Antiracism and the Power of the Written Word
Can the written word change the world? If you need an apologetic in the affirmative, then look no further than the first National Antiracist Book Festival.
Under the leadership of national book award-winner, Ibram X. Kendi and his capable staff at the Antiracist Research and Policy institute, this event gathered nearly 50 authors and publishing professionals whose work advances racial equity.
I had the privilege of serving as a panelist on the “On Christianity” panel. My co-commentator, Austin Channing Brown, wrote the highly-acclaimed book, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. Our facilitator, Ronald Galvin, Jr., led us in a discussion that probed the role of Christians in building and, potentially, deconstructing a racist social hierarchy.
I applaud Dr. Kendi and the Institute for including this panel which recognizes the vital role of religion, specifically Christianity, in conversations on antiracism.
Other panels, featuring eminent scholars and activists, included “On Democracy”, “On Incarceration” and workshops such as “Self-Care in Activism.” A special highlight for me was talking for the better part of an hour to Pulitzer-prize winning author, David W. Blight. He most recently wrote Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom and generously dispensed advice to me on how to write a compelling biography.
Skeptics of such an event might expect fiery diatribes against all things America and white. But while every panel dispensed passionate and informed critiques of white supremacy and racism, a spirit of comraderie filled the atmosphere. Longtime friends and colleagues embraced in glad tidings to one another. Authors and attendees alike finally met in-person those who they considered heroes and exemplars in antiracism work.
While bitterness would be an understandable reaction in light of the discrimination people of color have received over the centuries, everyone I encountered displayed a sense of determined realism. Sobered by the reality of racism but not crushed by it, panelists offered solutions, displayed curiosity, and maintained a steady conviction to continue the work of repairing the damage discrimination has caused.
The heart of the book festival was, of course, the books. Hundreds of monographs, edited volumes, essay and poetry collections adorned display tables, each one holding the promise of transformation and progress. Never had I seen assembled in one place so much literature across so many genres, all focused on the problem of racism and what to do about it.
The books, which were products of untold hours of study and often lonely labor, represented the best of contemporary thinking on the topic of antiracism. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, and Clint Smith’s Counting Descent were just a few of the brilliant books available for sale and up for discussion on panels.
If people in this nation, and especially people of faith, grasped just a portion of ideas expressed through these books, then we would see our communities involved in pace-setting racial repair. We would see individuals and whole communities healed from generations of wounds caused by racism. We might finally begin to more fully honor the God-given dignity of all people across racial and ethnic lines.
Sadly, many Christians, especially white evangelicals, avoid reading these types of books. Since they know little of the authors and may believe that any talk of fighting racism is a “distraction” from the Christian message, the people in the pews may never access the knowledge that could spark racial reformations in their congregations.
Nevertheless, the work of antiracism continues and gains momentum with each new word written on the topic.
The potency of the Antiracist Book Festival lies in collecting dozens of books focused on combating racism. In bringing together so many authors and their works, participants get a sense of the depth and scope of the accumulated knowledge around the subject of antiracism. Attending this unique book festival leaves one with the unambiguous sense that progress is possible if we are only willing to do the work.