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In new documentary, Ibram X. Kendi asks 'What is wrong with Black people?'


The Netflix documentary "Stamped From The Beginning" starts with a provocative question writer and professor Ibram X. Kendi asks of other Black academics.


IBRAM X KENDI: Can you please tell me what is wrong with Black people?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What is wrong with Black people?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK, what do you mean by that?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: What is wrong with Black people?

RASCOE: Kendi, who founded the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, answers by invoking how systemic racism can convince Black people and everyone else that Black people deserve to be marginalized. NPR TV critic and media analyst Eric Deggans has watched "Stamped From The Beginning" and has also been following recent allegations of mismanagement against Kendi at the BU center. Hi, Eric.


RASCOE: So first, tell us more about this documentary. It's out on Netflix later this month.

DEGGANS: Yeah, it's this percolating primer on the themes in Kendi's award-winning 2016 book of the same name. Now, there's compelling animation, historical photos, interviews with lots of academics - although it might be tough for some people to watch. It's centered on this idea that much of the systemic racism that's directed against Black people was created as an attempt to justify enslavement and exploitation of Black people, not the other way around. And in the film, you know, Kendi speaks of this ruler known as Prince Henry of Portugal who he says turned to enslaving Black people from Africa in the mid-1400s instead of Europeans because it was harder for them to run away. Here's a clip. Let's listen.


KENDI: Prince Henry didn't want to admit he was violently enslaving African people to make money, so he dispatched a royal chronicler by the name of Gomes Zurara.


KENDI: Gomes Zurara justified his slave trading by stating that Prince Henry was doing it to save souls and that these people in Africa were inferior.

DEGGANS: So that, Kendi says, is the creation of Blackness in which Europeans treat Africans from many different tribes and countries as one inferior race to justify exploiting them.

RASCOE: So these are some very complex concepts about race and history. How does this fit with his other work, you know, like his bestselling book "How To Be An Antiracist" or his ESPN series on sports and race?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, I've interviewed Kendi for NPR's Life Kit podcast. And at the core of a lot of his work is this idea that racism is a behavior, not just a state of being - that it comes down to choices you make every day. And in Netflix's "Stamped From The Beginning," that means examining these ideas like the myth of Black hypersexuality, which has been invoked throughout history to justify raping Black women or lynching Black men. And after the death of George Floyd in 2020, you know, Kendi gained new prominence speaking on these themes - the themes in "How To Be An Antiracist." And those ideas are found in so many contemporary issues that it makes sense that Kendi could leverage them into an ESPN project on racism in sports or this Netflix film.

RASCOE: And what about that criticism Kendi ran into following his decision earlier this year to lay off about half the staff at the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University? Where do those allegations of mismanagement stand?

DEGGANS: Well, the university just released an internal audit finding there were no issues with how the center's finances were handled, which kind of backed up Kendi's contention that the layoffs were not a result of bad fiscal management. And it also pushes back against some critics who tried to delegitimize his concepts by suggesting he's some kind of fraud. Now, hopefully, this will allow people to focus more on his ideas, which he sums up at the end of "Stamped From The Beginning" by answering that original question. The only thing wrong with Black people, he says, is that we think something is wrong with Black people.

RASCOE: NPR TV critic and media analyst Eric Deggans. Thank you so much.

DEGGANS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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