In 2013, he changed his middle name from Henry to Xolani (meaning "Peace" in Zulu) and surname from Rogers to Kendi when he wed Sadiqa Kendi, a pediatric emergency physician from Albany, Georgia. They chose their new name together and unveiled “Kendi,” meaning "loved one" in Meru, to their family and friends at their wedding. Their wedding photos, including Sadiqa's beautiful gold dress, were featured in Essence Magazine.
Kendi was born in 1982 to parents who came of age during the Black power movement in New York City. They were student activists and Christians inspired by Black liberation theology. While Kendi was in high school, his family moved from Jamaica, Queens, to Manassas, Virginia. He traveled further south and attended Florida A&M University, where he majored in journalism. He initially aspired for a career in sports journalism, freelancing for several Florida newspapers, and interning at USA Today Sports Weekly, as well as in the sports sections of the Mobile Register and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. By the end of his tenure at FAMU, he had become alienated from sports journalism and increasingly interested in engaging in racial justice work. He picked up a second major in African American Studies and graduated in 2004.
After working for a time as a journalist at The Virginian Pilot, Kendi pursued his graduate studies. At 27 years old, he earned his doctoral degree in African American Studies from Temple University in 2010. Kendi has taught at SUNY Oneonta, SUNY Albany, the University of Florida, and American University. In 2017, he became a full professor, the highest professorial rank, at 34 years old.
Kendi has been visiting professor at Brown University, a 2013 National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow, and postdoctoral fellow at the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis. He has also resided at The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress as the American Historical Association’s 2010-2011 J. Franklin Jameson Fellow in American History. In the summer of 2011, he lived in Chicago as a short-term fellow in African American Studies through the Black Metropolis Research Consortium. He has received research fellowships, grants, and visiting appointments from a variety of other universities, foundations, professional associations, and libraries, including the Lyndon B. Johnson Library & Museum, University of Chicago, Wayne State University, Emory University, Duke University, Princeton University, UCLA, Washington University, Wake Forest University, and the historical societies of Kentucky and Southern California. In 2019, The Root 100 listed him as the 15th most influential African American between the ages of 25 and 45 and the most influential college professor. Kendi was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 2019.
Kendi lives in Boston, Massachusetts.