The Activist Historian Reviews How to Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

Historians in the News
tags: book review

Michael T. Barry Jr., Executive Editor, is currently a doctoral candidate at American University in Washington, DC. 

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is an award-winning author, professor, and the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. This semester, I will be entering my fourth year working for Dr. Kendi as his research and teaching assistant. In this capacity, I have witnessed Dr. Kendi’s personal strength as well as his unrelenting dedication to building an antiracist America. Always generous with his time, resources, and knowledge, Dr. Kendi is not just a National Book Award-winning author, but also a tireless educator.

As I reflected on How to Be An Antiracist, I couldn’t help but think of how this book came to be and how many hours he poured into his latest work. How, while writing, he continued to be there for his students like myself, and how he continued to provide thought-provoking courses at American University. After reading How to Be An Antiracist, his efforts in this regard become even more impressive.

In the book’s later chapters, Dr. Kendi reveals that in the early months of 2018 he was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. While writing How to Be An Antiracist, Dr. Kendi continued to teach, give speeches across the country, run the Antiracist Research and Policy Center, and ultimately defeat stage 4 colon and liver cancer. Dr. Kendi is a modest man, so I’ll say it: that’s pretty damn impressive, and inspiring. But what may be most inspiring, actually, is what fills the pages of How to Be An Antiracist.

One of the most moving portions of Kendi’s new work comes in the form of a metaphor. A metaphor where he draws parallels between his, and all of our, battle with cancer and our battle with racism. Kendi says, “our World is suffering metastatic cancer. Stage 4. Racism has spread to nearly every part of the body politic, intersecting, with bigotry of all kinds, justifying all kinds of inequities.” Dr. Kendi goes onto explain that in both cancer and racism there is denial. Denial is the heartbeat of both struggles.

Dr. Kendi argues we must not take the easy route in ignoring racism or cancer. We must admit. We must confess. We must look upon ourselves and say, “I have cancer. The most serious stage. Cancer is likely to kill me. I can survive cancer against all odds. My society has racism. The most serious stage. Racism is likely to kill my society. My society can survive racism against all odds.”[5] If the heartbeat of racism is denial, the heartbeat of antiracism is confession.[6]

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