By: Frederic Murray
One of the benefits of writing for the Office of Intellectual Freedom this past year has been to recognize the amazing work done by a variety of people who continually promote and protect the right of free expression in this country. The work of advocating, facilitating and protecting intellectual freedoms is important activity, and is often carried out by everyday people. I thought it would be useful to speak with those whose work is dependent on intellectual freedom, and how libraries impact who they are and what they do. I was able to interview a teacher, a historian and an artist for this writing project. Any errors in transcription are my own. All three guests to our blog were unfailingly generous with their time.
Biography: Ibram X. Kendi is professor of history and international relations and the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. His book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America was published by Nation Books and won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
FM: Good afternoon, Dr. Kendi. Thanks for your participation in this interview project. I wanted to speak with people whose work is inherently dependent on the idea of intellectual freedom
IK: Well, I’m glad to talk to you.
FM: I think it’s relevant for this blog to hear voices whose work helps define the limits and opportunities of intellectual freedom in this country. Historians bring a special type of clarity and insight to contemporary issues, an insight based on their knowledge of the past, so let’s go ahead and get started.
What roles have libraries played in your life professionally and personally, and do you have a particular archive collection that’s important to your work?
IK: That’s an interesting question, because when I was in school at a young age, I didn’t visit that many libraries and really didn’t read that many books. But in college, particularly in grad school, when I develop my love of reading and writing, and started my training as a scholar, the library sort of became my second home. I have so many memories of carrying around like 20 books through the library and becoming so happy when I found a particular book that I’d been searching for. And like any second home, I of course, have visited that home many times over in the last ten years.
In terms of a particular library or collection, of course I’d probably have to say the Schomburg Center [Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture] in Harlem, which of course is a huge research center for black life, and maintains a huge library filled with materials, and for someone like me, who studies African-American history, it probably has the best treasure trove of materials in the world. So of course for me, it is probably the most exciting place to visit.
FM: Yes, the Schomburg Center is a very exciting place. This past June you and Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad discussed your book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America in a livestream broadcast hosted by the Schomburg Center. I was able to watch the livestream event, as well as alert some of our students here at SWOSU. It’s great how libraries are utilizing this technology to reach wider audiences. Schomburg’s collections and programming are a treasure trove.
IK: Oh yes, definitively.
FM: Dr. Kendi, what do you think lies at the root of censorship, in general, in particular?
IK: I think in general, people who recognize the way that particular ideas can be a detriment to their own political, economic or even cultural interests, are typically the people who are behind censorship. They of course try to censor, or delegitimize, at least, those ideas that are directly critical or a threat to the ideas that they themselves stand on. And I think the reason why they censor those ideas is because they know their own ideas, or what they stand on. Presumably people could realize that it’s a lot hollower then they make it out to be. So, in order to maintain their brand of legitimacy they have to, in a sense, censure those ideas that could undercut their standing.
More specifically I know, in relation to racial research, what I’ve found in studying racist ideas is that people who express racist ideas are constantly trying to censor anti-racist ideas. They are trying to sort of normalize this notion of racial hierarchies and therefore censor those ideas that exemplify racial equality. And the reason they are so focused on normalizing these racial hierarchies is because it then substantiates racial disparities in societies and it also therefore substantiates discriminatory policies that are behind those disparities. So if you censor those ideas of racial equality, that than normalizes those ideas of racial inequality, and therefore normalizes all those disparities and inequities in our society, and therefore nobody’s going to challenge your policies, your discriminatory policies, that actually create those disparities, because they are going to see them as normal.
FM: That’s a pretty accurate articulation on why and how detrimental ideas continue to plague us, and how censorship is a tool used to preserve those ideas. As a librarian see censorship clearly as an issue, and a longstanding part of what we’re trained to deal with, but you know at our university things like banning books, or other prohibitions on speech or thought, don’t manifest themselves blatantly, at least not yet. There’s plenty of back and forth on any given issue but challenges to our material here in the library, or on campus is pretty far and in between. In working with the Intellectual Freedom blog, I’ve seen an awful lot of blatant attempts at censorship in the K through 12 environment, and in public libraries. Do you think people programmatically think out these attempts at censorship and then map them out accordingly? Or do you see people just reacting instinctively because the works are a perceived threat to the ideas they stand on? How much of this is rooted in fear of change?
IK: Well, I think at the highest level, there are people with political power in any given state and they of course want to censor ideas that may challenge their power, and the way they do that is by trying to shape the curriculum in a way that of course substantiates their ideas, but then people consume those ideas and take those ideas and then they almost self-censure, or censure other things, because they’ve long been taught to do that so that we can only talk about America, for example, as being an exceptional place, and so we therefore have to censure any idea that questions the idea of American exceptionalism. We can only think of America as this place of continuous and beautiful racial progress, and so we have to censure any ideas that suggest there are other ideas, or come to face with the racist ideas behind, and hidden, of so much of what we think of ourselves.
So people are taught these ideas about their nation, about their worlds, and even about their communities, and those ideas become normal, and people are sort of compelled to censure ideas that are abnormal, and challenge those ideas because they view them as crazy, and they don’t want to expose them to children.
FM: Dr. Kendi what do you see as the overriding issue, or issues in intellectual freedom today? Why and what can be done? And in the current political climate have your intellectual freedoms been impacted?
IK: I do think that we are in a time in which certain political forces are transforming the truth into lies and lies into the truth, and therefore people who are really striving to tell the truth, whether they are scholars, or journalists, or other intellectuals, are being framed as you know…fake. And I think that creates a problem, because these political forces, instead of engaging the actual ideas they oppose, and explaining precisely why they are incorrect, are instead labeling them as fake news or fake scholarship or fake scholars, and I think that is undermining intellectual freedom, because by simply labeling a particular person or story or idea as fake, without engaging that person or story or idea, is not really giving people the freedom to criticize and share the truth in ways that I think are essential for a democracy.
I think for me, I certainly see that you know people who classify themselves as non-racist are some of the very people who would say there’s something inferior about black people, and then they would turn around and say that people like me, who talk about how the races are equal, that we are the ones with bias, we’re somehow political, and so then those types of terms then do not really free me to speak about equality because I’m quickly labeled by some forces in a very pejorative way.
As opposed to again a free intellectual exchange, which would be to exchange and discuss ideas beyond simple labels, I think I should also say that it’s important for all sides of the debate to be very precise if they do seek to label. For instance, for me, when I say that somebody is a racist, I can explain exactly why I think they’re racist, and I will apply that definition to anybody on Earth. I think it’s important for people to be that precise.
FM: Being labeled as political, because in fact you are engaging ideas that are lies, is an issue for many of us in education. Last week I met with a number of other university librarians here in Oklahoma. We’d gotten together for a workshop on Critical Pedagogy, and we discussed at length this problem of labeling ideas or policies as fake, and how we’re going to have to address this in our Information Literacy classrooms. The big discussion was the risk of finding ourselves labeled as political, for the very reasons that you just articulated. So yes, precision in the ideas we discuss, between ourselves and our students, is now more important than ever.
Is there a specific idea that you might see as prescriptive for the times that we live in something that might help buttress the collective trust in common knowledge that we seem to be moving away from?
IK: We have to have a sense of what it means to be an intellectual. I consider an intellectual, not somebody who knows a lot, but somebody who has a huge capacity to know, and typically people who have a huge capacity to know, are very very open-minded, and are willing to sort of self-critique and change their ideas. And so to me, an intellectually free society is one where people are constantly expressing their ideas, and simultaneously open to people critiquing their ideas, and then simultaneously open to changing their ideas…none of which I think is happening in our society.
FM: That’s fantastic, I’m probably going to use that in my classroom if you don’t mind.
[Dr. Kendi chuckles] Ok, very good.
FM: Final question, Dr. Kendi, how do you see a libraries advancing or preserving our intellectual freedoms?
IK: Well, I mean, I think that you can’t really have anything where there is freedom or do anything else without having a school, and so for me, I see the library as a storehouse of tools that give people the capacity to be intellectually free, because if intellectual freedom is exploring and changing and becoming better based on sort of new ideas, you need new ideas in order for all of that to happen, and where we typically find new ideas, the best ideas, are in books, and where we typically still find books, are of course in libraries.
FM: Dr. Kendi, thank you for taking time out your busy schedule to speak to the readers of Intellectual Freedom Blog. I wish you best of luck at your new position as a historian and founding director of the new Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University, Washington D.C.
IK: Thank you for having me.
Frederic Murray is the head of Instructional Services at the Al Harris Library, Southwestern Oklahoma State University. He is a tenured faculty member and as an academic librarian has initiated the growth and expansion of information literacy classes across the campus curriculum. He has presented at state, national and international conferences in the areas of library pedagogy, digital textbooks, and the development of curriculum for Native American Studies. He serves as the managing editor for Administrative Issues Journal, a peer-reviewed, open access journal in its sixth year of publication. He believes deeply in the value of books and the inherent strength found in the human voice. Among his favorite authors are Lenny Bruce, Jimmy Santiago Baca and Carson McCullers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org