Stamped Graphic Novel Tour Featuring Dr. Ibram X. Kendi and Prof. Joel Christian Gill Launches at Moses Brown School

Rhode Island learning and literary communities gathered on June 6, 2023 for an evening with author Dr. Ibram X. Kendi and cartoonist Joel Christian Gill as they launched their book Stamped from the Beginning: A Graphic History of Racist Ideas in America.

A panel conversation was held in Glendinning Hall at the Woodman Community & Performance Center at Moses Brown School, which co-hosted the evening’s public discussion, along with Curiosity & Co. and Reading with Robin. MB parent Seth Goldenberg P’29, author of Radical Curiosity: Questioning Commonly Held Beliefs to Imagine Flourishing Futures, guided the dialogue.

The newly-released book is a striking graphic novel edition of the National Book Award-winning history of how racist ideas have shaped American life— from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of How to Be an Antiracist. Dr. Kendi is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, and the founding director of the BU Center for Antiracist Research. In 2020, Time magazine named Dr. Kendi one of the 100 most influential people in the world. He was awarded a 2021 MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as the Genius Grant.

The ideas behind Stamped from the Beginning are brought to life through the illustrations of Joel Christian Gill, the Chair of the MFA in Visual Narrative at Boston University. He is a cartoonist and historian who speaks nationally on the importance of sharing stories. He is the author of the acclaimed memoir Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence, cited as one of the best graphic novels of 2020 by The New York Times.

“It’s a special moment to have each of your talents and leadership here,” said Goldenberg, describing Dr. Kendi and Prof. Gill as “courageous individuals talking in a space literally built for these kinds of conversations.”

The reference to the Woodman Center’s origins harkens back to Seth’s role as the school’s strategic visioning partner a decade ago and the big questions Seth urged MB to reflect on.

“This space was designed to be the creative, intellectual, spiritual, and social heartbeat of our community,” said Interim Head of School Ron Dalgliesh at the start of the program, addressing the audience that included a wide array of education, government, civic, business, and cultural leaders. “And we hoped it would allow us to increase authentic connections with, and be of service to, our neighbors around the city and the region.”

Stamped from the Beginning has roots in Providence. Much of it was written, in fact, just a few blocks from Moses Brown’s campus. Dr. Kendi described the process of producing the original book as both “painful and enlightening,” as he researched and documented “some of the most horrific things ever said about Black people.” Being enlightened by seeing how many of those ideas still pervade to this day helped to inspire him to keep writing this book.

Prof. Gill shared that it was “incredibly challenging to translate such a lengthy and complex book to an illustrated graphic novel of less than half as many pages.” He also took on the challenge of adding humor as a way to convey the darkness of racism, an artistic decision he described as self-preservation.

Gill feels humor offers a way to pull an audience in and help them relate, and comics offer a way to create abstractions that an audience can empathize with. Giving the example of the yellow smiley face, he noted it remains universally yellow because it is an abstraction that people can see themselves in. Gill believes this concept is where comics get their power to present a relatable story. “People see comics and they see themselves.”

“Through stories we see human complexities,” said Dr. Kendi, citing another power of storytelling. He rejects the idea that people are entirely racist. People can be both racist and anti-racist in overlapping ways all in a short span of time. The complexity of people can be told through stories very effectively. “That’s humans. We’re deeply complex.”

Respecting readers is also critical for creators to keep in mind, Dr. Kendi said, “ensuring that you’re crafting and engaging a complex and clarified story.” He emphasized that you must be careful how you write and research and how this will impact the audience. He believes thinking like a storyteller is critical in encouraging people to think in antiracist ways and to counter the many stories they’ve been told throughout history, and continue to be told.

Their collective sense of the power of storytelling as a tool to dissect racism was aptly summarized by Gill. “Books are empathy machines, and they work.”

During the Q&A that followed the panel conversation, a student in the audience sought the advice of the two professors about she as a person of color should show up to school each day to help dispel racist ideas.

“It is important for every Black person to recognize that we are not representatives of the race. We are our own individual selves,” Dr. Kendi said, acknowledging that the weight of thinking that you are representing an entire group of people is enormous. “To be a teenager—and an adult—is to consistently be imperfect.”

“I encourage you to lean into your own humanity. Lean into your own selfhood. Lean into your own difference,” Dr. Kendi added. “Ultimately you are determining and dictating your life.”

For his part Gill encouraged students to be confident in their convictions, offering the memorable line that “students have never been on the wrong side of history,” while rattling off some powerful moments in the United States where students raised their voices, such as the Vietnam War or Civil Rights Movement.

Dalgliesh had set the stage for the evening acknowledging the moment we’re in now as a nation and the belief at a Quaker school that truth and wisdom are about a journey, not a destination.

“Quakers would call it a process of continuing revelation. It feels more important than ever to make time and space for bringing diverse communities together, to be in conversation about things that truly matter, with a common sense of purpose and hope.

At a time when absolutism is on the rise, we stress the importance of listening to understand, not respond. While everyone seems to be screaming at each other, we pause, and use silence to reflect. We keep asking questions.”