Ibram X. Kendi: When I go for a walk, I think of it as a time in which I can think and I can figure out how to solve problems, whether it’s the problems of our time or problems that I’m facing within my own life. Going for a walk is a time to be still, it’s a time to really just be one with yourself. And in many ways, our lives are on overdrive, and there are times in which we really need to settle ourselves and focus ourselves and certainly when we go for a walk, we’re able to do that.
Sam Sanchez: It’s Time to Walk, where some of the world’s most interesting and inspiring people share stories, photos, and songs that have influenced their lives. To kick off Black History Month, we’re highlighting the rich history, culture and contributions of the Black community. Professor and best-selling author Ibram X. Kendi helped reshape the conversation about racism in America when his book “How to be an Antiracist” became a cultural touchstone. On this walk, he talks about resiliency in times of personal and political adversity.
Ibram X. Kendi: We’re in Boston, and we’re specifically walking around Jamaica Pond, which is, of course, one of the most beautiful and even famous ponds in the city of Boston. And I came to Boston this summer to start a new center for antiracist research at Boston University and to become a professor.
When I think of Boston, I think of a region where one of my idols, W. E. B. Dubois, lived and studied for a time. I think of Malcolm X. I think of Martin Luther King, who of course got his Ph.D. at BU and was literally a BU student six months before he he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But I also think of the 19th century, when Boston was literally at the forefront of the anti-slavery movement.
I mean, there’s just so many incredible people who lived here and who fought for a different type of country here and certainly I suspect many of those people you know come to Jamaica Pond to decompress, to exercise, uh, to reflect because this is one of the more incredible green spaces in the city of Boston.
In 2019, I came out with a book entitled “How to Be an Antiracist” and in a general sense, I was encouraging people to recognize that the opposite of being racist is not not-racist. It’s striving to be antiracist.
In many ways, we’re being taught to deny the ways in which we’re being racist. So we’re not only taught to be racist, we’re taught to deny we’re being racist. And part of the reason why we’re taught to deny we’re being racist is because we’re taught it’s this sort of fixed category, that it is who we fundamentally are, that it’s in our bones, that it’s in our heart.
But in “How to Be an Antiracist,” I argue that racist and antiracist are not fixed sort of identities. This is not who a person is. This is what a person is being in any given moment.
And so, indeed, one person can, in one moment, say that, you know, Black people are lazy, and in that moment, they’re being racist. In the very next moment, they can challenge someone who just said Latinx immigrants are invading this country, and in that moment, they’re being antiracist. Or a person can be racist for the better part of their life, recognize it, admit it, and start striving to, to express notions that the racial groups are equal.
The book came out last summer.
You know, of course I went around speaking about the book and I had given a talk where there was a pretty long line of people who were seeking to get their books autographed, and typically, I have a little exchange with people, but also I try to move the line along so everyone’s not waiting forever.
But I never forget this… this older white woman, who came up to me, you know had her books. She wanted them to be signed. You know she thanked me for the talk and thanked me for being there. And then, you know, she said, “Can I tell you something?” And of course I can’t turn down an elder. Of course, I said you know yes. She was like, “I realized through your work, through specifically this book, that I had been racist pretty much all my life. And I’m in my 80s, and I don’t want to die that way. And so, for the rest of the time that I have here, I’m going to strive to be antiracist.”
The reason why that stuck with me is because if someone in their mid-80s can have the courage to admit how they’ve been for the better part of their life and then also have the ability to say, “I can still change. You know, I’m in my 80s, but I can still change, then why can’t any of us?” And so it just really, really captivated me because it just showed me the beauty of the human spirit to change.
I think it’s important to have some level of patience and empathy for people who are being racist because, first and foremost, the chances of us being always antiracist at all times is very slim. So, first, it’s a recognition that, you know what, we, too, have been manipulated to believe that the cause of this inequity is bad people and not bad policy. In other words, when we look at our society, for us to say that in no way have we ever upheld racism or white supremacy is just not… I mean, I think the vast majority of people, if not every single one of us, cannot say that.
I try to lean into that. Like, I try to lean into the fact that, yeah, there were times in my life when I thought Black people were the problem. And I think that story reminds me of someone who took it upon themselves to change.
So, like, I didn’t, like, go and have a six-hour session with her trying to get her to change and force her to think differently. She took it upon herself, you know, to make that change, to come to that understanding. And I think we have to give people that grace and that ability to do that.
It is not on people of color to literally change, let’s say, white folks who are being racist. But that is not a case of me transforming this person. This is a case of that person using the literature that I wrote, that I’m sure others wrote, to transform themselves.
So one day when I was living in Philadelphia. I was, I believe, in my mid-20s. And I was a new Ph.D., and I was, you know, a professor and I decided one morning to go get a shape-up from the barbershop.
Of course, since I have locs, I don’t really get “haircuts” but I try to get my line cleaned up pretty regularly. But the barbershop where I would go to, you had to really get there early, you know, in order to basically get out of there quickly. So I decided, you know what, let me wake up early, try to get there early.
But before I went to the barbershop, I decided to go by the CVS because I wanted to get some… I think it was toothpaste and a toothbrush. I think it was the fall. And so it was probably around 50 degrees or so. So I threw on a hoodie with some sweatpants and some flip-flops with socks. Uh, so I had on socks with flip-flops. For those who don’t like that, I’m sorry.
And so, you know, I drove to CVS, hoping to get in and out in a few minutes and then head over to the barbershop. You know, I park in front and I notice that there’s a cop car that is sort of parked there and wasn’t really necessarily parked in a parking space. So I knew something was going on. But, of course, I was just going to go in and get my toothpaste and toothbrush and be out.
So I walk into the CVS and most CVS’s, they have this pretty open space between the aisles and the registers. So I’m walking in, in this open space, looking up at the aisles and what is in each aisle, trying to figure out where the toothpaste is.
And at the corner of my eye to the left, I see a police officer approaching me. So I’m walking in. I have my hands in my pouch of my sweatshirt because it’s cold outside. And so you know as I turned to look at him, he comes up on me with his hand on his gun and asks me to take my hands out my pouch.
And so I ask why, which, in retrospect, you know, could have been a death sentence, but fortunately that cop only gripped his gun a little harder and ordered me again to take my hands out my pouch.
And so I took my hands out of my pouch, and then I asked him what the heck was going on. And he orders me out of the CVS and puts me over his cop car and starts basically checking all my pockets and he, of course, learns that I’m not armed, and then he puts me in the back of his car. And in a few minutes, there’s a bunch of cop cars arriving. So there’s just all these cops in this small parking lot.
Come to find out, someone had been shooting in the area, and I fit the description: Black male, black shirt. Apparently, that person had fled. So they were looking for that person. Mind you, I’m walking into a CVS past a cop car, with flip-flops on, and somehow, some way, that police officer imagines that I could be that suspect. Eventually, they realize that I am not that person, but all the while, I suspect that person now got away because they were harassing and racially profiling me.
But the saddest part of the story was that eventually they let me go. Eventually, they leave the parking lot. Eventually, I get in my car and drive to the barbershop. And now, mind you, I’m late, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been late to something because I was stopped in some capacity by the police.
But in this case, I walk into the barbershop and I see that there are three or four guys who are already seated who are already waiting for their haircut. And I sit down next to them, and every single one of them fits the description. Every single one of them has a black shirt and is a Black male. And let’s say if one of us had a bad argument that morning with a friend and so we were agitated, and you know as a result of that, one of us did more than say, “Why?”. We would’ve been killed, and then we would’ve been blamed for our own death.
I cannot imagine that, within a white neighborhood, that police officers would tell each other, “Let’s stop and basically detain every single white male we see who has on a white shirt”. That’s the only description we need: “white male, white shirt,” and that they would do that. I mean, that’s not something that police officers typically do because they understand, especially as it relates to people who they consider to be human, that that’s harassment.
But in Black communities, somehow it’s acceptable. Can you imagine? And that was the issue with that story, that because you don’t have a description. Black male and black shirt is not a description. That is a license to harass people. That’s a license to harass anyone you see.
And that is why people fear the police. Because you have some people who live in families [in which] their family members have been killed by the police and then blamed. And then the person who was killed was then demonized after the fact. Almost everyone has been subjected to racial profiling, has been harassed, has even been brutalized merely because of the color of their skin.
I could’ve died that day. Or any of those other Black men at that barbershop. Any one of us could’ve died that day. And it’s not because we would’ve done anything wrong. I literally was going to get some toothpaste, and that could’ve been a death sentence.
And we could somehow imagine that this is hyperbole, but I think three months after that, there was a teenage boy who was walking home with Skittles or I think it was iced tea, and he was racially profiled and eventually murdered. Then his murderer was exonerated.
I’m speaking about Trayvon Martin. That happened a few months after. So I could’ve been Trayvon Martin. That’s why so many people, when they learned about what happened to Trayvon Martin and when they learned that George Zimmerman was exonerated, that’s why so many people could relate to that story. So many Black people. So many Black people who lived in neighborhoods where they were being harassed and profiled not only by the police but even regular racist vigilantes. Because it could be that simple, you just deciding to one day go run an errand, and you don’t come back home.
In January of 2018, while I was living in Washington, D.C., for weeks, if not months, I had been losing weight, didn’t even realize it. I would need to go to the bathroom maybe 10 or 15 times a day. I had been bleeding for weeks at a time. I didn’t smoke. I didn’t drink. I didn’t have any risk factors for colon cancer. But of course, they wanted to rule that out. So I went for a colonoscopy.
And of course, anyone who’s had a colonoscopy, it’s not an easy sort of thing to do. It’s an all-night affair, but you know, I had the procedure, and I was waiting in the room for the doctor. And she came in and told my wife and I—Sadiqa was with me—that she saw a mass in my sigmoid colon and that it was bleeding and that it was probably cancerous. And, of course, she suggested that I go get my body scanned and, of course, a biopsy to confirm, but she was pretty sure.
After the colonoscopy, Sadiqa and I had scheduled to go and eat some breakfast with my mother and we were late, and I suspect she was… she was worried. You know, ever since the doctor had told me that it’s probably cancerous, I was just literally in shock. I just couldn’t even really speak. And so even when we sat down… um… with my mother, I still was, sort of, mute.
I was looking up and looking down, you know and looking away, and I couldn’t even really look her in the eye. And of course, the first thing she asked was, “Why did it take so long? You know, what’s going on?”
And so Sadiqa, you know, told her you know about the mass, and she told my mother that it was probably cancerous. And so my mother looked me dead in the eye and said, “Okay. If it is, we will deal with it.”
So I looked up into her eyes, and I think it was probably the first time I locked eyes with someone since it was told to me that I probably had cancer, and she repeated it. You know, “We will deal with it.” And… and I knew she was serious because that’s how she is. It’s… for her, it just doesn’t matter what happens to you, you always keep moving, you always keep struggling, you always fight.
And in that moment, I didn’t know whether I could keep moving. You know, I didn’t know whether I could keep struggling. You know, I did not know whether I could keep fighting, but she, of course, you know, told me that I could.
And Sadiqa repeated it, “Yes, we will. We will deal with it.” And I think, for the first time, I sort of said to myself quietly, “Yes, we will. We will deal with it.”
For me, just like I suspect for many people, when you hear that you likely have cancer, you also hear you’re likely going to die.
And you wake up one day, and you’re thinking about all the things you’re going to do in your life, and then an hour later, someone tells you you’re likely going to die. For me, it was just a… it was just a shock.
And I think what changed when my mother told me, “No, we will deal with this,” and could tell that she believed that with every bone in her body, was it switched to, “Well, maybe I won’t die, and maybe I can overcome this.” And that’s why, really, for me, it was just instilling in me courage.
I think it was important to really gather that courage in that critical moment because I think any adversity we’re going through in our life, we have to believe we can move past it. We have to believe we can overcome it, especially an adversity like a serious sort of illness.
And for me, the next day, I was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer, but I think I had already instilled, or been instilled in me by my mother and even by Sadiqa, that we will deal with it, and I did.
So I think health-wise, I’m fine. I did six months of pretty intense chemotherapy and pretty extensive surgery. And after all that, miraculously, they couldn’t detect cancer. And so that was about a little more than two years ago.
As I reflect on the, sort of, impact that having and fighting cancer had on me, I had a similar response to it that even my wife Sadiqa had, in that she’s a physician, but she had never… until she fought breast cancer, she never really had a serious illness in which she was a patient. And so it gave her a perspective of what patients are facing, which I think created a certain level of empathy.
For me, it’s the same thing, but really the patients are really the people. You know when you go through any incredibly serious illness, you’re essentially going to go through extraordinary sort of pain, persisting pain. And… and in many ways, that’s what it’s like to live in poverty. That’s what it’s like to be housing-insecure. You know, that’s what it’s like to be hungry. That’s what it’s like to be facing a supervisor who’s deeply sort of racist or sexist, you know, or homophobic. You know, that’s what it’s like to face consistent and constant bigotry. That’s what it’s like to be Black and thereby to be dangerous.
So what it’s allowed me to do is basically to focus on their pain because I know what pain feels like.
I think, in retrospect, we have no alternative other than to believe that we can do the impossible. And to do the impossible is to overcome that adversity in front of us or in front of us as a society because the only other alternative is for us to literally die or for… for us to be harmed. And I just want to encourage people. I want to encourage you that once you lose hope, you’re guaranteed to lose. But if we can believe that we can do the impossible, then we’ll spend the rest of our lives trying to do it.
[SOUNDS OF BIRDS AND FOOTSTEPS]
We’re here now sort of overlooking the pond and getting out and walking and really seeing the beauty of nature. Causes me to really reflect on seeing the beauty of humanity and the relationship between nature and humanity. And at the end of the day, each and every one of us should be striving to bring more beauty into the world. And so when we go out and walk and we look and we see that beauty, it just reminds me what I’m fighting for and what I’m living for.
I grew up, sort of, in Queens, New York listening to hip-hop. And in many ways, life has a soundtrack, and, for me, the soundtrack was New York rap. And so I can’t imagine going through life without music and also just the ways in which particularly hip-hop artists have been able to put my life in perspective, the ways in which beats have a way of making me feel that other things do not, cannot sort of make me feel in that way. Music is essential to life.
Well, I mean, “One Mic” by Nas is a song that always gets me hyped to have a certain level of urgency to change. And you listen to that song, you know, every verse builds up to the times now.
[MUSIC FADES IN]
I mean, you keep seeing it over and over again. The time to transform the country, this world, is now.
[MUSIC - “ONE MIC” BY NAS]
The song “Comin’ from Where I’m From” by Anthony Hamilton, I mean, really speaks to me and sort of my experience and the experiences of many other people who are really forced to live through a persisting social injustice…
[MUSIC FADES IN]
…in which their communities are in many ways devastated from a lack of political investment and they’re forced to live through that all and blame, really, themselves for the devastation.
[MUSIC - “COMIN’ FROM WHERE I’M FROM BY ANTHONY HAMILTON”]
“I Can’t Breathe” by H.E.R. is, I think, one of the anthems of the year, one of the more important songs of this era. Obviously, the phrase “I can’t breathe,” um, you know, is an iconic cry for life. That song is just so touching, um, you know, and, in many ways, it’s a song that, that allows us to continue to mourn.
[MUSIC - “I CAN’T BREATHE” BY H.E.R.]
In many ways, walking around the pond talking out loud about stories is similar to me walking around the pond, thinking about some of those very stories. And, you know, obviously, when we walk, we think, and when we think, we remember. And when we remember, we think about those times that really have… have shaped who we are or those things that we’re facing, you know, in the here and the now.
Thank you for taking the time to walk with me today.