Stamped From The Beginning {Book Review}

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Irbam X Kendi’s nonfiction tome Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, illustrates the history of racist ideas and how racism is woven into the fabric of this nation. Last year I read Kendi’s How To Be Antiracist and was impressed by how he easily illustrated the different types of racism in America with personal stories from his life. Kendi is a History professor and the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. I enjoy learning about history, so I was very interested in reading the book that won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2016. Kendi begins our education on the history of racist ideas in America, before America existed. We begin first in Europe and then in the English colonies of the New World in 1635. After gaining a foundation on racist thought in Europe, we work our way through 5 different periods of American history until we reach the period during which this book was published. Kendi breaks the book down into sections, with each section named after a historical figure that had a profound effect on how people of their time thought about first race and later racism.

The first section of the book is titled COTTON MATHER and is about how, “During America’s first century, racist theological ideas were absolutely critical to sanctioning the growth of American slavery and making it acceptable to the Christian churches.” It was Boston preacher and intellectual Cotton Mather (1663–1728) who pushed these racist ideas, like curse theory, in his sermons to legitimize the practice of slavery. Cotton Mather was the grandson of two Puritan preachers, John Cotton and Richard Mather, who brought racist ideas from Europe to the New World. During this period in America’s history, it was religion that was used to support the argument for racial inequality, stating that Black people were inferior because of Ham’s curse. After Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, racism was used to create a wedge between poor White laborers and Black slaves. The rich plantation owners realized they needed to keep the poor classes divided, so they wouldn’t unite in solidarity against the elite class that was exploiting cheap labor to grow their wealth. This is a divide that still exists today.

The second section covers the years leading up to, and following the American Revolution and is titled, THOMAS JEFFERSON, after one of our founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) embodies the dual consciousness of early American’s attitudes and beliefs about both race and slavery. While Jefferson claimed he was antislavery, he owned slaves and was ultimately, in his deeds if not his words, an anti-abolitionist. In Jefferson we see the emerging attitude of slavery as a “necessary evil” tied to America’s economic stability and future wealth. I remember reading The Declaration of Independence as a child and feeling momentarily very proud to be an American, and then quickly confused and disappointed when I realized the man who wrote that, “All men are created equal,” did in fact own slaves. In Jefferson we see the root of American hypocrisy. Claiming a belief in equality while owning slaves. Claiming the intellectual and physical “superiority” of the White race, while having children with one of his slaves. I’ve always suspected the American Revolution was in some way tied to a desire to continue exploiting the institution of slavery here in the colonies to grow the wealth of the elite land owning class. After reading this section my opinion is unchanged, in fact my opinion has been cemented.

The third section of the book is titled, WILLIAM LLOYD GARRISON after the editor of The Liberator, a publication that spearheaded the movement for the abolition of slavery. William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) shared his passionate antislavery ideas in The Liberator, and was instrumental in the growing push for abolition and civil rights, but his ideas were not antiracist. He popularized the assimilationist, and racist ideas that slavery and discrimination had degraded Black culture, psychology and behaviors. Assimilationists believed in “lifting” Black people up and improving their station in life by assimilating them into the “superior” White culture. It is in this section of the book that we learn about the Civil War and the Reconstruction era that followed. We hear racist arguments for gradual emancipation and equality. We see the new science of physical anthropology and polygenesis theories used to legitimize White racial “superiority.” We also learn about plans to send freed slaves away to a US colony, Liberia, in Africa. In this section we see a move away from the idea that slavery is a “necessary evil” securing economic stability for America, toward slavery being a public relations liability that needed to be handled. Earlier we saw how racist ideas were first used to legitimize slavery, and in this section we see racist ideas used to argue for the end of slavery, because of political necessity, not moral outrage.

The fourth section of the book is titled, W.E.B. DU BOIS, after America’s first professionally trained Black scholar. Initially, W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) adopts Garrison’s racist assimilationist ideas of uplift suasion, but during Du Bois’ long career, we see him shift away from assimilationist views and see a new emergence of antiracist thought. In this section we see the battle between assimilationist ideology and segregationist ideology. In this section we see the application of Social Darwinism to explain racial inequalities. We learn about Jim Crow, and the horrors of life as a Black person in the south. We learn about lynchings, sundown towns and the Great Migration of Black Americans out of the South following the first World War. In this section we learn about how media was used as an instrument to spread racist ideas starting with the film The Birth of a Nation. We also learn about how the literature, art, and music of the Harlem Renaissance, was an instrument of media suasion, hoping these amazing and important works of art would elevate Black people in the eyes of racist Whites. It is during this time W. E. B. Du Bois coins the term “The Talented Tenth.” We see a growing awareness of the intersectionality of race and class. It is in this section that we shift into the modern period of the 20th century in America, a period that anyone reading this novel is familiar with. It is during this period we see a violent backlash in response to the progress we saw after the Civil War.

In the fifth section of this book, we move into the historical period of the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. This section is titled, ANGELA DAVIS, after an antiracist icon. It is in this section of the book we learn about Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, and the rise of the Black Power movement. We learn about the struggles and successes of the Civil Rights movement in the 60s and 70s. We see integrating schools in the South and of white flight in the North. In this section we see a backlash of racism in the 80s and 90s with the rise of mass incarceration and the emergence of the, “Law and Order” political ideology. We are also introduced to the misguided racist concept of “color-blindness” that was popularized in the 90s. We see a rise in Multiculturalism, ethnic studies, and antiracist thought. It is in this section we see the police militarized and used as an agent of racist power, killing Black men and women at alarming rates. It is also in this section we see how politicians become more savvy, learning subtle ways of signaling to racists and White supremacists that they are the candidate to represent those values. In this section we learn about the mapping of the human genome and how scientists thought they were finally discounting a biological difference between races, but offering a new avenue to exploit. It is in this section we see Barack Obama’s rise into political prominence and his historic win in the 2008 election that made him the first Black president in our country’s history. We also hear whispers of the false claim that the US had become “post racial.”

Kendi addresses Obama’s administration in the Epilogue and the rise of racism that followed his election. We see how his critics jump on every antiracist statement Obama made in an attempt to twist his words, claiming it was Obama who was racist and sewing division by pointing out discrimination and inequality. During Obama’s time in office we see a struggle between assimilationists, segregationists and antiracists. Assimilationists as always preaching education and gradual equality, segregationists continue to sew division and hatred through the creation and distribution of new racist ideas. While antiracists call for policy changes that improve the economic realities of disenfranchised POC. It seems the most recent racist idea is to blame antiracists for racism. To point the finger at anyone addressing discrimination and inequality, accusing the antiracist of being racist, saying they are discriminating against Whites. In the last 10 years we have seen White supremacists trying to claim they are the victims of reverse racism.

Kendi addresses the Trump administration following the Obama years in the Prologue that was written before publication during Trump’s first 100 days in office. Kendi frames Trump’s election as a part of the pattern of this country’s history. All major strides against racism and toward equality are followed by a violent backlash of new racist ideas deployed to legitimize the inequalities that exist. Stamped from The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America outlines how racist ideas have been utilized to not only legitimize systems of oppression, but to maintain the wealth of the elite in this country. In each new era, new racist ideas are manufactured and distributed, “First curse theory and then natural slave theory and then polygenesis and the Social Darwinism and now genes — segregationists had produced new ideas to justify the inequalities of every era.” It is only through sweeping changes in the judicial system by eradicating the school to prison pipeline, and through legislation that we will eliminate institutionalized racism. The fabrication of racist ideas will only stop when there are no systemic inequalities to legitimize.

In honor of Black History Month I read Stamped from The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Kendi. I read one chapter a day for 37 days. Although I already look at life through an antiracist lens, this book opened my eyes to aspects of this country’s history I only had glimmering suspicions of. This is an important book, and I think every American should read it. It should be in the curriculum of high school US history classes. Black history is US history. This is a country built by stolen people, on stolen land, designed by an elite class to make themselves more wealthy to the detriment of every one else. Until this nation, and its people, can look with unflinching honesty at our problematic, vile history of greed, oppression, slavery, discrimination and violence toward people of color, we will never move beyond institutionalized racism and the economic disenfranchisement of POC. I hope that antiracists will take the lead politically and we will see actual change in my lifetime. This book gives us a detailed portrait of our problematic past and a map toward a better future.

Stamped From The Beginning by Irbam X Kendi⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

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Sylvia-Marah Bouné

Sylvia-Marah is a speculative fiction writer with a B.A. in modern lit. Ms. Bouné is a film, TV and culture writer. Her work has been featured on Looper.