say how I’m feeling or how I’m thinking about freedom, they’re going to challenge me. ... So let me be open enough to actually listen to what they’re saying.’ And I’m grateful for that. ... Ideological vulnerability is so important when it comes to dealing with ideas of anti-racism and intersectionality.”

In 2011, Kendi was doing postdoctoral work at Rutgers University — turning his dissertation into his first book, “The Black Campus Movement” — when he met Sadiqa, who was doing a fellowship in pediatric emergency medicine in Philadelphia. He had reached out to her on Match.com. “We both kind of ended up in online dating in the same way,” she recalls. “We just didn’t have time but still wanted to pursue meeting people. ... I saw he was younger than me and said, ‘Well, there’s no way I’m going to date this dude. But I’m a nice person, so I’ll respond at least.’ So I responded and we ended up going back and forth on Match and communicating there for a little while. After a few back-and-forth messages on Match, I thought, ‘Well, gosh, this guy actually seems really cool, pretty mature.’ So I gave him a chance.”

After they had been dating for a few months, Sadiqa and Ibram had dinner at an Asian fusion restaurant in Philadelphia. There was a big statue of the Buddha against a wall, and a drunk white man climbed up and began fondling the statue, to the amusement of his friends. At least he’s not black, Sadiqa recalls saying of the white man. Why? Ibram asked. We don’t need anyone making us look bad, Sadiqa replied.

So began an extended conversation about “uplift suasion,” another racist concept Kendi realized he needed to shed — the assumption that black conduct is to blame for white racist ideas, thus legitimizing white racist ideas about black conduct. “I realized early on that if I’m going to be with Ibram, we’re going to have some discussions on some stuff that is deep,” Sadiqa told me.

By 2013, they were ready to make plans for a spring wedding on a beach in Jamaica, which Essence would photograph for a “Bridal Bliss” feature. There was one more detail to take care of, another case of life and work merging: During his painstaking hunt for the origin and effect of every racist idea he could find, Kendi had discovered that perhaps the first racist idea — grouping all Africans as a single, inferior people — is contained in the 1453 biography of arguably the first racist, Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal, who was the first European to orchestrate a slave-trade that exclusively targeted Africans. The moment is also significant because, Kendi would argue later, it marked the original case of a racist policy, created out of economic self-interest, being justified by a racist idea: that captive Africans were being civilized and saved by slavery.

The budding historian and evolving anti-racist — still known then as Ibram H. Rogers — became uncomfortable with his middle name: Henry, after his enslaved great-great-great-grandfather. He reasoned that the fate of his ancestor Henry had been set in motion by the original racist, Prince Henry. So as part of the wedding ceremony, with Carol and Larry Rogers officiating, Ibram adopted the middle name Xolani, meaning “peace” in Zulu. At the same time, he and Sadiqa took the last name Kendi, which means “loved one” in the Meru language of eastern Africa.


Kendi at the Atlantic Festival. (Photograph by Michael A. McCoy)

On a Tuesday evening in mid-August, Kendi brought his ideas to a packed crowd of 575 people invited by a local bookstore to Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn. It was the first stop on his marathon tour for “How to Be an Antiracist,” with dates scheduled through March. It also happened to be his 37th birthday, and his parents, wife and 3-year-old daughter, Imani, were in the audience. Activist and writer Shaun King was seated beside Kendi at the front of the sanctuary to lead the conversation. “Who needs this book?” King began. “Who is this book for?”

Anti-racism, Kendi said, “is recognizing how we’ve been trained, nurtured and educated in ways to be racists. How hard it is to grow up in a racist society, where racist ideas are constantly being rained on your head, and never get wet.” That’s why, he concluded, the book is “for people who think somebody else could use it instead of them. Because I know I needed this book when I was 30, when I was 25 ... and I could even still use this book today.”

He started his answers to King’s questions low and slow. As he got swept up in his argument, his voice picked up speed and gained about an octave in outrage. At one point, Imani emerged from the audience and climbed into his lap. She listened quietly until Kendi wheeled into a riff about how there are only two explanations for a racial inequity such as black unemployment being significantly higher than white unemployment: “Either there’s something wrong with black workers — [which is a] racist idea — or there’s something happening to black workers as they move into the job market” — i.e., racist policies. “Relax, Daddy!” Imani said.

The audience on this night was predominantly white, as it was on the other two occasions I watched Kendi discuss his work and sign hundreds of books: at a church in Lower Manhattan and at Sidwell Friends School in Washington. Kendi has a lot to say to the types of white people who flock to book events about racism. “I can talk all day about how endemic racism is within American conservatism,” he said in Brooklyn. “But when you look at radical thought, when you look at progressive thought, when you look at liberal thought, there are prevailing racist ideas that people are not confronting. Liberals have long made the case there’s something behaviorally or culturally wrong with black people — progressives and radicals have long made the case there’s something behaviorally wrong with black people — but that those inferior behaviors come about as a result of their oppression, their poverty, slavery. ‘Yes, they are inferior, but [it’s] because of what they’re experiencing, the racism they’re experiencing, so that’s why you need to fight racism!’ ”

Kendi calls this the “oppression-inferiority thesis” — the often well-meaning but always destructive idea that mass oppression must manifest itself somehow in defective group behavior, hence the pitiable group must be championed. In “Antiracist,” Kendi quotes abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s preface to Frederick Douglass’s slave narrative of 1845: Slavery degraded black people “in the scale of humanity. ... Nothing has been left undone to cripple their intellects, darken their minds, debase their moral nature, obliterate all traces of their relationship to mankind.” Then there is Barack Obama’s campaign speech on race in 2008: “For all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it — those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations — those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future.”

I think a lot of times we think about this as the work for other people, specifically white people,” says high school teacher Tamika Golden, “and I recognize that this work is for all people.

On the contrary, Kendi told any progressives in Brooklyn who might think that way, “you assume that since the system is dehumanizing, that it is literally making the people subhuman. No. The beauty of humanity is we have the capacity and the ability to strive and thrive in the most horrible, oppressive and dehumanizing conditions. And certainly black people did that during slavery, and they’ve been doing that ever since.”

The white audience members I spoke with after the events were looking for a way to describe what they were seeing in the America of 2019. “There’s a lot of categories of awfulness going on,” said Miles Seligman, a medical coder in Brooklyn. “There’s nothing — from the message and the language and the vocabulary of this kind of book — that can’t help me understand that better.”

Moreover, the example of a black man going first in a prospective communal racial confessional — and this black man’s conception of racism as a curable condition rather than a damnation for all time — seemed to encourage white listeners to look inward. “Racism doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person,” said Jimmy Dabrowski, who took three trains from New Jersey to hear Kendi at the church in Lower Manhattan. “You have to be willing to accept it and then face the reality that anti-racism is the only way forward.” Dabrowski is a health and phys-ed teacher at an elementary school in Perth Amboy. “I’m not an activist,” he said, “but I would hope that maybe by initiating a policy change where we have anti-racism in schools — that’s the kind of activism in my field I want to push for.”

The black audience members I met were already familiar with Kendi’s work. They came clutching well-thumbed copies of “Stamped From the Beginning.” In other words, they did not need to be taught the language. Rather, they were here to heed Kendi’s call for everyone to aspire to more-perfect anti-racism.

“What led me to his work was the belief that what I offered to my students had to be more than what I was giving them now,” said Tamika Golden, a high school English teacher in Brooklyn who uses “Stamped From the Beginning” in her classes. “I needed to figure out what it meant for me to be an anti-racist and to truly work against the socialization and the feelings and thoughts I had about my own people as a group. ... I think a lot of times we think about this as the work for other people, specifically white people, and I recognize that this work is for all people.”

Anwar Abdul-Rahman, principal at a charter middle school in Brooklyn where the majority of students are black or Latino, told me Kendi’s work offered “a framework for looking at racist ideas in America. You have your segregationists, you have assimilationists, and then you have your racist ideas and then counteracting that with anti-racism and what does that look like — I thought that was just a real profound idea that even as a black man was something that I could use in my life.” He, too, finds ways to work Kendi into the curriculum.

To his publics of all races, Kendi offers the same redemptive promise. In Brooklyn, King had asked him to read a couple of pages aloud. Kendi’s voice, now sonorous and incantatory, transformed the passages into a prose poem, ending with this paragraph: “But there is a way to get free. To be antiracist is to emancipate oneself from the dueling consciousness. To be antiracist is to conquer the assimilationist consciousness and the segregationist consciousness. The White body no longer presents itself as the American body; the Black body no longer strives to be the American body, knowing there is no such thing as the American body, only American bodies, racialized by power.”


(Photograph by Michael A. McCoy)

Kendi received his cancer diagnosis just as he was focusing his writing on the role of denial in the persistence of racism — all those folks who say they are “not racist.” At the time, he was a seemingly healthy, relatively young man with no apparent risk factors. Denial was an option for him, too.

“If I would have denied that I had cancer, then the cancer would have just continued to spread and eventually would have killed me,” he told me. “I had also been thinking about, even before the diagnosis, about how important it is for Americans to stop denying the existence of racism itself. ... The fact that in order for America to survive racism, they had to stop denying racism. Then, in that moment — in that same week — I was diagnosed with metastatic cancer.”

When he felt better, he began to write new sentences — hopeful sentences — that found their way into the last chapter of the new book: “We can survive metastatic racism. Forgive me. I cannot separate the two, and no longer try. ... What if we treated racism in the way we treat cancer? ... Saturate the body politic with the chemotherapy or immunotherapy of antiracist policies that shrink the tumors of racial inequities, that kill undetectable cancer cells.”

Sadiqa told me she and Ibram had a deal during his treatment regimen. He could continue to write, lecture, run the Antiracist Center, as long as he would listen to her on the occasions she detected he was pushing himself too hard. “People heal differently, and for him, he needed to have some semblance of his life, of his work, in order to mentally have the fight that I knew he would need for healing,” she said. “Pushing and making that will-to-live larger than giving up and succumbing to something that, if you just look at the numbers, was likely to take his life.” At least once, when he had a bad fever during chemo, she ordered him to cancel a speaking trip. “He was upset, but he listened,” she said.

After six months of chemotherapy, at the end of summer 2018, surgeons removed tissue in which pathologists found no cancer cells. This past summer, his body was scanned and all looked clear. “I can’t necessarily call myself a survivor as much as I’m surviving it,” Kendi told me. “But I think I’m headed in a good direction.”

And the rest of us? What direction are we headed in? The popularity of his books and the size of his lecture crowds are signs that more and more people are willing to look inside themselves to consider their own racism. At the talk in Brooklyn, King asked Kendi where he finds hope. Kendi went through the history of anti-racist progress, then added, “In order to bring about change, you literally have to believe in the possibility of change” — just as you have to believe in the possibility of a cure. “Here I am,” he told the audience, “cancer-free.”

But for America, it’s touch and go. Racist ideas continue to kill — that’s no metaphor — as the El Paso shooter most recently demonstrated. At times, Kendi sounds like an oncologist who has seen the worst. “It’s the same case with racism,” he told me. “You have people who do not want to take America, or even themselves, through the pain of healing because they’re convinced that it’s not going to work. Which makes sense if they’re convinced it’s not going to work. But once we convince ourselves that America can never heal itself from racism, then racism will persist and, I suspect, eventually destroy this country.”

David Montgomery is a staff writer for the magazine.

Credits: David Montgomery

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