Ibram X. Kendi, a nationally renowned author and anti-racism scholar, took to social media Tuesday to express his surprise and support for the suggestion that his name should replace that of a Confederate general on the front of his alma mater: Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas.
In an Instagram post shared at about 5 p.m. on Tuesday, June 23, Kendi said he was excited to learn that that the school division “is finally committed to changing the [school’s] name” and was “utterly shocked” that one of the new names being floated for the school is his.
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In 2000, I graduated from a high school named after a Confederate General. A high school enrolling Black students has been named after someone who fought to keep our ancestors only learning the brutality of enslavement. And now, I’m excited that my old school district is finally committed to changing the name. Stonewall Jackson’s days are numbered. And I’m utterly shocked that one of the the new names being floated is mine. The great-great-grandson of Stonewall Jackson asked for the high school to be renamed after me. What a class act by Warren Christian. We are not bound by our parents, like we are not bound by our ancestors. We can be different—and make a difference as Christian shows. Support the campaign for Ibram X. Kendi High School in Manassas, Virginia. Link in bio.
Kendi also shared a link to the Change.org petition calling for the school to be named for him. As of about 2 p.m. Wednesday, less than 24 hours after Kendi made his post, the petition had garnered more than 27,000 signatures.
Kendi, whose name was Ibram H. Rogers when he attended Stonewall Jackson H.S., graduating in 2000, has described himself as an average student who nonetheless went on to earn a doctorate degree, write five books and become one of the country’s leading voices on the idea of “anti-racism.” Kendi’s books include “Stamped from the Beginning,” which won the National Book Award in 2016, and “How to be an Antiracist,” which he wrote while battling stage 4 colon cancer in 2018.
Kendi teaches at American University and in July will become the founding director of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research.
But at least some Stonewall Jackson High School students are expressing hesitation about naming the school for Kendi.
Ben Kim, a rising senior who serves as the student representative to the Prince William County School Board, did not include Kendi’s name in a recent online survey he conducted to gauge current students’ opinions on the name change.
In a thread of tweets posted Tuesday, Kim listed several reasons for that decision, including that it is “risky” to name a high school for a living person.
Kim also noted Kendi lived in Manassas for only a few years and has not made “significant changes” to the area.
I did not add "Ibram X. Kendi HS" as an option for several reasons:— Ben Kim (@benpwcs) June 23, 2020
a. Dr. Kendi is still alive. He is young and thriving with his whole life ahead of him. It is risky to name after a person who is living (nothing against the living- I happen to be one of them). https://t.co/Vl8StEnDTE
Kim contrasted Kendi’s local contributions to two namesake choices students ranked more highly in his survey: that of Arthur Reed, a well-liked, former Stonewall Jackson High School security guard who died in 2018, and the late Celestine Braxton, who was one of the first African American teachers hired to teach in the county’s then-segregated schools. Braxton, who began her teaching career in 1950, also worked to desegregate restaurants and businesses in the county, according to her obituary.
Braxton taught in the county for more than 30 years before retiring from Marsteller Middle School. She died in 2014.
Kim also notes that Kendi did not speak highly of his alma mater in national news articles and concludes his thread by saying: “I think there is some survivorship bias going on. They want to pick someone who has succeeded in life from our school. I understand that. But Dr. Kendi is just one of thousands of graduates who are still alive and making changes in the world.”
Kim posted the results of his student survey on Twitter Tuesday morning. He also shared a Change.org petition calling for the school to be named for Reed.
Kim's survey garnered 1,944 responses. The top vote-getter was Reed, with 750 votes. Behind Reed was Braxton, with 409 votes; Bull Run, with 397 votes; Manassas, with 327 votes; Unity, with 323 votes; Frederick Douglass, with 288 votes; Rixlew with 256 votes; Social Justice with 201 votes; Ellis with 181 votes; Cannon Branch with 157 votes; Sudley Junction with 149 votes; Commonwealth, with 109 votes; Innovation Park, with 108 votes; Manassas Junction, with 79 votes; and Fort Defiance, with 73 votes.
The Change.org petition to name the school for Kendi was launched by Prince William County resident Langston Carter, a local activist and student at American University, who said he is a descendant of some of Jackson’s slaves, based on research conducted by his great uncle, and a descendant of Jackson himself, based on his family's oral history.
Carter, 20, said he did not attend Stonewall Jackson High School but became familiar with Kendi through his books, particularly “Stamped from the Beginning,” and “How to be an Antiracist.” In the latter, Kendi discusses attending Stonewall Jackson High School and the speech he gave as part of the annual Martin Luther King, Jr., oratorical contest hosted by the Prince William County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
During that speech, Kendi spoke critically about the conduct and attitudes of Black youth, in effect partly blaming their actions for persistent racism. Those ideas have since made Kendi cringe with shame, according to an October 2019 article written by the Washington Post’s David Montgomery.
Kendi’s ideas, as described in the piece, include that “few, if any, are free of racism; that we should confess to our own racism as a first step toward becoming anti-racist; and that racism begins not with the prejudice of individuals but with the policies of political and economic power.”
Carter said he believes Kendi’s own evolution on racism, as described in his book, and his contributions to the larger conversation about combatting racism, make a compelling case for naming Stonewall Jackson High School for him.
“I think he might not have held those stances if his school had not been named after a Confederate general,” Carter added of Kendi's views as a high school student.
Carter further notes that Kendi is an alum of Stonewall Jackson High and has the support of both a descendant of Jackson’s, Warren Christian, and himself, a descendant of one of Jackson’s slaves.
Christian, who said he is Jackson’s great-great-grandson, expressed his support for the school’s renaming – and for Kendi as a new namesake -- during the Prince William County School board’s first public meeting on renaming the schools, which was held virtually on Monday, June 22.
The Prince William County School Board is renaming both Stonewall Jackson High School and Stonewall Middle and will have the final say on the new names.
A naming committee of three school board members will hold another virtual meeting to collect more input on the new names on Thursday. School board members on the renaming committee include Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef, Brentsville Representative Adele Jackson, Gainesville Representative Jen Wall and Coles Representative Lisa Zargarpur.
The school board is scheduled to make a final decision on new names for both schools on Monday, June 29.
Reach Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org