During social justice movements throughout history—abolition, the civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter—young people have often been the “vanguard,” leading the way, says author and scholar Ibram X. Kendi.
He credits that to their courage.
“For whatever reason, as we get older, we lose a little bit of courage,” Kendi said at the American Library Association’s (ALA) 2023 LibLearnX Conference in New Orleans. “For young people, the question isn’t about the danger,” he continued. “The question is, ‘Is it right or is it wrong?’”
Kendi, along with young adult and middle-grade author Nic Stone, kicked off LibLearnX on January 28 as its opening speakers, discussing their new book, How to Be a (Young) Antiracist (Penguin Random House). The discussion was moderated by Nichelle M. Hayes, director of Indianapolis Public Library’s Center for Black Literature & Culture and president of the Black Caucus of ALA.
“I speak to a lot of kids, they’re hungry for the information,” said Stone. “They want to know what they can do.”
Stone adapted Kendi’s 2019 bestseller, How to Be an Antiracist, for a younger audience, ages 12 to 18, to help them better understand their role in identifying and dismantling racism and building a more equitable world.
“This is the book that I needed when I was 15 or 16 years old,” Kendi said. “When I was trying to navigate racism in New York City, when my teachers or police officers and people I didn’t know were mistreating me, and I was internalizing that mistreatment, and no one was really explaining to me that their mistreatment was the problem—not me.”
With the project, Stone said she kept Kendi’s journey and heart, while adding her soul. She took the first-person narratives and themes of the initial work and adjusted the language and structure to make it more digestible for young people. This included creating the four “C’s” of changemaking: cogency, compassion, creativity, and collaboration.
As a fiction writer, Stone says she’s able to imagine the world the way it should be: “It’s like getting to be God,” she joked. Tackling nonfiction was harder, she said, because she had to work with the difficult truths of the world. But these types of books are important for an age group that, Kendi and Stone noted, already has a complex understanding of race.
“Books like these give us an opportunity to rehumanize ourselves,” Stone said. “We have done a number on ourselves trying to fit standards that aren’t meetable.”
Kendi also discussed being a recipient of a 2021 MacArthur Foundation grant. The award, commonly known as a “genius grant,” was an impactful moment for him and other scholars who have sought to demonstrate racism’s effects and research ways to eradicate it.
“We, in many ways, are constantly being delegitimized in the way that climate scientists were 15 years ago,” he said. “Now I think people understand that climate crisis is an existential threat. Those who study it have a consensus that racism, too, is an existential threat. We’re trying to move in that direction. I think all of us, it’s really helped to legitimize our work.”