Americans like to insist that we are living in a postracial, color-blind society. In fact, racist thought is alive and well; it has simply become more sophisticated and more insidious. And as historian Ibram X. Kendi argues, racist ideas in this country have a long and lingering history, one in which nearly every great American thinker is complicit. Kendi chronicles the entire story of anti-Black racist ideas and their staggering power over the course of American history. Stamped from the Beginning uses the lives of five major American intellectuals to offer a window into the contentious debates between assimilationists and segregationists and between racists and antiracists. From Puritan minister Cotton Mather to Thomas Jefferson, from fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to brilliant scholar W.E.B. Du Bois to legendary anti-prison activist Angela Davis, Kendi shows how and why some of our leading proslavery and pro-civil rights thinkers have challenged or helped cement racist ideas in America. As Kendi provocatively illustrates, racist thinking did not arise from ignorance or hatred. Racist ideas were created and popularized in an effort to defend deeply entrenched discriminatory policies and to rationalize the nation's racial inequities in everything from wealth to health. While racist ideas are easily produced and easily consumed, they can also be discredited--From publisher's website.
The author sets forth an unrelenting parade of white supremacy constantly justifying its premises of black inferiority, finding ways to
The author does well at proving many of his main theses:
(1) Racism and white supremacy were functional: they came about to justify first colonial expansion of Western Europeans, and then their enslavement of Africans, then the inferiority of black people, and now finally maintaining blame for difficulties in the black community on black people.
(2) Racism and white supremacy proved predominant and all-pervasive in American society. Everyone "knew" that white people were superior to black people, that Africa was a wild and savage continent, and that Western Europeans represented the highest level of civilization and worthy of emulation. Religion was used to justify the premises; it was also always considered good science. One of the longest running arguments in American history was monogenesis vs. polygenesis, thus, whether Africans were even of the same species as Europeans. It is hard not to see this same theme present, in more coded language, since 1969: the association of black people with criminality, the expectation that there must be "something wrong" with black people or in the black community which is leading to its current state, and never questioning the construct.
(3) Since racism and white supremacy were functional, "uplift suasion" was always a myth: white people were never reasoned into white supremacy and racism, and therefore, they would not be reasoned out of it by seeing black people display all the fruits of civilization. Such led to the "extraordinary Negro" condition, by which black people who achieved levels of standing and education in white society were considered "different" from the stereotypical "inferior" black people.
(4) Anti-black racism was not limited to the South, or to white people; plenty of black people internalized white supremacist and racist principles, and Northerners have proven equally as racist, and often worse in behavior, as Southerners.
(5) The equation of American civilization with the culture and civilization of Western Europe, the belief that any other culture/civilization is inferior or less civilized, and the fear that any kind of culture/civilization to develop in the United States which is not based/rooted in western European civilization would be degenerate and barbaric, is the most pronounced form of American white supremacy/racism, and remains to this day.
I have a couple of forms of hesitation with the work. There's a bit of a mischaracterization of New Testament evidence regarding the Apostle Paul and slavery: yes, he did expect a slave to remain in that condition, but in that same passage (1 Corinthians 7), Paul said that if a slave could get his freedom, he should. Paul believes in more than the equality of "souls" in Galatians 3:28: Philemon displays the Paul's full embrace of Onesimus' humanity. From all evidence the Apostle Paul believed in the full equality of value of all humans in the sight of God in Christ, but still recognized that people would have different roles/responsibilities/form of social standing, and it could be argued that this emphasis on the equality of man is what led to the reduction of slavery in Christendom in the medieval era, and a main driver of religious sentiment to abolition in the modern era.
I look forward to reading Kendi's work on "antiracism" and getting a bit more explanation, because it seems a very easily and a bit too clean-cut distinction being cut not only throughout the work, but even through individuals and individual speeches. The racist/antiracist framework is one through which one can look at history, and even see within people the different directions they might be pulled, and it might well be a very important and valid framework through which to see history...but it is piled on thick in this book, and is of extremely modern coinage.
None of these criticisms should detract from the magisterial monument Kendi has established here, and the importance for all Americans, especially those of European heritage, to come to grips with what he has said. The time is long past for the descendants of those who so firmly insisted on their own "superiority," and the "inferiority" of those who did not look like them, to have to stare into the ugliness, sit in it, and for once in American history, have to reflect on what it means about them, their heritage, and all they have inherited.
While I was reading the book, I watched two PBS series that underscored Kendi's ideas as well as the history itself. The Long Song, a Masterpiece theater series, was set in Jamaica in the 19th century during the end of slavery. Powerful in its message and illustrating the complex relationships of slaves and former slaves to their masters. The story telling was compelling as well along with the cinematography. Highly recommended!
And, be sure to watch The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is joined by an amazing group of leaders to talk about the history and influence of the black church. It repeats many of the same themes as Kendi's book but in the context of religion and spirituality and it moves right into the present day with contemporary faith leaders discussing the challenges of meeting the needs of the current generation.
A tabbed this book up so much. Everyone needs to read this, as it examines how every side of our history here in the United States helped racist ideas to develop into what they are today. This is a must read.
Audiobook note: The reading was okay, but occasionally emphasis patterns contradicted the actual meaning of the sentence or a similar word was substituted in for what must have been meant -- I think it wasn't prepared much before being recorded. It's a decent way to absorb the information (although I had to back up to catch statistics, of course) but I wouldn't recommend it over reading the text.
Dr. Kendi divides American history into five sections, with each section lead by one key figure who was highly influential in the ongoing racism battle. In each section, he takes care to provide the necessary political, economic, and sociological ideologies that define that time period so that readers get a fuller picture of racism as it existed at that time and the lengths people went to protect their racist ideas.
One of the more impressive aspects about Stamped from the Beginning is not just the fact that Dr. Kendi provides a list of all of his reference documents for each point he makes. It is also the fact that he is unafraid to call out the nation’s heroes for their own complicity in promoting racist ideology. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, and Barack Obama are just a few of those on the list of people this country tends to admire and who all did nothing to eradicate racism in the country. He draws attention to the problems of such beloved, supposedly anti-racist, novels as To Kill a Mockingbird. Even more, he highlights famous movies that have their basis in racist imagery, whether you realized it or not. In short, he opens your eyes to even the most buried aspects of racism.
Stamped from the Beginning is not an easy read. Not only is it dense with fact and history, but it also is infuriating at all of the ways politicians and other people of power maintained the racist status quo throughout the centuries. The modern section that highlights all of the ongoing issues inherited by Bush one and two, Clinton, and Obama, are particularly infuriating if only because it proves that racists don’t care about science or fact – something we are still beginning to discover as 2020 ends.
In the end, what truly makes Stamped from the Beginning so powerful, and therefore uncomfortable, is all the times in which Dr. Kendi shows how racist thought permeates every aspect of society. I felt shame at having held certain beliefs, not understanding their racist underpinnings. At the same time, I had more than one epiphany as something Dr. Kendi states resonated with me and shifted my perspective. Therefore, since being an antiracist is an ongoing journey, you can’t go wrong in starting your journey with Stamped from the Beginning.
On the first page of the Preface to this book it reads, “How could a Donald Trump follow a Barack Obama into the presidency?” Weird, because earlier this evening I finished reading “A Promised Land” by President Obama, and I asked myself the same question over and over the whole time that I read it. Truer words... such as - “...then Donald Trump should come to embody America’s history of racist progress.” He sure has Mr. Kendi. He sure has.
“Young Black males were twenty-one times more likely to be killed by police than their White counterparts between 2010 and 2012, according to federal statistics.” That’s what BLM was about! Fact, not made up conspiracy theories!
“I am writing this preface on the eve of Trump’s 100th day in office as the forty-fifth president of the United States. But I am less concerned about Trump’s first 100 days - or last 100 days for that matter - than what Trump’s election reveals about America’s racial history.” What would Kendi write now, after the disaster of the last four years, especially in regards to race relations? That is a chapter/book I'd like to read! Until that time, I can't wait to read another of his books!
Kendi traces the evolution of racist ideas in America from the Puritans to the present day and does so in a manner that pulls you in and moves you right
As a fan of history books, I appreciated the amount of research that must have gone into this - the breadth of ideas Kendi follows through the sweep of over 350 years is really impressive.
Kendi points out that racial ideas in America don't fall into two camps - racist and non-racist, but three camps - segregationist, assimilationist, and anti-racist. And those three sets of ideas - two supporting racist ideas and one opposed - have been at play in America since the beginning, as he demonstrates in this book.
I have read a lot of history and so I was familiar with many of the individuals and stories covered by Kendi, but have never seen them all brought together in the way he does. If you like history and would like to ground yourself in an understanding of the history of racism in America this is a must-read book. I can't say enough good about it. Masterful.
Christopher Dontrell Piper narrates the audiobook and did an excellent job.
Kendi offers definitions for segregationists, assimilationists, and antiracists, which he uses throughout the book. He includes racial policies and practices evident in science, politics, court cases, industry, socioeconomics, education, literature, and performing arts in each generation, noting progress and regress. It is scholarly in tone and takes focused concentration to keep track of the many concepts covered. It is written for people who are or desire to be antiracists. It is not a quick read but definitely worthwhile if you want to understand and contribute to the ongoing dialogue about race in the US.
"When we fight for humanity, we fight for ourselves."
I really enjoyed all of the pre-Civil War content. If you are really well-educated on racism and modern American History, then I don't think Kendi provides any new facts or meaningful interpretations in his post-Civil War content. This was also where I noticed my biggest issue with the book. At times, Kendi will provide a personal interpretation or opinion on facts without taking the time to explain to the reader how he got there. I think with most artistic works, that explanation is required. We may all agree on his interpretation of a book as popular and embedded in American culture as Uncle Tom's Cabin, but many of the books and films he references do not have singular interpretations as he presents them.
And, I was actually offended and saddened when he did this on his extremely brief coverage of Bo Derek and her braids, and glibly claims that women who relax their hair are hypocrites for appropriating European culture. When a black woman adopts the most widely accepted beauty standard in her home country, she is not appropriating, she is assimilating. And it's not even an assimilation to European beauty standards. Long, straight hair is a nearly global beauty standard. The differences between assimilation and appropriation should be obvious to someone who wrote over 500 pages on assimilation racism. It honestly stunk of sexism for both him and his editor to seek out an opportunity to call black women hypocrites instead of working on the assumption that black women are educated enough to understand the definition of appropriation.
But, like with his unsupported literature and film critiques which were just hard to follow rather than offensive, I'll blame the speed at which he's trying to cover all of these topics. If you're only spending a few paragraphs on a topic, you're more likely to get something wrong.
All that being said... This did encourage me to read more about Africa's history and Ida B. Wells. I'll likely buy a physical copy so I can give it a closer read someday and uncover more topics to read about and research.