Exactly one year ago, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi was the keynote speaker at Westport’s annual Martin Luther King Day ceremony. A full house listened raptly as the winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction described exactly what it means to be anti-racist.
It was a powerful, insightful lecture. Attendees contributed almost $3,000 toward anti-racism training in Westport.
In the weeks following, the MLK Planning Committee — TEAM Westport, the Westport Library, Westport Playhouse and Westport Weston Interfaith Council — worked with Dr. Kendi and his team to develop anti-racism training for senior management of key organizations in Westport. It includes town government, the police and the school system.
The year-long, successful pilot project is now in the action stage.
Dr. Kendi’s impact on Westport has been profound.
And it came while he was engaged in his own, very different struggle.
Last week, the Atlantic published a first-person piece by Dr. Kendi. Titled “What I Learned From Cancer,” it describes his whipsawing emotions as he was diagnosed with — and then battled — Stage 4 colon cancer.
It’s powerful, personal and raw. During grueling chemotherapy, he continued to research and write his new book, “How to Be an Antiracist.” It was, he says, “perhaps my way of coping with the demoralizing severity of the cancer and the overwhelming discomfort of the treatment, furiously writing and fighting, fighting and writing to heal mind and body, to heal society.”
Dr. Kendi’s Atlantic piece ties together his professional work, and his new insights into America’s healthcare. He writes:
America’s politics, in my lifetime, have been shaped by racist fears of black criminals, Muslim terrorists, and Latino immigrants. Billions have been spent on border walls and prison walls and neighborhood walls, and on bombs and troops and tax cuts—instead of on cancer research, prevention, and treatment that can reduce the second-leading cause of death.
Any politician pledging to keep us safe who is drastically overfunding law and order, border security, and wars on terror—and drastically underfunding medical research, prevention, and health care—is a politician explicitly pledging to keep our bodies unsafe.
Harold Bailey — chair of TEAM Westport, who with Rev. Alison Buttrick Patton of Saugatuck Congregational Church has helped lead the local anti-racism initiative — notes that Dr. Kendi’s Playhouse talk last year was his first public appearance after being diagnosed with cancer.
Bailey — but few others — knew of that back story as they worked through the year together.
Today, Dr. Kendi stands a good chance of joining the 12% of people who survive a Stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis.
In fact, on Wednesday, January 30 (8 p.m., Quick Center for the Arts) he will be the keynote speaker at Fairfield University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Convocation. (Click here for details.)
As for Westport: This year’s 13th annual Martin Luther King celebration scheduled for tomorrow (Sunday, January 20, Westport Country Playhouse) has been postponed. A new date has not yet been announced.
The keynote speaker will be James Forman, Jr. He wrote the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner for general nonfiction: “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.”
He is a leading critic of mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on people of color. The Brown University and Yale Law School graduate clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He then spent 6 years as a public defender.
Forman has contributed op-eds and essays to the New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The Nation, and the Washington Post.
(For Dr. Kendi’s full Atlantic article, click here.)