When the word “definitive” is in the title, it’s probably a good clue that a book might be a bit daunting. Add the word “history – as in “definitive history” – and you know the scope of time and detail is going to be immense. That’s clearly the case with Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Kendi, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2016. The book covers the entire history of America over the course of 500+ pages (not including endnotes). The main title, Stamped from the Beginning, comes from a speech by Jefferson Davison, who later became president of the Confederacy, in which he opposed funding for black education by saying that the “inequality of the white and black races” was “stamped from the beginning.”
The book is organized into five major sections headlined by five individuals whose stories of their attitudes and behaviors toward blacks are told within the larger context of their particular eras: Cotton Mather, the Puritan/Colonial era; Thomas Jefferson, the Revolutionary War and the beginnings of the nation; William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist movement and the Civil War and Reconstruction; W. E. B. Dubois, the Jim Crow era; and Angela Davis, the civil rights movement to the recent past.
Kendi offers a simple definition of racism or a racist idea: “any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.” Throughout the history of America, there have been three approaches to racism: segregation, assimilation, and anti-racism. Segregationists are the most obviously racist, firmly believing in the inherited (“stamped from the beginning”) inferiority of blacks. Assimilationists, although often well-intentioned, tend to blame other factors besides racism for racial disparities (like environment, bad behavior, culture, etc.). Anti-racists recognize “that the different skin colors, hair textures, behaviors, and cultural ways of Black and Whites are . . . equal in all their divergences.” As he goes through history, Kendi categorizes the actions, behaviors, and writings of various people as segregationist, assimilationist, or anti-racist.
The result is a book that is dense with detail and is a research tour de force. It is “definitive” in the sense that the steps in the progress (or lack thereof) toward racial justice over the course of more than 500 years of history are gathered all in one place. A few overarching observations:
- Even people we have generally thought of as having moved us closer to equality and racial justice were not fully anti-racist. For example, we credit Abraham Lincoln with ending slavery, but in the days leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation, he said, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it. . . . What I do about slavery, and the colored people, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.” A noble motive to save the Union – and worthy of praise and a special place in history – but hardly an anti-racist action.
- Racism, by Kendi’s definition, is deeply embedded in American society, and to some extent it seems as though everyone has been influenced by the “stamped from the beginning” notion that whites are inherently superior. Despite many of our most well-intentioned efforts, we have continued to promote racist ideas.
- Racism keeps “shape-shifting” as various gains are made. The end of slavery leads to Jim Crow legalized discrimination; the end of Jim Crow leads to mass incarceration of blacks for minor drug crimes, and so on. The election of Barack Obama as the first black president in 2008 was thought by some to be a signal that we had arrived at a “post-racial” society. Not so much: “The producers of racist ideas . . . were working to put up something better, a portrait of America conveying that there was no longer any need for protective or affirmative civil rights laws and policies – and no longer any need to ever talk about race.” There are lots of examples of affirmative action being under attack despite continuing racial disparities.
Those observations barely scratch the surface of what I learned from this book and don’t begin to do justice to the breadth and depth of Kendi’s analysis. Sometimes I felt like he was trying to do too much; there was lots of what I call “name-dropping” – it seems like every person who said or did anything related to race throughout 500 years of American history gets a shout-out, along with every book or article ever written. My poor brain cannot handle the detail! One could debate whether the book could have been improved with significant editing, or whether it should have been broken up into two or three volumes, each concentrating on a specific theme.
In an article published in the October 2018 edition of The Atlantic, Kendi reflects on Abraham Lincoln’s speech in 1858 to the Illinois Republican State Convention. Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free . . . It will become all one things or all the other.” Kendi notes that the nation remains divided today, and calls attention to the murder of nine black churchgoers by a white supremacist in Charleston, the white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, and the encouragement of “the incarceration, deportation, or exclusion of astonishing number of nonwhite people.” He hones in on the 2013 Supreme Court decision undermining parts of the Voting Rights Act, noting that this “removed one of the last major antiracist policies from federal law.” He goes on: “In the old days, before the Voting Rights Act, states and counties suppressed voting by men and eventually women of color through property requirements, literacy tests, and poll taxes – while tacitly condoning employer intimidation and Ku Klux Klan violence. Now states and counties suppress votes through early-voting restrictions, limits on absentee and mail-in ballots, poll closures, felon disenfranchisement, and laws requiring voters to have a photo ID.” In the final weeks leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, the news is full of examples of voter restrictions that are disproportionally affecting nonwhite people (witness Georgia and North Dakota).
I recommend this book, and Kendi’s more recent article, for people who want to understand better where all these racist ideas came from and who are concerned about the racism that is deeply embedded in American society and rearing its ugly head in new ways in our current environment. Sometimes, I am tempted to despair, but Kendi ends his book on a hopeful note: “There will come a time when Americans will realize that the only thing wrong with Black people is that they think something is wrong with Black people. . . . There will come a time when we will love humanity, when we will gain the courage to fight for an equitable society for our beloved humanity, knowing, intelligently, that when we fight for humanity, we are fighting for ourselves.” I hope that time comes sooner rather than later.