Common Reading author Jason Reynolds: Living an antiracist life is a ‘lifelong journey’

Best-selling and award-winning author Jason Reynolds delivered the Common Reading lecture on Tuesday, Sept. 21, focused on his work on this year's selection, "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You."

Throughout his book “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” best-selling and award-winning author Jason Reynolds details the origins and progression of racist ideologies and structures through history, marking the implications today of racial discrimination in the past.

The book, written with renowned historian Ibram X. Kendi, is a remix of Kendi’s earlier book, “Stamped from the Beginning.” Reynolds reworked Kendi’s book in his own voice and in a style to make its lessons more approachable for Reynolds’ traditional audience of young adults. But still central to the book is that the focus for progress should be on the understanding that it is racial discrimination and not Black people themselves who are responsible for racism, that there is nothing wrong with Black people as a group or with any other racial group.

The goal of antiracism is to target racial discrimination and its impact on people and society rather than to address some perceived and incorrect notion of racial inferiority, Reynolds and Kendi argue in their works. And in speaking to Elon University for the Common Reading lecture, Reynolds notes antiracism is a persistent mindset rather than something that is achieved and forgotten.

“I’m on a journey trying to constantly undo the things that have been woven into me, since my upbringing in this in this particular country, and this particular cultural system,” Reynolds said. “And this will be a lifelong journey. There is no finish line.”

“Stamped” was selected at the 2021-22 Common Reading at Elon to be read by all incoming students and integrated into their first year at the university. The common reading marks the beginning of the Elon Core Curriculum, the shared courses and experiences that put knowledge into practice and enable the integration of learning across the disciplines.

“The common reading challenges students, faculty and staff to examine through reading themselves and the local and global communities they inhabit by offering diverse perspectives and commentary on key issues affecting our lives, providing forums to question and discuss these perspectives in-depth and encouraging the integration of these ideas and perspectives and other aspects of the Elon experience,” said Paula Patch, senior lecturer in English and assistant director of first-year initiatives, in introducing the work and Reynolds at his recent online keynote lecture.

Traditionally working in young adult fiction, Reynolds said he was initially reluctant to work on a refashioning of Kendi’s book, even though it had impacted him greatly. Kendi approached him about undertaking the work as a way to make the concepts and history offered in his 600-page “Stamped from the Beginning” more appealing to a younger audience. The book won the National Book Award in 2016, and Kendi and Reynolds met at the awards ceremony.

“He told me, ‘Ever since I’ve won the award, I’ve been talking to all these people and everybody says the same thing to me — they all say, man, I wish I had this information when I was young,'” Reynolds said Kendi told him.

Reynolds said was concerned about being tasked with rewriting a book that had already achieved such acclaim, and after agreeing to undertake the project, had multiple drafts miss the mark. I’m ready to quit because I feel like there’s probably someone better who can do the job,” Reynolds said. “I want to make sure that whatever we produce is going to actually serve young America and not sort of put up more blockades or roadblocks or hinder them in some way because of my inability to get the job done effectively.”

It was only after being told to take Kendi’s information and use it to write his own book that the idea for how to approach it effectively came together. That led Reynolds to begin the book offering readers the admonition that this is not a history book, or at least not like the ones they read in school.

Throughout the book, Reynolds conveys Kendi’s history of racial discrimination  — how racism initially took hold as a justification for slavery and as a foundation for power and segments of the economy. He details the efforts of segregationists, who seek separation based on the idea that Blacks are inferior, as well as assimilationists, who believe Blacks are inferior but can somehow be lifted up and made better to become equal. Lastly, there are the antiracists, who believe that no race is better than any other, and instead focus on addressing racial discrimination.

“Antiracism on a very basic level is that I recognize you are a person and because I recognize you as a person, that you deserve to be here, simply because you already are,” Reynolds said. “Simple.”

Part of that challenge is doing away with preconceived notions of what it means to be Black or White or a member of any particular race, Reynolds said. “Your whole Black self might not be what you think blackness is,” he said. “Your whole Black self might be anime and punk music and roller skating and ballet. … We got to get to know who you are, first, and then we can stop assimilating.”

That point resonated with Britt Mobley ’24, who joined in discussion with Reynolds following the author’s opening remarks. “This book really changed my thinking a lot,” Mobley told Reynolds, noting that he loves classical music, which some think of as more traditionally “White.”

“That’s one of the tricks of racism is that it’s convinced us that we belong in a certain kind of silo,” Reynolds said. “If I am doing what I am doing because I believe that will make me more acceptable in the eyes of whiteness, if I think this will make me more acceptable, then I am assimilating.”

Some civil rights icons, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. practiced assimilationism during their lives, Reynolds acknowledged. However, labeling them as just acknowledges their humanity as well as the idea that such an approach could have been the best fit both for the time and for survival.

“Stamped” is the beginning of a conversation, Reynolds said, not the end goal. “It’s meant for you to take this and then go do your own research to get even more information and add to this knowledge bank,” he said. “Now you go out and you get even more information, dig a little deeper, ask harder questions and work to dismantle this book.”