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Freshman's book examines his family’s history with facing racial discrimination

Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015

In 1991, Canaan Kennedy’s father, who is black, was unlawfully beaten and arrested by police in the driveway of his parents’ Northern Virginia home.

They thought he was robbing his own house, just because he was black.

“This police officer followed him for a few miles. Four, five, six officers were on the scene. They thought he was robbing his own house, just because he was black. They pulled their guns out at the family,” Kennedy said. “They beat him, they arrested him and charged him with assaulting a police officer. He had done nothing of the sort.”

Kennedy’s father, Adam P. Kennedy, was ultimately acquitted of all charges and won a subsequent civil suit against Arlington County. He later co-wrote an autobiographical play about the incident with his mother, award-winning African-American playwright Adrienne Kennedy, called “Sleep Deprivation Chamber,” which won a prestigious Obie Award for Best New American Play in 1996.

Canaan Kennedy, 18, a freshman English and African American studies major at Virginia Commonwealth University, tells his father’s story in a new book, “Struggles to Victory,” which explores racism in the United States through the lens of his family’s experience of overcoming adversity and racial discrimination.

“We all face hardships and difficulties in life because life is not easy. Some people have it harder than others, but there are always ups and downs. So how do we overcome those hardships?” he said. “I think when you read these stories of overcoming racism and overcoming obstacles, then you’ll be inspired and learn a lesson of how to overcome your own struggles and turn them into a victory.”

The book, which is self-published, is available as an e-book and is slated to be available as a hard copy in a month or two.

Kennedy was inspired to write “Struggles to Victory” after watching events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man was shot and killed by a police officer, and in New York City, where an unarmed black man, Eric Garner, died after police put him in a chokehold. Both events, among others, sparked widespread protests and media coverage.

“The news was finally highlighting racism. It’s something I’ve always been interested in because I’m half black, half white, and I’m light skinned so a lot of people think I’m white when they see me,” he said.

In addition to telling his father’s story, Kennedy also interviewed his grandmother, who has been an influential playwright since the early 1960s and is best known for her play, “Funnyhouse of a Negro,” which won an Obie Award for Distinguished Play in 1964.

“I interviewed her about her process for writing her first award-winning play, ‘Funnyhouse of a Negro,’ about how she traveled through Europe and Africa and it really changed her writing by being in a country where it’s not majority white,” Kennedy said.

He also interviews his grandfather, Joseph Kennedy, Ph.D., who was the second black American to earn a doctorate in social psychology from Columbia University, and also the co-founder of Africare, a nongovernmental organization that has raised more than $2 billion in aid to 36 countries in Africa to build sustainable, healthy and productive communities.

Priscilla Shilaro, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences, taught Kennedy this semester in her Survey of African History course. She recently read “Struggles to Victory,” and found it to be “captivating, revealing and dramatic.”

“I was very impressed with it. I enjoyed every page,” she said. “It gives me hope in VCU students.”

The book arrives as police brutality cases against blacks are gaining national attention, highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement. And universities are also struggling with issues of race and racism.

At VCU, President Michael Rao, Ph.D., recently hosted a Presidential Forum on Diversity and Inclusion after a group of students rallied at the Compass in support of black students at the University of Missouri protesting discrimination.

“[Kennedy’s] book comes at very seminal time,” Shilaro said. “It’s pretty much necessary reading on racial issues.”

Kennedy has always wanted to write, he said, though he is most interested in pursuing writing as a side project to his future career, possibly in academia, diplomacy, journalism or motivational speaking.

“My dad would make us give speeches at the dinner table since I was about 5 years old,” he said. “I’d have to research Gandhi or Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, and give speeches to the family. So I’ve always been a good speaker because of that.”

“Basically,” he added, “I want to influence people, inspire people and change the world.”

I want to influence people, inspire people and change the world.

 

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