When Ibram X. Kendi was studying for his doctoral degree in African American studies at Temple, he said he asked his professor Ama Mazama, “If we can’t be objective, what can we do?”
“We should just tell the truth,” Mazama said.
Kendi, a New York Times best-selling author and an African American history professor at the University of Florida, earned his doctorate from Temple in 2010. He said that lessons from Mazama have stuck with him to this day. Kendi’s book, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” received the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
In the book, Kendi explores the evolution of racist ideas in American history.
“I wanted to chronicle the motives of why people produce these [racist] ideas to show that typically it wasn’t ignorance and hate that was leading to people producing these ideas,” he said. “But oftentimes the need to rationalize racial disparities or the need to defend racist policies that typically benefited the people who were producing these ideas,” he said.
Kendi worked on the award-winning novel for three years after he published his first book, “The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972.”
Kendi was originally interested in pursuing sports journalism. While an intern at The Mobile Register, a daily newspaper in Mobile, Alabama, Kendi wrote a story about high school football recruits being more willing to play for a Black football coach.
The following summer, when Kendi interned at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he wrote a similar story about sports and race.
Kendi said those stories excited him, and he decided he wanted to pursue a career as a journalist reporting on racial issues. He attended Florida A&M University, where he received bachelor’s degrees in journalism and African American studies.
Before he attended Temple, Kendi planned to pursue his master’s in African American studies, but decided to get his doctoral degree because he thought it would make him a better professor.
Kendi studied under Molefi Kete Asante, the chairman of the Africology and African American studies department, when he taught the course “Social and Political Thought” — an experience Kendi said was “crucial” to his experience at Temple.
“He’s one of the most prolific African-American scholars and for a very long time he’s challenged racist ideas and neocentric thought,” Kendi said. “He’s certainly served as a role model for me and many scholars who came to Temple University.”
“[Kendi’s work] is very important because most people don’t realize that the American society has these incredible, hidden incidents of racism that would help us to explain many of the things that we do and that we see in contemporary society,” Asante said. “The work [Kendi is] doing is extremely important. It’s work that should have been done a long time ago.”
Kendi said learning about African-American culture at Temple was essential to his book-writing process.
“I take my intellectual work very seriously, and I also am not fearful of criticizing great American figures just as [Ama Mazama] and Molefi Kete Asante,” Kendi said. “I think they trained me in particular ways, but they also gave me the courage to write this type of history.”
Jenny Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.