by Sohan Gade ’23 (he/him/his)
On September 22nd, Dr. Ibram Kendi, Director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University and the author of the New York Times Bestseller: How to Be an Antiracist, spoke to the Davidson community as the 2020-2021 Reynolds lecturer.
Dr. Kendi has written two other New York Times Bestsellers: Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, and Antiracist Baby. He has worked on promoting antiracism for several years, as he has lectured at Boston University, American University, and the University of Florida, among other colleges.
Given the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Kendi lectured over Zoom. The lecture consisted of an initial series of questions asked by President Quillen from Davidson faculty and alumni, and then a series of questions from students.
Dr. Rose Stremlau, Assistant Professor of History and Chair of the Public Lectures Committee, explained that choosing a speaker is usually a long and deliberate process.
“The Reynolds [Lecture] is essentially a year of planning and then the speaker comes the following year, which means we’re always planning the year ahead,” Dr. Stremlau said.
Thousands of members of the Davidson community attended the event; the virtual format of the lecture allowed for increased event capacity. “I think there is something to be said for thinking about this as an all Wildcat event, […] all of us having these important conversations together,” said Dr. Stremlau.
The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain, among others, sparked national conversation about the connection between systemic racism and American politics this year. Dr. Kendi is an important speaker in this discussion, having lectured extensively and authored award-winning books.
Dr. Stremlau emphasized that “fit” is the most important factor in choosing a speaker. The unique circumstances surrounding this year’s lecture led to a host of new criteria during the selection process.
“We needed someone who would be an engaging speaker in a virtual format,” Dr. Stremlau said. “I knew that Dr. Kendi was a scholar whose work resonates with students, especially now.”
For the first part of the lecture, President Quillen asked Dr. Kendi questions. In regard to the prominence of many Davidson alumni and faculty in positions of power, President Quillen asked Dr. Kendi about ways leaders and privileged individuals could combat racism. “If you could give people who have institutional power guidance for how to maximize their impact and shift cultures within their workplaces and industries towards anti racist policies, what would you want them to do?” asked President Quillen.
Dr. Kendi extensively discussed internal reflection and the importance of raising questions. “First, [it is important] for people to recognize their power…I think everyone, every individual, in a position of policy making power, should be asking themselves, what is the racial impact of these policies?” said Dr. Kendi.
President Quillen also fielded questions from Davidson alums. “Now that you’ve become a household name and leading voice on race… how do you think about responding to criticism and specific critiques of your work?”
As a scholar, Dr. Kendi underscored the value of feedback and growth. “I actually welcome constructive criticism…I’m less concerned about being right than I am for getting advice,” said Dr. Kendi.
The second part of the lecture included questions from current Davidson students. Given the upcoming elections, Joe DeMartin ’21, President of the Center for Political Engagement, asked Dr. Kendi to discuss the link between political participation and antiracism work.
“Can you talk about sort of the importance of voting and electoral mobilization and perhaps solving some of those policy questions that you talked about, and ultimately becoming a more anti-racist society in an anti-racist country?,” he asked during the second half of the lecture.
Dr. Kendi stressed the importance of being politically engaged by redefining politics in terms of power. “When you say ‘I don’t do politics,’ it’s equivalent to saying ‘I don’t do power,’” Dr. Kendi said. “ To not vote or to just vote is equivalent to essentially allowing someone to dominate you.”
Ricky Pinnock ‘22, an Africana Studies and Communications double major, asked Dr. Kendi about writing stories involving trauma. “Do you have any advice for people who are considering writing on stories that may be traumatic or hard to get through and advice for people who are in the business of sharing their stories of people reading traumatic stories?”
Dr. Kendi explained that it is important to develop personality in writing. “The detail and the willingness to be vulnerable, and even imperfect, is what is going to really demonstrate the humanity of the story,” said Dr. Kendi
When discussing the motives behind his antiracist work, Dr. Kendi mentioned the value of self-reflection and an inward perspective. “I realized that that my sort of journey, you know, could inspire other people to take a similar journey,” Dr. Kendi said.Dr. Kendi concludes How to Be an Antiracist with a message of hope and freedom. “If we ignore the odds and fight to create an antiracist world, then we give humanity a chance to one day survive, a chance to live in communion, a chance to be forever free” (Kendi 238).