Episode 120: Ibram X. Kendi, Sadiq Khan and Leyya Sattar on Understanding Your Power
This week’s special guest is author and scholar Dr Ibram X Kendi, who has become of the foremost writers and thinkers on race and antiracism in the US, particularly after the publication of his hugely successful book How To Be An Antiracist. Alongside his teaching and academic work, Dr Kendi is a contributing writer to The Atlantic and is the racial justice contributor at CBS News.
He talks about the joys and difficulties of putting together his latest book Four Hundred Souls — an epic work of African-American history spanning four centuries and told from a variety of perspectives — as well as being willing to interrogate his own mistakes.
- How finding his calling as a writer happened by accident
- The difficulties he faced assembling and editing a group of 90 different writers
- The joy of putting together a book of black history that is treasured so much by its readers
- The importance of understanding anti-black racism and how it has played out in different parts of the world
- Being willing to take risks, make mistakes and constantly check your own subconscious prejudices.
We also hear from Leyyah Sattar. Leyyah is a co-founder of The Other Box, an educational charity run by women of colour which provides training for businesses on diversity, inclusion and empowerment. Leyyah talks us through the things she’s trying to learn, as well as unlearn, and tells us about the podcasts she’s finding inspiration in right now.
Finally, we also get a chance to hear from Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. Sadiq talks about the misconceptions that many people hold about his role, and about the frustrations and lessons that come from being in a position of power.
Welcome back to Wanna Be, the podcast that takes you from where you are now to where you want to be in 30 minutes or less. I’m Imriel Morgan, founder of Content is Queen, a podcast agency and club for ambitious podcasters with phenomenal taste, high expectations and a desire to sound as good as I do right now. Thank you so much for taking the time to be here. Wanna Be’s focus is to help you take consistent action to build a successful life and career in the creative and entertainment industry. Today, I have three exceptional guests who are going to help you understand the power of working with other people, overcome the restrictions and limitations placed upon you, and they’re going to help you figure out why it’s necessary to shake things up to achieve real growth. Let’s get into it.
I’m very excited to bring you my guest today. Author and scholar Dr. Ibram X Kendi is the great mind behind the number one New York Times bestseller How To Be An Antiracist. Dr. Kendi is one of America’s foremost historians and leading antiracist scholars. He is also a contributing writer to The Atlantic and the racial justice contributor at CBS News. The focus of today’s episode is to help you realise the importance of following your instincts when it comes to your career, but also to explore the areas of your life that need further interrogation and reflection. We also talked about Dr. Kendi’s latest book Four Hundred Souls, which is a must-read for anyone interested in the movement for Black Lives, and, you know, just interested in history. Let’s go straight into it.
Who did you want to be before you became who you are today, and why?
Ibram X Kendi 1:40
So I grew up in New York City as a huge, huge New York Knicks fan. That’s the NBA basketball team, professional team, and I wanted to be the next John Starks, who was my favourite player growing up, basketball player. But you know, I wasn’t really that good. I shifted gears a little bit and decided I wanted to be a sports writer, to cover sports games. And so I went to school, I went to college to pursue that. But the more I entered into that career, the more that I realised I was trying to sort of turn a hobby into a calling. And I started to find my calling, which was really writing on and speaking out against racism.
That’s a really intense shift. No?
Yes, it was.
What was the response to that when you started to make those decisions? Did you have family and friends, or your wife? What stage in your life where you at and what was the response to that change in direction?
So the good thing is it happened primarily in college, and it was somewhat natural in that when I would do some internships in sports sections in newspapers — I remember in particular, I did an internship in Alabama, at a newspaper there — and I wrote this story about racism in sports. And that story, reporting on it and writing on it, brought me so much meaning and fulfilment, and I saw how it was making a difference. And so I started gravitating more to writing on race and sport, until ultimately I focused more on race.
Yeah, that’s always the way isn’t it? You start off in one direction, then you completely pivot and, and then that’s you finding your purpose, and your flow and your groove. I love when that happens. It’s a privilege to get to that stage sometimes.
So you have two books that I have read. So I have read How To Be An Antiracist. Rather, I’ve listened to them because I’m an audiobook fan. And I’ve started listening to Four Hundred Souls, which is absolutely beautiful. The audio book – they’ve done some really beautiful stuff with the voices, and yeah, it’s just beautiful to listen to. I’m curious to know about any challenges with putting something like this together, for you.
Yeah, I mean, the ambitious aspect of Four Hundred Souls, bringing together a community to write the history of a community. You know, you bring folks together. Even if it’s your family, there’s going to be challenges, folk are going to procrastinate. No, in all seriousness, I think it was not easy to not only accumulate or assemble, I should say, 90 writers, but then also, each of those writers had to write about a specific time period. And so trying to find people who were willing to write about a specific time period, it wasn’t necessarily easy. But I mean, ultimately we were able to gather this incredible group of black writers, and I think once we had the group gather, and then once the pieces started coming in, that’s when the beauty started coming in.
Yeah, it is. It’s really stunning. It’s very rich. And I remember listening to Ijeoma Oluo’s story about being mixed race, and I’ve interviewed her before on the podcast, so I have a tremendous amount of love for her and her work. But I know that that her story really hit home for me because it was the first time I had really come to understand mixed race identities and why people identify as… some mixed race people choose to identify as black in the UK, it’s quite different in that most people don’t do that. And then there was another story about the twins being separated, and there’s a story in my family about twins being separated in the name, and I’m the descendant from the twin that left got left behind. So it’s really quite moving, actually, all of these kind of beautiful points of reference and the layers that are contained within these stories and their stories within a story. It just feels so enriching, and I haven’t even listened to all of it yet. But I know that our history is, it’s beautiful, as well as it is violent and complex, and traumatic. But it’s so important that it’s told, so thank you for doing that work, and to Keisha [N. Blain] as well for doing that work. I applaud you both for pulling it together, because it looks intense, just from the Audible chapter list.
Yeah, I mean, what you’re speaking to is what our contributors were able to do. And they did not necessarily… to me, what I’m fascinated by is, in most cases, in almost all cases, they weren’t necessarily reading the pieces coming before or after their piece. Every one of our writers wrote about five years, and then we of course put them in chronological order. But they were able to somehow still sound all together like this choir — as I write about it in the introduction — and all on pitch, and all singing similar chords. And then of course, we have those soloists you have to have, which were, of course, our 10 poets. We ended every 40-year section with a poem.
Yeah. It’s beautiful. It’s a really masterful bit of work. But yeah, I mean, you must be used to getting praise for your books, especially within the last year. How To Be An Antiracist was absolutely everywhere. You could not see an Instagram slideshow about books to read without your book be mentioned. And then now this book’s come out, and it’s getting lots of really great praise. How do you feel about that? Do you ever feel complacent?
So for me, I am actually just pleasantly excited about all of the people who are rallying around Four Hundred Souls, because it’s a single volume history of Black Americans, and it is just rare, that a single volume of history of any topic, so many people are rallying around it in this way. A sweeping sort of comprehensive history. And so for people to do that, with this book, when I know as an historian how rare it is, just brings me so much joy and to see the ways in which you have black people who, in many ways, like when they get the book, and they display the book, it’s almost like they’re displaying a treasure. You can tell by the way they’re talking about it that they treasure this sort of book, and they treasure the stories. And so to be one of the people who helped create that treasure, there’s no better feeling.
Ah, that’s beautiful. Yeah, I think I’m definitely going to buy a physical copy, because I want it. I haven’t had black history in that way, and I think that’s the point, right? That’s why this exists, is that there hasn’t been anything as comprehensively put together for wider consumption, that’s accessible in that way. I would like to know if there were stories that you had to leave out, or that you had to say, ‘can’t do that’, and how would you make those decisions, if you did?
With each of the five year period, we would suggest a particular story, and sometimes the writers who agreed to write on those periods would accept that story and write on it. Other times, they would say, ‘No, actually, I want to write on this topic’. And we wanted those contributors to have that freedom. So typically, when they said that, we were like, you know, ‘okay’, and I think that’s one of the reasons why it came together, because we wanted each writer to be writing on something they were knowledgeable about and passionate about. But of course, we wanted to also provide some guidance for folks, if they needed it.
We’ll return to Dr. Kendi in just a moment. I want you to get to know Leyya Sattar, who has been in the trenches trying to create an equitable world for BIPOC folks in the UK and around the world. Take it away, Leyya.
Leyya Sattar 10:18
Hi, my name is Leah and I am the co-founder of The Other Box. The Other Box is an award-winning company, educating people on diversity, inclusion, bias and antiracism. We also have a creative community that centres the voices of black people, indigenous people and people of colour. Today, the community has grown to over four and a half thousand members around the world and continues to grow. And really, it’s a safe space for people to connect, to collaborate to share opportunities with one another, but also as a space of solidarity, because everybody that makes up the community, of The Other Box is from a marginalised and underrepresented background.
I’m currently working on improving myself right now. So I just turned 30 and it’s really about becoming a better version of myself. So that includes a lot of unlearning, a lot of relearning, a lot of disrupting patterns of behaviours that don’t serve me. So really, that’s what I’m focusing on right now, as well as trying to scale and grow The Other Box with my co founders, Roshni and Sima. Now, two podcasts that have really inspired me — and actually, the only two podcasts that I listen to on a regular basis — is Oprah Super Soul Sunday, of course, just because her presenting style, her interview style, and the guests that she has are incredible. And then Kelechi Okafor’s Say Your Mind podcast. Now, again, Kelechi she is a really great presenter, but also the way that she talks about things like spirituality, the way she talks about complicated, highly emotive topics such as racism, and other forms of oppression as well, she does it in such a way that’s so accessible. And she’s also funny and charming, and it’s just so great to listen to her.
I’ve been following Leyya and The Other Box for years and it’s been amazing to see their growth, and more importantly, the impact they’re making as an organization. Also, Leyya just made Forbes 30 Under 30, so this is not a joke. She is remarkable and so is The Other Box. Be sure to follow The Other Box on Twitter and Instagram @_Theotherbox. Now, back to Dr. Kendi.
What are your your goals for this book, specifically, as it relates to conversations about race and racism? Do you see it being part of the solution when it comes to conversations about race?
Well, I mean, I think that one of the reasons why you have people who are imagining across the world that, quote, their nation is ‘post racial’ or racism doesn’t live here, it lives there, the ‘there’ is often the United States. But many people in the United States say it doesn’t live here either, right? So it’s like everywhere is… people all over the world are saying that, and part of the reason why nations all over the world are saying that anti-black racism doesn’t exist there, is because they don’t know the history of anti-black racism in their nation, or in the United States, or anywhere else. So for me, understanding and learning this history opens one’s eyes to the existence of racism. But what it also does, particularly for black folks, it allows them to realise that the entirety of their existence isn’t ‘I’m an oppressed person’, right? Black people are so much more, and I think we conveyed that in this text.
Yes, I think so. I think that it’s important and necessary, because you’re right, there is definitely something about the UK mentality that you either subscribe to the idea that it doesn’t exist, or it doesn’t exist, but we’re not that bad, or we’re not as bad as America. I would love to see something as big as this, kind of just having that UK perspective with other perspectives. I’d love to see this spin off and inspire other writers. Is that something you’ve ever thought about with regards to the wider diaspora and how other black folks around the world can connect to to this?
I mean, I do think that it is critical for us to show a history of the diaspora and I do think it would be incredibly interesting to help share that story. And I do think it’s important for black folks to realise the ways in which there are those connections, in a way that cultures are sort of similar, and even their experiences. But I always receive inspiration from black folks all over the world, not just the United States, who who are fighting a specific form of racism in their country, which is going to be different, because of different national history, a different set of political actors. And so I just think it’s important for us to receive that inspiration from each other,
I would like to know what you’re working on improving at the moment. Just as you’ve got a book launch, it’s very intense. I’ve worked with many, many authors in the height of a launch, and this isn’t your first rodeo, of course, but what are you working on improving?
Where do I begin? I mean, I think I’m trying to ensure that I’m using time, wisely and productively. I’m always trying to make sure that I am willing to take risks and I’m not just thinking about what’s safe and easy or comfortable, but I’m willing to do the uncomfortable risky things. I’m constantly sort of checking, thinking and trying to improve, or check my own patriarchy and homophobia and transphobia, and classism. So that’s something I’m constantly thinking about. I also am constantly trying to ensure that my analysis of racism is not static. In other words, when I say racism, my analysis of racism today is not built on a framework that better explains racism 50 years ago. And that’s one of the challenges of, for instance, taking a book that was written 50 years ago about racism 50 years ago, and applying it to racism today. And so I’m constantly thinking, I want to make sure my analysis is improving, or is changing, progressing with the time.
And what does good look like for you? How do you measure that change and those improvements?
For me? Well, first, good looks to me, when I’m admitting and acknowledging the mistakes that I’ve made, or that I’m making, which is something I did in How To Be An Antiracist. And so that’s critical for me. But then I’m thinking of, how am I repairing this? You know, how am I ensuring that I’m not going to have it again? So to me, it’s more about the process of identifying mistakes, not sort of generalising to say, ‘I’m this sort of evil, horrible person’ and ‘this is the way I’ll always be’, as much as how do I go about making different choices or being different in the future? I see that as success.
Brilliant. Thank you so much. Thanks so much for your time.
I am feeling very blessed to have spoken to Dr. Kendi today. I highly recommend getting a copy of Four Hundred Souls, which is a very rich tapestry of black history from 1619 to 2019. Guys, it is dense, and it has a movement in that book, I tell you! It’s full of suspense, it’s full of trauma, it’s got the joy, it’s got the anger, it’s got the triumph. It’s got everything. It’s a well documented piece of work, and it’s well worth the read. You can follow Dr. Kendi on Twitter @DrIbram, and on Instagram @IbramXK. Before we wrap up, I had the chance to speak with London Mayor Sadiq Khan a little while back, and given the themes explored so far in the season, I thought it was worth revisiting what he had to say about being in power, and the pros and cons that come with the job. Take it away Sadiq.
Sadiq Khan 19:00
The most frustrating part of the job is actually the lack of powers that I’ve got. What people don’t realise is that although we’ve had a Mayor for 18 years, the Mayor’s got very few powers. I’ll give you an example. So we get to spend, with councils, seven percent of the taxes raised in this country. Seven percent only. Whereas New York, it’s been 50 percent, Tokyo 70 percent. So a lot of the things I’d like to do, I can’t. I’ve not got the powers. That’s really frustrating. That’s the worst part of the job is the fact that we’ve got to go cap in hand begging the government for resources or powers.
The best thing in London is honestly, every day my job — forget no days are the same — but no hours are the same. And the people I meet are just so diverse, you know? Different backgrounds, different ages, different genders, different experiences, and I’m learning all the time. There’s a great many of us who as children were told by our parents: you’ve got two ears and one mouth, use them in that proportion. And so I’m always listening and learning and trying to be a better person but also a better Mayor, and you always learn on the job. Whatever job you’re in, whether you’re a lawyer, whether you’re a journalist, whether you’re a politician, whether you’re the Mayor, don’t ever assume you’re the finished product, because there’s things you can learn all the time. That’s the great thing about my job and I love it.
That’s a wrap! Thank you so much for listening. I hope this half an hour has made you think, reflect and contemplate what your next step should be. I’d like to encourage you to think about one person who would benefit from the messages shared today and I’d love for you to share this episode with them right now.
If you’d like the extended interview with Dr. Kendi, all you have to do is screenshot and share this episode to your Instagram stories and tag @ContentisQueenHQ. Until next time, bye.
This is a Content is Queen production hosted by me, Imriel Morgan. Edited by Amber Miller and Joseph Perry. Sound design by amber Miller. Music and sound effects are from Epidemic Sound.