Living and Learning at the First Annual Antiracist Book Festival

What does it mean to be an antiracist? How can one strive toward social justice? Learn more with coverage of the first annual Antiracist Book Festival held at American University in Washington, DC, on Saturday, April 27, 2019.

What does it mean to be an antiracist? How can one strive toward social justice? These were a couple of the questions that were asked and answered at the first annual Antiracist Book Festival, held at American University in Washington, DC, on Saturday, April 27, 2019. Ibram X. Kendi, Director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University and Professor at the School of International Service, explained that the event was inspired by previous experiences at book festivals.

"It was a combination that I, as an author, had spoken at many book festivals over the past three years and I was always taken aback at how enlightening the experiences have been. I also simultaneously knew that there had been a great resurgence of literature examining race and racism, and many authors have been admired for their writing in that field. And I thought, what if we brought those two together; celebrating writers who have been writing about racial justice."

The festival, which was held at the campus of American University’s Washington School of Law, featured a variety of presenters. Kendi, author of the National Book Award–winning Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, sought to include writers and academics “who are seriously committed to creating a just and equitable nation.” This year’s theme was anti-Black racism and its intersections. LJ covered several of the informative and educational panels. 

On Christianity, moderated by Rev. Ronald W. Galvin Jr.

Rev. Ronald W. Galvin Jr. moderated a spirited discussion between Jemar Tisby, author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church's Complicity in Racism, and Austin Channing Brown,  author of I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, on the historical roots of racism within the Christian Church and how best to enact social change. Tisby emphasized that he loves the church but hates racism. He acknowledged the development of the Black church due to racism within the white church and stressed that it is impossible to separate religion and politics in a time when political bodies make laws based on religion.

Channing Brown wrote her book for Black women, especially those who grew up in predominantly white spaces. "White people believe that because their spaces aren’t filled with physical violence that no violence is happening," she pointed out after sharing her experiences as a Black woman who did not aspire to the standards and expectations of whiteness. When asked about social justice work, she replied that white people are used to their own comfort and that social justice work should be uncomfortable. Both Channing Brown and Tisby concluded by expressing their unease about the word reconciliation, instead preferring people to work toward equity or racial justice.

On Slavery, moderated by Washington Post's Vanessa Williams

In exploring new research on enslavers and women, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Charles and Mary Beard Professor of History at Rutgers University, joined Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley, in a panel moderated by the Washington Post’s Vanessa Williams. Armstrong Dunbar, author of the best-selling Never Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, wanted to focus on Black women who made the decision to flee and live in hiding. She noted, "It's our job as historians to say what we find in the archives, but also what we don't. We don't always have access to slave testimonies, but it's not a leap to say that slaves who flee are scared." Armstrong Dunbar stressed that a lack of resources is not an excuse for white historians to disregard slave narratives; she relied on newspaper documents as primary sources while researching her book. 

Jones-Rogers, author of the best-selling They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, wrote her book as a project of justice and described white women's economic investment in the institution of slavery, especially since they often received slaves as wedding or birthday presents. "For the women in the book, slavery was their freedom," Jones-Rogers recalled. "They might not be able to vote, but they can own slaves, and they can pass that wealth on to generations." Both Armstrong Dunbar and Jones-Rogers affirmed that enslaved people didn’t see themselves as property or objects of sale; they saw themselves as people whose rights were being denied.

The authors also considered language and terminology; Armstrong Dunbar uses the terms enslaved and enslaver, while Jones-Rogers uses the terms enslaved and slaveholder. Justifying the use of the antiquated term slaveholder, Jones-Rogers reminded the audience that people were not ashamed to be owners and title holders of other people. To conclude, the panelists asserted that slavery, freedom, racism, and white supremacy are intertwined and that you can’t teach one without the others.

On Women, moderated by writer and producer Bridget Todd

An engaged audience  gathered to hear Morgan Jerkins, author of This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America, and Tressie McMillan Cottom, author of Thick: And Other Essays and Assistant Professor of Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, consider the impact of racism and sexixm on Black women and pop culture. Both authors reflected on their experiences writing essay collections and being among the few Black women writing cultural criticism in a crowded field of mostly white women. Jerkins shared her childhood experiences in a family of women who suppressed their thoughts and how she later found writing to be a form of catharsis. 

Cottom, on the other hand, talked about code-switching throughout her career. She remarked, "Being uncomfortable pierces white people's lack of self-awareness.... I want everyone to share the burden of being uncomfortable in a culture that is not their own." Similarly, Jerkins emphasized that it's natural for white people to feel uncomfortable reading her book and if they didn’t, she knows she did something wrong.

Cottom, along with moderator Bridget Todd, related organizations' unsuccessful attempts to diversify staff, with Cottom maintaining that often institutions have an impulse to diversify but not a serious commitment to doing so. She also touched upon her upcoming podcast with Roxane Gay and her experiences being the only Black person whom people know—with many in the audience nodding along.

On White Supremacy, moderated by Washington Post's Wesley Lowery

How do you explain resistance and redemption in the face of white supremacy? For activist DeRay McKesson (R), author of On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope, it involves engaging with and disrupting myths. After defining justice and accountability, he commented that we're good at telling individual narratives but not at talking about the entire criminal justice system. McKesson noted that because the conversations are changing, people assume the outcome is changing as well, when that isn’t necessarily the case.

When asked about empathy, he replied that empathy works only when the power dynamic is shared; otherwise, it's sympathy, not empathy. In response to questions about his podcast, Pod Save the People, McKesson clarified, "What am I doing to reach across the aisle? Nothing. I preach to the choir to help them use their voice." Margaret Wilkerson Sexton (C), author of the best-selling A Kind of Freedom and the upcoming The Revisioners, added that there’s an expectation for Black authors to write about race relations in a way that centers white people. Both of her novels focus on identifying reasons of hopes for Black people while also acknowledging reasons for collective suffering as well as the power we have inherited from our ancestors.

On Democracy, moderated by Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza

Kendi (L), along with Carol Anderson (C), Charles Howard Candler Professor of African American Studies at Emory University and author of One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy and White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, led an informative panel moderated by Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza (R) in which they shattered the myths of voter suppression and systematic oppression. 

Anderson recalled, "I was watching TV and Ferguson is on fire. They were all saying the same thing—look at all that Black rage. I’m shaking my head, saying that’s not Black rage, that’s white rage.

We’re so focused on the Klan as the definition of racism. We’re so focused on that narrow definition of racism that we miss how systematic and institutionalized it is. White rage is quiet. White rage moves through bureaucracies. You don’t see the bullets. You don’t see the bloodshed, but there are bodies everywhere."

 

The audience intently listened to Anderson detail voter suppression efforts in Georgia and Ohio, among other states, referring to Black people who have been purged from voter rolls as electorially dead. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, pointed out that people of color have never had power in America. He said that there is no such thing as a race-neutral policy, because we have come to believe that we should judge a policy as racist by its intent, when we should instead consider its outcome. Among the other takeaways are that policies, not people, are  to blame for societal ills and that the power to resist exists in everyone.

On Incarceration, moderated by Angela J. Davis, Professor, American University's Washington College of Law

Answering the question of why she wrote her book, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, Elizabeth Hinton, Professor of History and African and African American Studies at Harvard University, said that we don’t have a good answer for what happened between the civil rights movement and 9/11 that explains the rise in economic inequality. She, along with journalist Shane Bauer, author of American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment, engaged a packed crowd to discuss the history of mass incarceration in America.

Bauer didn’t initially set out to write a book but was inspired to do so after meeting lawyers who assist people in indefinite solitary confinement, and began to further explore the American political system while reporting for Mother Jones. "Reporting on prisons is difficult," he said. "It's hard to get access, but those laws don't apply to private prisons." His best-selling book documents the long history of private prisons dating back to the American Revolution and recalls his time as a prison guard intertwined with his own experiences of serving time in prison. He also reminded the audience that it's hard to understate how much prison authorities are scared of books—of anything that might politicize people.

Hinton described how her research found that programs that were framed as equal opportunity, especially those implemented under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, were really a means of social control; she hopes her book will help reframe the narrative around incarceration. 

On Freedom, moderated by Marcia Chatelain, Associate Professor, History and African American Studies, Georgetown University

The concept of citizenship and what it means to be a citizen was the focal point of the conversation between David Blight, Class of 1954 Professor of American History at Yale University and author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, and Martha S. Jones, Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University. Jones, author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, analyzed her research process, which involved setting aside preexisting beliefs and studying maps  to determine how people moved from place to place. She explained that citizenship emerges as a goal for free Blacks, who see it as a protector from colonization, white supremacy and removal. A suggestion for aspiring historians was to examine people and cases that never make it to the Supreme Court; “they're there if we're willing to make time for them,” Jones stated. 

Expanding on the subject of freedom and civil rights for 19th-century African Americans, Blight remembered how he spent time researching papers of Frederick Douglass from the Walter O. Evans Collection. Blight wasn’t intending to write a biography but was inspired to after reading the papers and reconsidering how Douglass viewed the question of rights and citizenship. When asked what people should know about Douglass, Blight mentioned the orator’s ongoing fight against injustice. In response to a question about being a white author writing about Douglass, Blight replied that the purpose of history is to learn about people other than ourselves and that, in the words of Douglass, we should all be working toward social justice.

On Liberating Education, moderated by Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy, Dean, School of Education, American University

Transforming teaching and educational institutions was the subject of an engaging panel with Anthony Abraham Jack (R), Assistant Professor of Education at Harvard University and author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, and Bettina Love (C), Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University of Georgia and author of We Want To Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom.

There were sounds of agreement when Love asserted, "We don't talk openly about structural racism. A lot of teachers think that they’re a good person, but you can be a good person and still be racist.... We [teachers] have to be historians. You don’t know us, but you want to teach us?" She also asked us to consider language that we use on and around students; for example, the terms first-generation, underserved, and at-risk could have a negative connotation depending on usage. “Racism is language that we always put on people and never systems," Love continued. 

Jack noted that access isn’t inclusion. “Colleges have invested millions in diversity recruiters but have thought less about what to do when those students get in,” he stated. Both Love and Jack considered the racial implications of grit and asked the audience to rethink the theory and curriculum in their schools, whether secondary or higher education. Jack implored people to be unapologetic in their accomplishments and successes because we don’t often celebrate ourselves.

Next year's conference will be held on April 25, 2020, and will focus on different forms of racism, with voices from other writers of color.

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Stephanie Sendaula

Stephanie Sendaula (ssendaula@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor at Library Journal.

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