Kyle T. Mays is an Afro-Indigenous (Saginaw Chippewa) writer and scholar of U.S. history, urban studies, race relations, and contemporary popular culture. He is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies, American Indian Studies, and History at UCLA. He is the author of Hip Hop Beats, Indigenous Rhymes: Modernity and Hip Hop in Indigenous North America.
His new book, An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States, is published by Beacon Press. He will be discussing his new book with special guest, Paul Ortiz, as part of our City Lights LIVE! virtual events series on Tuesday, November 9th, 2021!
Where are you writing to us from?
I am writing from Atlanta, Georgia.
What’s kept you sane during the pandemic?
My dog, Chicha, and cat, G$ (shout out New Jack City), and writing have kept me sane. I take my dog out every day to a dog park and she gets to run wild. It allows me to get some fresh air and to think about what I have to write. I am then able to write down what I was thinking for an hour. However, G$ quickly reminds me that I owe him attention by jumping on my lap, impeding my ability to write until I pet him. Then they religiously beg me for snacks, and so I oblige. So I’m in a routine, but they always keep me grounded.
What books are you reading right now? Which books do you return to?
I am currently reading Not ‘A Nation of Immigrants’: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion a Nation of Immigrants by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz; Capital Volume I, by Karl Marx,The Color Purple by Alice Walker, and Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law. And I’m looking forward to reading Geneva Smitherman’s, My Soul Look Back in Wonder: Memories from a Life of Study, Struggle, and Doin Battle in the Language Wars, forthcoming in January 2022.
The book I return to is the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I read it every summer. And when I don’t feel like reading it, I watch the movie directed by Spike Lee and performed masterfully by Denzel Washington or the Make It Plain documentary about Malcolm X. Give me all of the Malcolm X things!
Which writers, artists, and others influence your work in general, and this book, specifically?
My writing influences vary, and they change depending on what I’m writing. But to name a short list, here we go: Geneva Napoleon Smitherman, Robin D.G. Kelley, Vine Deloria Jr., Jay-Z (even though he doesn’t write!), and the writers from HBO’s Insecure and The Wire. As a writer, I’m very much interested in not just understanding the writing process from books, but also how writing is performed in media. Music impacted me for this book, too. So, shout out to Aretha Franklin, Anita Baker, Megan Thee Stallion, New Edition, and lots of music from the new jack swing era!
If you opened a bookstore, where would it be located, what would it be called, and what would your bestseller be?
I don’t have a particular city or place, but it would have to be in a hub where there are lots of Black and Brown young people with heavy foot traffic, in an urban environment. I would be like Lewis Michaux, who ran a bookstore in Harlem for decades. He provided much of the reading material for generations of activists and intellectuals, including Malcolm X. I would call it Medicine Bear Books, named after the former school my aunt Judy founded in Detroit. It would be a hub for critical thinking and place of refuge from the everyday indignities of white supremacy. The bestseller would be my book, An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States, of course!