Ibram X. Kendi delivers keynote on how racism’s history affects the present

The author and historian spoke as a part of the the Virginia Festival of the Book

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In his lecture, Ibram X. Kendi drew a parallel between the history of Charlottesville in relation to Thomas Jefferson and the presence of the white supremacists in the city in August.

Chandler Collins | Cavalier Daily

Author Ibram X. Kendi delivered a keynote lecture entitled “Racist Ideas in America: From Slavery to Black Lives Matter” Friday afternoon at the University Baptist Church as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book. The event was sponsored by the Center for Race and Public Education in the South in the Curry School of Education and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. 

The Virginia Festival of the Book is a five-day series of lectures and events organized by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. The festival seeks to bring writers and readers together to celebrate books, reading and literacy.

Kendi addressed ideas present in his book, “Stamped from the Beginning,” during his talk, including comparing Charlottesville’s history with Thomas Jefferson to white nationalists in the city in August, racial progress compared to racist progress in America and the difference between producers and consumers of racist ideas. 

Derrick P. Alridge, a professor in the University’s Curry School of Education and director of the Center for Race and Public Education in the South, co-organized the event with Tony Tian-Ren Lin, a research scholar at the University’s  Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Alridge said inviting Kendi to speak was inspired by a desire to address the events of Aug. 11 and 12, when white nationalists marched down the Lawn with torches and held the fatal Unite the Right rally the following day. 

“[Lin] and I were thinking about a joint project that we might do together that would really address what occured here on Aug. 11 and 12,” Alridge said in an interview following the event. “We’re very happy that we were able to bring Professor Kendi in.”

Kendi is a historian, professor of history and international relations and the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. Kendi is also the author of two books and won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction for his second book, “Stamped from the Beginning,” making him the youngest ever NBA for Nonfiction winner. He is currently working on his next book, “How to Be an Anti-Racist.”

In his lecture, Kendi drew a parallel between the history of Charlottesville in relation to Thomas Jefferson and the presence of the white supremacists in the city in August. 

“Those white supremacists who were marching in Charlottesville last summer believed in the very same idea — they wanted to create a white-ethno state,” Kendi said. “When they really came to the fore, came to the public mind, in the city of Jefferson, it actually makes complete historical sense … Jefferson was an advocate of a white-ethno state too.”

As a historian, Kendi said he wanted to ensure Charlottesville was remembered as a place of resistance to white supremacists. 

“When I think about Charlottesville … I think about a place where people resisted those white supremacists marching,” Kendi said. “That’s how I think this town will go down in historical records, and I’m going to try and be one of the people that ensures that happens.” 

Kendi said there was a contradiction in revering Jefferson while critiquing white supremacists. He encouraged Charlottesville and the University to be leaders in a conversation with regards to the way Jefferson is memorialized. His statements received applause from the audience members.

“I’m thinking that Charlottesville and the University of Virginia should lead a national conversation that causes us to rethink whether we should memorialize Thomas Jefferson,” Kendi said. “I don’t know a better place, I don’t know a better university, that could lead that conversation.”

Audience member Barbara Maille said reframing how the community views Jefferson, and not revering him, was a radical idea — but she agreed with it.

“The most radical thing [Kendi] said was maybe we could have a conversation about the fact that we can stop revering Thomas Jefferson,” Maille said. “We can’t do both. We can’t revere someone and also acknowledge what a racist, slave-owning oppressor he was.”

Kendi’s speech identified the difference between producers and consumers of racist ideas. Kendi said he hoped the audience would be able to reevaluate the events of August in light of this distinction.

“I was hoping that they would potentially reconsider the events of August 11 and 12 as people who had consumed racist ideas, and know that there were people like Richard Spencer and others who had produced these ideas,” Kendi said. 

Kendi wanted the audience to focus on the producers of racist ideas as if they were implementing racist policies. Simultaneously, he disagreed with the common belief that producers of racist ideas do so out of ignorance and hate. 

“The major producers of racist ideas were producing these ideas, not out of ignorance and hate, but because they were defending existing racist policies that typically benefited them,” Kendi said. 

Kendi also spoke about the dual history of both racial progress and racist progress in America and how the two continue simultaneously but in conflict with one another.

“Not only racial progress, we see that and oftentimes talk about that and glorify that, but we’ve also had another force, and that is the force of racist progress,” Kendi said. “The way these two historical forces operate is really not just a dual history, it’s a duelling history.”

Kendi used the dual and duelling relationship between racial progress and racism to explain America’s presidential trend of Donald Trump succeeding Barack Obama. 

“Obama became, for many people, a symbol of racial progress, and for those who study racism we, of course, see Trump as a symbol of racist progress,” Kendi said. “So, it actually made perfect sense that Trump would follow Obama into the White House.” 

Kendi’s speech received a standing ovation before a question and answer session. Audience member Ruth Glick said she enjoyed his talk and found Kendi’s passion inspiring.

“He was incredibly articulate and the passion — it was almost as though he was transmitting that, that kind of intelligence and passion about what he read and what he found out and how he wants to blaze that trail,” Glick said. 

Another audience member, Cecilia Mills, said she was very happy to have had the opportunity to hear Kendi speak at this point in his career. 

“It was everything we’ve been wanting to hear,” Mills said. “He knows the way to communicate to people, and he is the expert on that right now, and he’s very young and well-educated. It’s amazing that we got to hear him now.”

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