While there was a consensus among booksellers that Wi15 was a productive gathering, as far as many whom PW spoke to were concerned, the ABA saved the best for last: on Friday afternoon, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, an American University history professor and the author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Bold Type Books, 2016), joined in conversation with newly appointed National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jason Reynolds. The two discussed Reynolds’s latest book, created in partnership with Kendi, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You (Little, Brown, Mar.).
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, a readers ages 12 and up, is being billed as a “remix” of what Reynolds repeatedly called “Stamped Senior,” Kendi’s intellectual history of racism in America, which won a National Book Award in 2016. The two actually first met at that National Book Awards ceremony, as Reynolds was a finalist for Ghost the same year.
Kendi said that while he had tried to make Stamped from the Beginning accessible to the average reader beyond academia, he knew that he had to find someone skilled in crafting nonfiction for young readers to rewrite his book for that market. He thus approached Reynolds to write a young readers edition of Stamped from the Beginning, and kept asking until Reynolds agreed.
“This book needs to be read in every high school, it needs to be read in every middle school,” Kendi told about 500 booksellers packing a hotel ballroom.
“I did my very best not just to honor your book,” Reynolds replied, “but also to honor the children.”
Reynolds noted that his strategy for transforming “Stamped Senior” into Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You was to make sure that his writing “puts young people right in the middle of the conversation” about race and racism. The story begins in the 15th century, when “the world’s first racist,” Prince Henry of Portugal, began kidnapping Africans and selling them into slavery in Europe; it concludes with a chapter on the emergence of the Black Lives Matter Movement in 2013, following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin.
“History is there,” Reynolds said, “but it’s also here. It’s today, and it’s going to be tomorrow.”
Kendi explained the how and why of the central premise underlying both books: racism takes two forms, segregation and assimilation. While segregationists believe that African-Americans are inherently inferior, he said assimilationists believe that African-Americans are inferior due to environmental factors, but if nurtured and educated according to white people’s standards, Kendi said, “then we are all equal” as far as assimilationists are concerned.,
“There is nothing wrong with black people. There’s a lot wrong with America, but nothing wrong with black people,” Reynolds said, adding that Stamped’s message is that people of all races should “just be themselves,” and accept others as they are.
Assimilation, the two pointed out, leads white people to feel guilty, and black people to feel shame.
“White people are consumed with guilt from early on,” Kendi said. “Antiracism frees white people too,” because it allows all people to accept others without preconceptions of how they should present themselves.
Changing Hearts, Changing Minds
Kendi insisted that the ideas presented in Stamped “will free our children to be antiracist and to build relationships with other people who are antiracist.”
Reynolds emphasized how “liberating it is, to go through life not feeling guilt, if [one] is white, and shame if [one] is black. It’s gets harder and harder to assimilate, to keep up the mask.”
Noting that people of color often buy into the feeling that they must assimilate in order to succeed in American society, Kendi explained that some people of color who are writers even believe that “if you don’t cut your hair, you’re never going to become a New York Times bestselling author. For me, I will take the joy of being myself.”
When asked by a bookseller how, in one sentence, booksellers should handsell Stamped to parents and teachers, and make it appealing to children, Kendi responded, “Stamped explains where all this racism comes from,” while Reynolds suggested that booksellers declare Stamped to be “the boldest book about racism you are ever going to get.”
Hannah Oliver Depp, owner of the Liberty Bookstores in the Washington, D.C. area, asked the final question: how can booksellers avoid “tokenism” in promoting a book like Stamped? Reynolds said that it was not enough to simply sell Stamped, that booksellers should commit to “using your bookstores as a community space, to have conversations. Take some extra steps,” he urged the audience. “Don’t just pat yourselves on the back for selling this book.”
After the event, Summer Dawn Laurie of Books Inc. in San Francisco told PW that Stamped was the book of the show for her, saying, “I am hoping that Stamped will give me the language and techniques to use in the store. I want all of my customers to read this book. And I am especially excited that it’s nonfiction.”
Depp said that, for her, the conversation between Reynolds and Kendi was the programming highlight of the conference. “It was an excellent reminder of why the work we do matters and that it is on us.”
Mary O’Malley of Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Ill., concurred, saying that this was the “most valuable session” for her. “Hearing Jason and Ibram discuss race and how we can begin to change attitudes and ideas around race in a conversational and informative dialogue was something I will carry with me back to the bookstore and into all aspects of my life.”