“Every historian writes in – and is impacted by – a precise historical moment. My moment, this book’s moment, coincides with the televised and untelevised killings of unarmed human beings at the hands of law enforcement officials, and with the televised and untelevised life of the shooting star of #Black Lives Matter during America’s stormiest nights. I somehow managed to write this book between the heartbreaks of Trayvon Martin and Rekia Boyd and Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and the Charleston 9 and Sandra Bland, heartbreaks that are a product of America’s history of racist ideas as much as this history book of racist ideas is a product of these heartbreaks.”
The subtitle of “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” may seem a bit hyperbolic, even grandiose, but damn if this isn’t a meticulously researched and staggeringly far-reaching work. Ibram Kendi reaches back to Ancient Greek and Aristotelian philosophies of superiority and justified enslavement, to 15th century Portuguese slave practices and Shakespearean racism, through colonial America, Civil War and Reconstruction, through Jim Crow and the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, to the election of the country’s first black president. At every turn, Kendi is armed with facts, anecdotes, and detailed analysis.
“Stamped” presents a taxonomy of racial ideas and disparities that is robust and deceptively simple.
“Historically, there have been three sides to this heated argument. A group we can call segregationists has blamed Black people themselves for racial disparities. A group we can call antiracists has pointed to racial discrimination. A group we can call assimilationists has tried to argue for both, saying that Black people and racial discrimination were to blame for racial disparities.”
Kendi’s framework, carried throughout the work, is powerful and formative. It makes complicated histories, fraught with nuance and interpretation, relatively simple to distill down to their essence. And under this rubric and Kendi’s studied gaze, few are faultless. Again and again I was struck not just by the insidiousness of racism and racist ideas, but by how many of these historical figures were familiar to me, a moderately well-educated American, and yet their racist beliefs were unknown to me, had never been discussed in any forum. Even those we are taught were antiracist heroes – key abolitionists, lawmakers, even civil rights activists – proclaimed and proliferated segregationist and assimilationist ideas which were, at their core, racist.
I harbored no illusions that mainstream American history and culture was anything but racist and revisionist. But the degree to which the history I was taught was white-washed at every turn shook this cynic, this waking if not woke progressive, deeply.
“When Black people rose, racists either violently knocked them down or ignored them as extraordinary. When Black people were down, racists called it their natural or nurtured place, and denied any role in knocking them down in the first place.”
Though Kendi employs the past tense in the passage above, it’s sentiment is frightfully present.
Kendi’s tome took me seemingly forever to read, and that is ALL on me. It is lengthy, dense, and heavy, yes. But the length of time I took to read it reflects 1. the sheer amount of information that was new to me, 2. the time I needed to try to process, absorb, and understand what I was being presented with, and 3. my need to take occasional breaks when overwhelmed by dismay and anxiety. Please let none of these things dissuade you from reading this extraordinary book. It is packed from end to end with essential bricks of information, all of which are necessary to build the final edifice. My sticky notes and dog ears will remain in my copy for future reference, as this is a seminal text to which I intend to return.