On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
In search of insight in this time of pestilence, we turn to writers Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi who tell us where they’re finding solace — and even moments of joy — in the midst of quarantine.
They might even read a few poems.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
"Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You"
Award-winning YA Author Jason Reynolds wants kids and teens to have the language they need for constructive conversations about race. In his new book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, Reynolds remixes Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning into an accessible primer on antiblack racism in America that he calls "not a history book."
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show from WAMU 88.5. I'm broadcasting from home. Welcome. We're all in search of a way to make sense of what's happening, and in times of uncertainty we turn to philosophers, poets, musicians and artists to help us work through our feelings of loss, grief, fear and anxiety and perhaps to find moments of joy in the midst of chaos. Later in the broadcast we'll be talking with member of the D.C. Indi base group called Oh He Dead.
KOJO NNAMDIBut first joining me is Jason Reynolds the Author of "Ghost" and Co-author of "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You." He was recently named the seventh National Ambassador for Young People's Literature by the Library of Congress. Jason Reynolds, thank you for joining us. Jason Reynolds, are you there?
JASON REYNOLDSI'm here.
NNAMDIJason Reynolds, this is a strange time for all of us. How has your life changed these last few weeks?
REYNOLDSSo, I mean, it's complicated for me just because most of my life is spent out of the house and on the road and traveling around as ambassador, traveling around as an author. And so this has been interesting, because I've been complaining about wanting to be home for years. And now here I am, and I'm so conflicted about it, you know?
NNAMDIThat is absolutely amazing. Before the Coronavirus outbreak, you were named the seventh National Ambassador for Young People's Literature by the Library of Congress. How are you fulfilling that role while also, of course, adhering to the social distancing guidelines and the stay at home order?
REYNOLDSYou know, honestly, this is -- these are the rare moments I think where we are -- especially people my age and older where we are grateful for the internet. I think social media -- this is when social media shows the side of it that is positive and healthy, because I can communicate and do platform and create sort of an adjustment to my platform and programming and all those things by using social media. So I have a reading coming up next week that I'm doing all week. I do a game on Friday were I challenge young people to stretch their imaginations. I had to do interviews on Instagram. You know, so all the things that's still happening they're just happening on a digital platform.
NNAMDIYour plans to travel the country and meet with kids especially those in more rural areas, are those plans still in the works?
REYNOLDSThey are. They are, man. You know, the hope is that -- I mean, originally when we were planning -- when myself and my team was planning this, the platform, we hadn't actually expected to go on the road until the fall anyway. And so I'm hoping fingers crossed that by the fall that can still happen. And if not then we'll adjust. We'll figure out -- I will make sure that I figure out ways to make this happen one way or another. Whether it be through some sort of digital platform or whether it be through videos that I put out. I don't know. I'll have to figure it out, but right now we're still sort of a go as we planned.
NNAMDIYou've said, quoting here, "It's imperative that we do not allow our imaginations to atrophy." How are you helping young people to keep their imaginations active?
REYNOLDSYou know, that's the whole reason I started the game. On Fridays, there is a game I play called Imagination Stretch Game. And I log on to my Instagram live and hundreds of people come on to watch, and kids lots--I mean, tons of kids, and I challenge them. You know, we do three different rounds where I show two different images. Maybe it's a mailbox and a paperclip. And I say, we have to make a new invention using these two objects. You know, and you get 20 seconds to stretch yourself to figure out how to make something new.
REYNOLDSAnd it's incredible to see--and then I let them call me live on Instagram. And so they can come on and they can tell everybody what they would invent. And it's really really sort of incredible to sort of show people that young folks are still -- that their brains are still working even in a moment of such despair. On top of that, though, I also have a whole series of writing prompts that are rolling out as a part of the ambassadorship that hopefully will be rolling out this week or early next week. And so every day they'll have really cool challenges as they push themselves even when it comes to thinking about writing and storytelling.
NNAMDISounds good. Ibram X. Kendi, thank you for joining us.
IBRAM X. KENDIOh, it's a pleasure to be on the show.
NNAMDIIbram X. Kendi also wrote the original "Stamped from the Beginning" and co-wrote the remix with Jason Reynolds. So what has this experience been like for you so far, Ibram?
KENDII think similar to Jason. Over the last few years I've spent a lot of time on the road speaking about my work and even working to build the Antiracist Research and Policy Center. And so, you know, I've been in the house. And I've had beautiful time with my family. And even, you know, in many ways it's allowing me to get closer to myself and have a very clean sense of my own sort of things that I want to do moving forward.
NNAMDIIs that how your day to day life has changed that you're now enjoying the benefit of being able to spend more time at home and with your family and feeling absolutely no frustration and not being able to spend time outdoors?
KENDII try. I think within my everyday life to adjust to challenges and try to sort of make the best -- at least in my own personal life, you know, based on new challenges. But simultaneously, you know, it's deeply worrisome, you know, obviously knowing the number of Americans who currently are losing their jobs, have lost their jobs, who are infected, who are hospitalized, who are dying, and even seeing in the recent week the amount of racial disparities in infection and death rates. And so I'm trying to sort of balance the two if it's possible.
NNAMDIGlad you mentioned the racial aspect of this, because in a recent piece for The Atlantic you wrote that it's people of color who will be hit the hardest by Coronavirus. And you've called for states, counties and private labs to release the data showing the racial demographics of those who get sick. They have recently released such data in the District of Columbia and maybe a few other places. But what else do we know so far about these demographics?
KENDIWell, we know that in Michigan black people comprise about 14 percent of the state population. But black people are 40 percent of the Coronavirus deaths. We know in Illinois the infection rate among black Americans is twice their state percentage. We know in the Charlotte, North Carolina area that black people comprise about a third of the residents, but 44 percent of the confirmed cases. We know that the three districts aside from a small district -- I should say county in Montana that has three deaths, the next three are counties with the highest death rates from Coronavirus in the country, over the weekend, were all majority black counties.
KENDIAnd so we're seeing based on death and infection rates that this disease may be disproportionately harming black people. And even in New York City we're seeing that the zip codes with the highest concentration of Latinos and Asians have higher infection rates.
NNAMDIYou go on to say, "It could be some time before all or even most of the relevant agencies begin releasing racial data, but public health officials and medical providers like my wife are fighting COVID-19 now. People are sick now. People are on ventilators now. People are dying now. We need more racial data now. We need to assess the data we have right now." Can you tell us about your wife and her role in this fight against Coronavirus?
KENDISo, yeah, my wife is an Emergency Department Physician and she works at Children's National Hospital. And she, of course, has already taken care of patients who tested positive for Coronavirus. And so she like many medical providers across the country are literally the soldiers, who are on the frontlines, you know, of this war.
KENDIAnd I also talked about in this piece how not only is she on the frontlines and as we know many medical providers are basically becoming infected, but also her brother is in New York City, which has one of the worst outbreaks in the country and her parents are in Albany, Georgia, which has potentially one of the worst outbreaks in the country as well. And so, you know, wherever she looks whether at herself or even her immediate family, you know, people at a higher risk like many families are experiencing across the country.
NNAMDIWhen we look at the impact and the disparity racially about who is being affected, what should we understand from that?
KENDII think we should not believe that it's because -- let's say if black and Latino and Asian Americans are infected at higher rates or even dying at higher rates, it's not because they are not quote "socially distancing enough," because of their own irresponsibility. We should not think it's the result of their behaviors. And so if we say that, you know, there are people who are black and white and Asian and Native and Latino, who are social distancing within reason and those who aren't and then so if we recognize the behaviors as equal. But then still see these disparities then it allows us to begin to understand, okay, why is it then that black people are disproportionately dying?
KENDIAnd then we can look at the fact that black people were more than likely to be suffering from heart disease and respiratory disease and have compromised immune systems based on the lack of preventative or even high quality care or their lower likelihood to have insurance or that black people are more likely to live in high poverty areas with a tremendous amount of poverty density. That people of color are more likely to have to be working right now. They're not in jobs in which they can socially distance. So these are the types of things we can be looking at.
NNAMDIBefore all of this, you and Jason had published a remix of your book "Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America." Can you tell us about this new version and for you, what's different?
KENDIWell, Jason Reynolds is different, but ...
NNAMDIWe know that.
KENDIYes. You know, of course -- as I've said he's one of the greatest writers of our time. And there are just few writers if any who are able to connect with young people through the written word and even through his ideas as Jason. And when I published "Stamped from the Beginning" I went out speaking about it. You know, I was constantly told by regular folk, you know, I wish I learned this history of racist ideas when I was in middle school, when I was in high school. You know, this is the type of book that every single young person in America needs to read so our young people don't grow up thinking that they're more superior than another racial group or that there's something wrong with them because they're black.
KENDIAnd so, you know, I knew very early on that I wanted to transform literally this book, you know, into a book that would be digestible by young people. And when I got to know Jason and his work I knew that he would be great to do it. And, I mean, young people are just devouring this book right now.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. He is the Founder and Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University and Co-Author of "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You." And Jason Reynolds, he is the Author of "Ghost" and Co-author of "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You." He was recently named the seventh National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Dr. Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds. They are Co-authors of the book "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You." Jason Reynolds, it was your job to turn Ibram's highly influential work into something that's accessible to middle schoolers. How did you do it?
REYNOLDSOh, goodness. (laugh) You know, honestly, it was complicated. I always like to make sure that I say publically that it was -- it was the most difficult thing I've ever done. And it was intimidating and I had to grapple with my insecurities and all these other things in the midst of this process. But I think the one thing that I ended up coming back to was just what would I have wanted to read when I was that age? And what were my beefs with sort of history textbooks or, you know, what was Social Studies at the time. And, you know, how I was learning this in school.
REYNOLDSAnd I think my main issue is that I've never read a history book or a text book that felt like it was written with human beings in mind. They always felt like they were written with students in mind. And when I say students I mean like the symbol of what it is to be academic, but not a person that's 10 or 12 or 14, and I think once I figured out that that's the crux of it I sort of just settled into my voice and did what I always do.
NNAMDIUm, we asked people to suggest books or writers that they are looking at in this time and we're hearing from Carol Ann in Bethesda, Maryland. Carol Ann, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CAROL ANNHi, Kojo. And, you know, I'm an active volunteer at WAMU. And I miss you all so much.
NNAMDIWe miss you too.
ANNSo I'm busy reading. I'm busy reading. I found two great books. One is called "Shoe Dog" by Phil Knight. He is the Founder of Nike, and he is the most entertaining writer. Never thought I would find a book about running shoes interesting, but it's a delight. And I think the readers of many ages with enjoy this book. And it's particularly interesting because he talks about how he struggled to start this business selling shoes out his trunk. And very inspiring I think for anyone, who wants to be an entrepreneur. I think that's the most important part of the book that's good to share is that if -- you know, he was passionate about his running shoes.
NNAMDIWhat else are you reading?
ANNShe wanted just everybody to wear them.
NNAMDIAny other book?
ANNYeah. The other book is called "The Library Book" ironically. And it's by Susan Orlean. And she is writing about essentially the Los Angeles Central Public Library, and particularly focused on the fire that occurred in the 1980s and who'd done it. But she also talks about the life in the library. And it's just a beautiful story about libraries.
NNAMDIWell, thank you so much for sharing that. Both of our guests are library aficionados no doubt. 800-433-8850. Ibram, are there any writers or books that you're turning to for comfort during this time?
KENDISo I just actually last night finished a book entitled "The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke," who was a long time professor at Howard and was most known for one of the sort of intellectual sort of guide posts of the new negro in the 1920s. And it was written by Geoffrey C. Stewart, who ended up winning the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for just an incredible sort of biography. And so yeah, I mean, of course, I'm gonna recognize -- I'm going to recommend the last book that I read.
NNAMDIYeah. That's one definitely is on my list. What about you, Jason?
REYNOLDSTough, for me, I'm rereading a bunch of Toni Morrison stuff. I'm rereading "Song of Solomon." Rereading "A Mercy," which both have been incredible just to kind of delve back into. And also it's National Poetry Month so I'm also reading a bunch of poets. And right now I'm at Ilya Kaminsky's sort of "Always on my Mind." His book "Deaf Republic" and I'm reading Roya Marsh's new collection called "dayliGht." So yeah.
NNAMDII'm wondering if you'd be willing, Jason, to share one of your favorite poems now on the air?
REYNOLDSYeah. You know, I would love to share a poem. So I've been writing my own. There's a poem that I've written about what I've been going through and how I feel right now. It's called "Model." And I think I'm going to read that.
REYNOLDSThis is how it goes. My mother hasn't seen my face in some time, and it's turning our nightly phone calls into painting sessions, where she tries to see if she can catch the curve of my jaw, the worry weight in my wooly cheeks, the new growth in extra half inch of hair, the one that stress broke off. I tell her I haven't been drinking or at least I haven't been drinking much. And she thins the paint around my stomach, turpentine's the pot from my belly and says, "That's good to hear."
REYNOLDSI say I've gone to get groceries and she dabs her brush in the black and does a wash, which will suffice for the t-shirt she knows so well and the jeans and sneakers and the hoodie she used to be concerned about all from the timbre of my voice. It's a rough, an idea, but still something to hang on the wall and marvel at until morning. But before we say goodnight, before she rinses the brushes, I say again with great uncertainty, "I'm alright. But are you?" And I know she hears the fear in my voice. I know she's painted the furrow that seems to go on forever. But instead of yes or no she says, "You haven't seen your mothers face in some time. And have forgotten what you look like."
NNAMDIJason Reynolds reading a poem about what life is like for him right now especially in terms of his relationship with his mother. Jason, you may not be reading as much, but you do spend a great deal of time writing. Can you give us a hint about what you're working on right now?
NNAMDIHe's reluctant. He's reluctant, ladies and gentleman.
REYNOLDSYou know, I can give a hint. I can give a hint. I'm actually working on -- I'm trying to figure out how to write a fable. I've been working on this fable for a very long time now. I'm interested in the ideas of mouthlessness and voicelessness, but thinking of voicelessness as a very real thing not sort of in the esoteric or sociological way, but in a physical way. So I'm just fooling around with that right now. It's all I can really say.
NNAMDIAll right. 800-433-8850. Mary emails, "I'm a high school librarian in Leesburg, Virginia about 40 miles west of Washington D.C. "I had the privilege of meeting Jason Reynolds last year when he visited my school. He engaged the students in a way I have never seen before. He connects with them on their level meeting them wherever they are. And they are very responsive. Thank you, Jason.
NNAMDISince the school closure I have been trying to engage my students online. It has proven to be a challenge. I started an online book club. But it's difficult to find ebooks for kids as the libraries are closed and my budget is frozen so I can't buy more electronic books. The electronic books at the Public Library are checked out for all of the popular titles." And let me see if I can see the rest of this message. "Are checked out for popular titles," actually that was the end of the message right there.
NNAMDIJason Reynolds, a lot of young people who are stuck at home at this point, what would you advise them to do about getting through this period?
REYNOLDSWell, first of all I would advise them all to be gentle with themselves first and foremost. I think we always feel so much pressure during these times to be something and make something and do something and make the best of these moments. And I think it's okay to feel the feels. I think it's okay to be sad and concerned, and so first I would say give themselves the space to feel and to be whole and to be human, because it's necessary.
REYNOLDSOn top of that, though, I would say, you know, this is when we're encouraging them to connect with their friends. I understand that being in solitude is tough. So now we're encouraging them to use their social platforms. Use Zoom and FaceTime and all these things to make sure that you have some semblance of human interaction. And lastly I would say if you can, if you feel -- see if you can tap into your imagination. If you can't, it's okay. Sometimes it's in the trying that is necessary.
REYNOLDSThe gift is in the trying, right. So if you can tap into your imagination. But more than anything try to be of service to someone, even if it's the people in your home. See if your mother needs some help, right, ask -- try to help people around you in your home and your household the best you can. And I promise you it will make you feel better. Helping others helps us.
NNAMDIAnd I know Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, you've been doing that since your wife is an Emergency Room Doctor, but I'm afraid we're just about out of time. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi is the Founding Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. Jason Reynolds is the Author of "Ghost" and Co-author with Dr. Kendi of "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be talking with the members of Oh He Dead. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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