In the Trump era—a political climate that encompasses both the Black Lives Matter movement and the growing visibility of white nationalist activity—the literary world is responding with volume and force. This past month, major publishing imprints released books on racial prejudice (Biased byDr. Jennifer Eberhardt), white women slaveholders (They Were Her Property by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers), and black resistance (How We Fight White Supremacy by Akiba Solomon and Kenrya Rankin).
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi recognized this boon in scholarship and was motivated to act. Kendi, a professor at American University and a National Book Award-winning author, wanted a thematically oriented space of creativity for the nation’s leading writers on race and racism. But he couldn’t find one, so he resolved to create it himself.
“Typically, those of us who are writing [on race and racial justice] are attending book festivals around the country,” Kendi tells City Paper.
“We enjoy bouncing ideas off each other and admiring each other’s works, so we decided, ‘What if we honed in on this to organize a book festival?’”
Tomorrow, American University’s National Antiracist Research and Policy Center will host the Antiracist Book Festival, the first festival of its kind to boast authors, discussions, and workshops around topics of antiracism and social justice. This year’s inaugural festival emphasizes works on anti-black racism and its intersections, including gender, religion, and queerness.
Kendi, the founder and director of the Antiracist Center, utilized his extensive network to gather more than 30 participants for the festival. The impressive list ranges from Campaign Zero Co-Founder DeRay McKesson to Award-winning Princeton scholar Imani Perry; Pulitzer Prize winning poet Tyehimba Jess, and Johns Hopkins historian Martha Jones. According to Kendi, the pool of academics and activists was easy to book.
“They were all unbelievably excited,” Kendi says. “We already have some authors who weren’t able to make it who would love to come next year.”
The panels, which cover topics like mass incarceration and the power of education, are deliberately small, with just two authors and a moderator.
“We really wanted the audience and the authors to dig deep into their work and their ideas,” Kendi says. “I hope that people will come to view [the festival] as a space where first and foremost they can see the top, leading authors in the country every year in one building. They can literally walk up to these people and engage them and learn from them.”
The book festival joins a growing number of projects and initiatives launched by the Antiracist Center, now halfway through its second year. The event confronts the university’s recent history of racist incidents, including a pattern of epithet-riddled, threatening messages on the now-defunct college gossip app Yik Yak, to the discovery of noosed bananas hung around campus.
On Sept. 26, 2017, after Kendi introduced the broader AU community to the Center’s goals at the Antiracist Center’s Vision event, Confederate flags and cotton balls were found at several buildings. Earlier this month, a video of a white freshman saying the n-word went viral on Twitter among current students and alumni.
As students rally around stricter interpretations of the student code of conduct in an effort to combat these instances of public racism, the festival will serve as a convergence point of activism, healing, and inspiration from individuals committed to the fight for justice.
Marlin Ramos, an AU senior and intern at the Center, is volunteering at the festival to ensure that the panels run on schedule and to shuttle authors around AU’s law campus. She says she’s looking forward to seeing Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, at a panel on racism and democracy, along with Well-Read Black Girl founder Glory Edim at a panel on Black womanhood. (“I follow [Edim] on Instagram,” gushed Ramos.)
Although the panels are the most biggest aspect of the festival, Kendi says he’s most passionate about providing learning opportunities for a new generation of writers on race through the festival’s editorial workshops. Whether an author is formulating a book idea or strategizing for a bestseller, the festival connects them with preeminent book editors and literary agents.
“Chances are, if you’ve liked a book about race in the past few years, one of these publishers will have had a hand in it,” says Kendi.
Ultimately, both Kendi and Ramos see this year’s festival as the beginning of an annual gathering of intellectuals and professionals, a trading of ideas within the AU community about how to remedy a nation. This question is at the heart of the Center’s mission.
“I’m just really excited. I can’t believe AU is even hosting something this cool,” Ramos says.
“We want the book festival to truly be a festival, a celebration of the writings, of the intellect, of the creativity,” Kendi adds. “But not only a celebration––also a space of reflection, of serious analysis, and a space where we can come each year to figure out ways to move forward collectively to create a more antiracist America.”
The Antiracist Book Festival will take place tomorrow at 9 a.m. at American University’s Washington School of Law campus. 4300 Nebraska Avenue NW. $0-$250, all proceeds from ticket sales go toward the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University.