When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? I know you didn’t read a book cover-to-cover until you were 17.
There are days where I’m not so certain I do, you know? But I’ll tell you this: The moment I realized that I wanted to do something with language was when I was 10. Rap music sort of overwhelmed me when I started to listen to it as a young person. You would go buy cassette tapes, open them up, pull the liner notes out, and read the lyrics. That’s what it was for me. This idea that there are 26 letters. That’s it. That I have to figure out how to somehow arrange these 26 letters in different combinations to somehow cast a spell on the human psyche. To change something or someone. What a glorious thing. I felt the spell.
Was there a particular artist — and do you remember the lyrics?
Of course. It was Queen Latifah. The “Black Reign” album, the lyrics to “U.N.I.T.Y.” I mean, look, you listen to the last verse of that song, and what she’s doing with language, it still feels magical. And because I was looking at the lyrics, reading them on the liner notes, I fell in love with poetry. Because you realize that that’s what it is. All right? And it wasn’t daunting. It’s only a few words. I could write a whole thing in 20 words. And I became obsessive when it came to writing poems and wrote them all middle school, high school. That was my jam. And then it moved from verse to prose. That didn’t happen until I was, like, 25.
You’ve had a run of significant books, but it seems like “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” has really been a book the moment demanded. Did that surprise you?
No. [Laughs.] I think there’s no way you could be living in this moment and be surprised that that book did what it did, right? People are looking for something to bite down on to give them some sort of footing in a time like today. It just happened to be at the right time. To be completely honest, so as long as the children have something that they can hold and say, All right, this will be my compass, this will show me true north in the moments that get a little rocky and a little shaky as it pertains to race in America, to give me some context and some framing, then I’m good.
Have you had any particularly meaningful discussions about it with young readers?
Right when the book was coming out, before we were all on lockdown, we did a talk in D.C. in, I think, Columbia Heights. And this one young lady just expressed how angry she is. Not because of the content of the book, but because she felt like she couldn’t understand why the adults in her life were keeping this information from her. She felt like she had been lied to. Right? And, of course, we were trying to get her to understand that most of the adults in her life don’t know this information, either. [Laughs.] I mean, I came into contact with most of this when I was writing the book — that’s what makes Dr. Kendi’s research so important is that much of that just wasn’t known. But she just felt like, why is it that we haven’t been taught this? Because this is American history. Why is it that they think that we can’t handle this conversation and this information? She’s 14. And that was super special just to hear this young lady who was very quiet at first, but when it was time to speak just really air out her grievances with the adults in her life.
You’ve said your aim isn’t to teach, necessarily, but rather to observe and kind of document young people’s lives — do you think that’s one of the reasons your books resonate with them?
That’s it. I’m not interested in teaching. I think young people have enough teachers in their lives. My job is to be the cool uncle. Right? I’m here to give you a nickname and throw an arm around your shoulder and go on that walk with you. And let you say whatever you want to say — without telling your mama and daddy. That’s it. Bear witness to your life, to the bigness of your life. Nobody wants to hear what their mother and father has to say. But everybody wants to hear what their cool uncle and auntie has to say, even if it’s the exact same information. [Laughs.]
How optimistic are you that this knowledge, that these conversations, can contribute to the discussion of race in this country and help change things?
I’m super hopeful. More than anything on this planet, I believe in children. I think children are the most human of the humans. Look, I am an adult, and I love the adults in my life. But we talk about where the hope is, I’m not looking at us, right? [Laughs.] I’m looking at these kids. And the reason I have so much hope, especially as it pertains to this book and their consumption of it, is because I believe that if we can figure out how to add and change the vocabulary around race, the lexicon, if we can figure out how to tie that lexicon to the psyches of children, then as they get older, the comfort with which they’re able to talk about it will lead to the opportunity for it to actually change.
The reason [racism] hasn’t changed in all these years is because we still haven’t talked about it. People will say, “Well, all we got to do is not talk about racism, and it’ll go away.” We ain’t talked about it yet. Not in truth. Not with intention.
KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen. This interview has been edited and condensed.