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The Ideas Q&A

“Black History Is an Absolute Necessity.”

A conversation with Colin Kaepernick on Black studies, white supremacy, and capitalism

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images
Colin Kaepernick at the ACLU SoCal Hosts Annual Bill of Rights Dinner in 2017

While the teaching of Black history has long been a topic of controversy in the United States, over the past few years conservative forces have coalesced to remove books in public schools and libraries from Black and LGBTQ authors at an alarming rate. This assault has come into sharp focus in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis’s 2022 Stop WOKE Act has banned the teaching of “critical race theory” in public schools and the state’s recent rejection of the new A.P. African American Studies course prompted the College Board to strip the curriculum of controversial material.

Conservatives present critical race theory as an oppressive ideology intended to make white students feel guilty about slavery and racism while liberal coverage has often framed these attacks as a “culture war” being led by high-profile figures and reactionary parents. Often lost in the coverage of GOP attacks are the ideas and voices behind the educational materials being banned.

Our History Has Always Been Contraband: In Defense of Black Studies
Edited by Colin Kaepernick, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Haymarket Books, 220 pp., $19.95

A new anthology, Our History Has Always Been Contraband: In Defense of Black Studies, co-edited by Colin Kaepernick, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, makes the case that Black Studies is a crucial tool in fighting back against a white supremacist political agenda. The anthology presents an interdisciplinary body of work that touches on feminist theory, queer studies, abolition, reparations, education, history, and more. The book includes essays from Kaepernick, Taylor, and Kelley, as well as W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Angela Davis, Octavia Butler, bell hooks, Barbara Smith, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Huey Newton, and Bobby Seale.

In recognition of that latest wave of attacks on Black Studies, Haymarket Books and Kaepernick Publishing have made a free ebook available for download. I spoke with Colin Kaepernick via email about the book, which will be available in print on July 4, and about white supremacy and the importance of studying Black history.

Indigo Olivier: When asked about your refusal to stand for the national anthem in 2016, you said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.” How does this book build on your protest?

Colin Kaepernick: Not only has Black Studies long held a mirror up to this country to expose its founding mythologies and contradictions, but it has also helped to imagine an alternative future that’s grounded in the liberation of all people. I hope that my own actions back in 2016 and ever since have had a similar effect.

I.O.: Your co-editor, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, sums up the main theme of the book in one sentence: “The problem is not one of politics mixing with education—the issue is which politics will be mixed with education.” How did you three go about selecting which texts to include in the book?

C.K.: There’s no perfect way to build an anthology like this. Black Studies is so analytically rich, so historically expansive, and so geographically broad that we could publish 25 books on the topic and perhaps not even begin to scratch the surface of this field. The texts included in Our History Has Always Been Contraband reflect over two centuries of organic and multidisciplinary scholarly production. Though the anthology is by no means exhaustive, our hope is that it allows a clear and accessible entry point for curious readers wanting to learn more about the genealogy of Black Studies and the richness of Black history.

I.O.: Did any of the texts hold a special meaning for you?

C.K.: Robert Allen’s “Politics of the Attack on Black Studies holds a special resonance. It was originally published in 1974 but reads as though it could have been written yesterday. His essay makes clear that social progress isn’t guaranteed or preordained, and certainly not linear. White supremacist attacks on Black Studies—and resistance to such attacks—are not new. We’ve been here before, and we will continue to organize and mobilize to win.

I.O.: Even among many liberals, there’s often an assumption that Black Studies is for Black students. Why do you think it’s so important for white readers to engage with these texts too?

C.K.: My co-editor Robin D.G. Kelley perhaps said it best in his introductory essay: “Despite the claims of even well-meaning and sympathetic pundits, Black Studies courses are not designed to serve Black students alone but all students. The point is not to raise self-esteem or make students feel guilty, nor is Black Studies merely a diversity project. The essays and collected readings gathered here should make it indisputably clear that Black Studies is a legitimate intellectual endeavor—one that does not sit at the margins of social inquiry but at the very center.”

Black Studies is for everyone: Black students, non-Black students of color, Indigenous students, and white students. It is worth mentioning, however, that working to develop a sophisticated understanding of Black history and being in authentic relationship with Black people is an absolute necessity in order for white people to support the Black freedom movement without unknowingly doing great harm in the process. When you think of white conspirators across history like Marilyn Buck, Viola Liuzzo, and John Brown—to name just a few—they knew that U.S. history was inseparable from Black history, and this approach informed their political action.

I.O.: You’ve described Our History Has Always Been Contraband as the type of book Governor Ron DeSantis doesn’t want you to read, and your co-editors both reference Trump’s 1776 Commission as a backlash to the 1619 Project. What are your thoughts on the GOP’s obsession with attacking Black Studies?

C.K.: Black Studies and, more generally, a critical engagement with U.S. history, threatens the white supremacist status quo. Any attempt to whitewash the past should actually be understood as a concrete step toward fascism and a desire to build a nation state where power is concentrated in the hands of a self-anointed (read: white) few. That said, I wouldn’t characterize GOP attacks on Black Studies as an “obsession” but rather as core to their white supremacist political project.

I.O.: You put this book together with two of the most prominent Black Marxists in the country, and most, if not all, of the featured writers are anti-capitalists. How did this collaboration come about?

C.K.: I’ve long admired Keeanga and Robin’s work as well as their uncompromising political analysis and understanding that Black liberation simply isn’t possible under capitalism. I think the anthology makes this argument quite well, and I hope it challenges readers to see that racism is not white supremacy’s only ingredient. White supremacy persists in part because of its relationship with capitalism, heteropatriarchy, ableism, and so on.

I.O.: How would you describe your own political thinking?

C.K.: The evolution of my thinking comes from a combination of elevating my own political education by reading the works of Black radical thinkers and being in conversation with Black radical organizers. These are the types of experiences that helped to inform the work and political framework of Know Your Rights Camp, a nonprofit organization I co-founded in service of building power in our communities.

I.O.: What are you reading these days?

C.K.: No More Police: A Case for Abolition by Mariame Kaba and Andrea J. Ritchie. Abolition. Feminism. Now. by Angela Y. Davis, Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners, and Beth E. Richie.