The protests against police brutality that are sweeping the country as a result of the death of George Floyd in police custody are just the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of American racism. Just as earlier versions of such movements were written about by literary luminaries like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, the present moment has authors like Baltimorean poet, educator and writer Kondwani Fidel.
Fidel is uniquely positioned to explore this moment. A child of East Baltimore, he emerged out of the 2015 unrest as one of the city’s most prominent creative voices. Works like the poetry collections “Hummingbirds in the Trenches” and “Raw Wounds," the virally successful essay “How a young boy has been decaying in Baltimore since age 10: A Death Note" and this summer’s poetry album “The Mud Was Made for Us” established his authority on Black Baltimore’s pain, joy and resilience. City-affiliated tourism agency Visit Baltimore understood his perceptive talents when it worked with him on a rebranding project that put his poem about Baltimore’s hidden strengths, “Beneath the Shell,” both in a Super Bowl advertisement and on a billboard near Penn Station on Charles St.
But don’t get it twisted: neither Fidel nor any writer will save you from your own internalized racism. As he makes clear early on in his new book, “The Antiracist: How to Start the Conversation About Race and Take Action," the process of becoming anti-racist and fighting oppression isn’t finished once you’ve read the right books.
“I want it to be clear that just reading and just getting knowledge about these things is not the work, it’s a small part of the work,” the 27-year-old poet, educator and writer said.
Instead, “the work" is a lifelong process of self-exploration and using one’s position to address the damage done by racist policies and acts. Fidel does his work through writing, as he does in “The Antiracist,” about incarceration, murders, police violence and other aspects of life in a city still affected by what Fidel calls racist policies.
As one of several local artists to achieve significant acclaim after the 2015 unrest following Freddie Gray’s death in police custody (another, photographer Devin Allen, wrote the praise-filled foreword to “The Antiracist”), Fidel knows what he’s talking about. His book celebrates the work done by several other locals, including STEM pioneer Brittany Young.
Here’re some more works of literature and media, that the author found relevant to the themes of racism, social justice and inequality that his book explores.
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
“One of my biggest influences is Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. I mention him throughout the book. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, and specifically, his book, “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” That was one of the driving forces of the title, it was a driving force when it came to much of the — I’m not going to say the history lessons, but I learned a lot from reading that book. The way that I talk, think, speak about race and about Black people, and how it is to be Black. I learned a lot from him.”
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X"
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” is an amazing, amazing book to teach people about race relations in the world. The book is his personal experience, so that’s what makes that book so special, because we was able to see who Malcolm X was before he joined The Nation [of Islam]. It’s all in the book, him being on the streets and selling drugs, using drugs, to the organization, The Nation ... and then even how he grew intellectually after leaving The Nation. It’s a lot there.
Malcolm X as a metaphor is just so important for American culture, because when we talking about growth, and ideas and not just always believing that you’re right. You’re doing the best you can with the knowledge that you got, but on that journey, you should have an open mind so you can keep — like, you got to keep interrogating yourself, you can’t just stop."
“My first time of Ava DuVernay coming on my radar was with the ’13th’ documentary. I didn’t know that mass incarceration was a thing until I was in my 20s, [even] being a person who got arrested for s*** that he ain’t do and literally watched hella people from my neighborhood just disappear into f***ing prison cells, and I could not see it. I couldn’t see it, bro. So those joints like [”13th] is important for the culture because there’s still a lot of people that don’t know."
“Set It Off"
“This film touches on so many underlying things that speak about women in the workplace ... They touch on LGBTQ [identity] with Queen Latifah and her significant other, it shows the violent history and violent patterns of policing, and I feel like one of the biggest things that I missed out on when I watched it [while] coming up is how f***ed up the workplace is for women. And that s*** shows it. You can literally lose your job just for being from a certain neighborhood ... the Luther janitorial company, how the f*** he’s treating them? It shows a lot of f***ed up s***, but whoever wrote the film, he don’t do it in a dehumanizing way. He humanizes all of them. He’s saying, ‘These people are not f***ed up people, they just got pushed to certain levels that this country will push you to, and they just did something that they felt was necessary,' That’s it. They ain’t criminalizing girls, he humanizing them. That’s one of the things that I be looking for in movies now, is it criminalizing or humanizing?"
Other material and people
Toni Morrison, “The Source of Self Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and Meditations”
“Luce" (on Hulu)