(Image Courtesy Today.com)
By Amaya Griego
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s seminal text “How to Be an Antiracist'' first hit the shelves in 2019, sparking international conversation about race and racism. Kendi is the Founding Director of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research. Five of his books have been #1 New York Times bestsellers, including “How to Be an Antiracist,” which has been added to the Seminar-001: Critical Strategies & Great Questions curriculum. It is being read for the first time this spring.
The book blends personal anecdotes with explanations of terms and concepts. In Chapter 5, Kendi defines terms like “ethnic antiracism” and “racism” while reflecting on his bullying of a Ghanian-American classmate in middle school. “Race and racism in this country is experienced in a deeply personalized way,” he says. “The best way to write this text was to be deeply personal, but then simultaneously have history and empirical data and social commentary. It’s of course not just a personal matter.”
In the fall of 2020, a group of eight Engaged Learning Facilitators (ELFs) at Saint Mary’s, including the Associate Director of Community Engagement Sarah Beth Dempsey, read the book as a group. “We each led a discussion on a chapter or two when we would meet,” senior ELF Sarah Kaminsky says. “I feel like we all grew. Who I was before we read that book and the way I understood myself and who I was becoming was different.”
They soon organized a petition to incorporate “How to Be an Antiracist” into the Seminar curriculum. “Aliya Patel really pushed for us to do this. She was, I’d say, the biggest driving force in the action-taking,” ELF Myla Love ‘22 says. “She really took so much action and I think we were all inspired by the amount of effort she put in. I put it on all social media and we were all actively campaigning after Aliya kind of got it started.”
Professor Ellen Rigsby, faculty member and Program Director of Seminar, remembers the ELFs approaching her with the petition. “They came to a governing board meeting and gave a presentation on why they thought the text was so good, specifically for Seminar,” she recalls. “The governing board read it and had a discussion about it and agreed.”
The first-year students will read the first five chapters of the book, a decision which the governing board takes seriously. Seminar texts must range in genres and topics, allow for “complex interpretation,” and be accessible without context or prior knowledge of the text. “It’s hard on the bookstore when we change texts or editions,” Rigsby says. “It’s hard on students because then suddenly there’s not a market of used copies available. It’s hard on faculty because they have to prepare for another new text that might not be inside their discipline.”
Regardless, Rigsby thinks it’s a fundamental text on identity. “I want students to think about their identity in ways that are deep and complex like Kendi does,” she says. “Identity isn’t an explicit discourse in most of the ancient world. I think it’ll bring a lot to the older texts we discuss, like Antigone or the Melian Dialogue.”
As for the students who brought the text to Seminar, they are excited to see what comes from reading this text. “I’m most excited for self-discussion. Seminar is a class that everyone can take, so everyone therefore has access to the ability to self-reflect. I think that’s really gonna be powerful,” Love says. “My biggest takeaway is that Black people can be a part of oppressive systems. I was always taught that we can’t be racist. When I leave, I’m looking into school psychology and looking at school curriculum. I recognize my privilege and want to help change policies that are oppressive.”
“Hopefully students understand their impact and their power on campus to be able to organize and create change in the way that we were able to,” ELF Anna Burke ‘22 shares. “I don’t think we understood that as a possibility before we started. Students have the most power to change.”
“I think it promotes the idea ‘Enter to learn, leave to serve,’” Kaminsky brings up. “The end of the book encourages you to actually do something. It kind of embodies and promotes the message that Saint Mary’s says they have. If eight people reading a book can change the Seminar curriculum forever, what can 1000 students reading a book each year do?”
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Ryan Ford '23,