The Definitive History of Racist Ideas

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by [Kendi, Ibram X.] 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.



Voting Matters

With the Pennsylvania deadline for voter registration approaching next week on October 9, the November 6 mid-term elections not far behind, and my extreme frustration with the current political state of affairs, the issue of voting is looming large in my mind.(Public service announcement before I go on!  If you live in Pennsylvania and are not registered to vote, please consider doing so by the deadline of October 9. You can register here. More information about voting across the United States is available on the Rock the Vote website.)

The 2016 presidential election was decided by less than 78,000 votes in three states. The electoral college votes in those three states (including Pennsylvania) decided the election in Donald Trump’s favor despite the fact that he lost the national popular vote by 2.8 million votes. My point is not that the result was not legitimate – it was according to the system we have in place – but rather to emphasize the razor-thin margin and the importance of individual votes. Less than 78,000 out of 13,243,376 votes in three states (and 136,669,237 total votes across the country) put a man into the White House who I wish had never have been elected. Voting matters a lot!

In his victory speech on election night in 2016, Donald Trump said, “Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division, to get together. To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people. I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans.” Even though very little of what he had done or said during the campaign was particularly reassuring to me, I hoped that he would rise to the occasion as president and live up to these unifying words. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened, as far as I’ve been able to observe, and it feels like democracy itself is under assault under this president and the deep divisions continue.

More than two years ago, ahead of the 2016 presidential primary, I wrote about my dilemmas related to voting. I referred to my faith tradition’s past reluctance to vote: “To vote was to be complicit in the [political] system, and to perpetuate or reinforce the coercive nature of politics and the compromise of values inherent in the system,” but I also noted that I have always voted because I believe that it’s one way of not being silent but speaking up for what I believe as well as one of the particular privileges of living in a participatory democracy.

I continue to wonder whether emphasizing the importance of voting suggests that I am putting more hope in the outcome of an election than I should. Perhaps I should focus instead on the hope inherent in my faith in a God who cares about us now and always even when things around us, including our politics, look dismal and tempt us to despair. I wonder whether I should simply (oh, if only it were simple!) live out in my daily life the values that are important to me, regardless of who’s in the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, the governor’s mansion, and so on down the line.However, I don’t think it’s either-or (not much in life is): that is, either we vote and become involved politically, or we don’t because our hope is in something bigger and more eternal. I appreciate what Tim Keller said in his recent op-ed in the New York Times: “Christians cannot pretend they can transcend politics and simply ‘preach the Gospel.’ Those who avoid all political discussions and engagement are essentially casting a vote for the social status quo. American churches in the early 19th century that did not speak out against slavery because that was what we would now call “getting political” were actually supporting slavery by doing so. To not be political is to be political. . . . Christians should be involved politically as a way of loving our neighbors, whether they believe as we do or not. To work for better public schools or for a justice system not weighted against the poor or to end racial segregation requires political engagement. Christians have done these things in the past and should continue to do so.”

Do I think that certain voting outcomes will be the cure for all that ails us as Americans? A thousand times NO! We should recognize that most political systems and individuals are subject to corruption, unethical compromises, and self-interest. They will not bring in the kingdom of God. But voting is one way to act positively, to take a stand, knowing that if enough other people act, we can make a difference. Voting can either affirm the status quo or issue a strong repudiation and desire to chart a different course. Voting cuts through the noise of competing rhetoric and ideologies and simply expresses our best judgment of who we think will serve our public and civic interests and advance our values. For me, those values include (in no order of importance): the common good, generosity, compassion, desire for reconciliation, justice, truth, care for the marginalized and vulnerable regardless of who they are or where they’re from or where in the world they live, respect for each person’s dignity and humanity, civility, kindness, and so on.

I will vote on November 6 because I care about these values, believe they are often in short supply in our current environment, and want more people in government who reflect them. At the same time, I will continue to try to live them out in my everyday life, knowing that I can do so regardless of who is elected and what policies are enacted.

Brownies at Beit School

1st Choma Brownie Pack of 1960, Beit School, Choma

I thought I remembered that a photo like this existed, but I didn’t know if I still had it or where it was. And then earlier this week when I was rummaging in a container of mostly old high school and college yearbooks, I found it. Yay!

On the back of the photo above are these identifying words (I’m so pleased for having at least this once ID’d a photo!): “1st Choma Brownie Pack of 1960.” While I don’t have vivid memories of being a Brownie while I was at Beit, I do recall a few things:

  • We met weekly, probably in the afternoons after our homework was done and before we were called in for our evening routines. It’s possible the meetings were on Saturdays.
  • We worked for badges, although I don’t remember any specific badges that I earned.
  • Our Brownie troop included both boarding and day students.

My Girl Guides pin (Brownies are a a division of Girl Guides for younger girls)

This caption on the back suggests that this was a Brownie troop for the town of Choma, and not specifically run by Beit School. I’m quite sure, however, that we met on the grounds of the boarding hostel. The photo also suggests that we had Brownie uniforms. I’m almost positive the outfits we’re wearing were not our regular school uniforms. I think, though, that the hats we’re wearing in the photo are our felt uniform hats. My copy of the photo is about 4 1/2 x 7 inches. The size and the three well-posed rows of Brownies tell me that this was a formal picture of our troop. Unfortunately, it is a bit over-exposed, although most of the faces are still fairly recognizable.

The only person in the photo I recognize for sure and can name is the girl fourth from the right in the back row. Her name was Judy and she was one of my best friends. I think she lived on a farm in the Kalomo area, south of Choma, and I’m pretty sure I went home with her for a weekend visit one time.

When I first found the photo this week, what struck me forcefully all over again was why I always felt huge as a pre-teen. In case you can’t pick me out, I am the tallest one, fourth from the right in the back row. I am probably 12 in the photo, in my last year at Beit, and therefore one of the oldest girls. I tower above everyone else, even my friend Judy who was also my age and the second tallest. I was often self-conscious about the fact that I matured physically before other girls my age at school, and this photo helps to confirm why!

Back in April 2013, when I wrote about my memories of growing up as a missionary kid in Southern and Northern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe and Zambia, I wrote specifically about Beit School, a British-run girls boarding school in Choma, Northern Rhodesia (remember, this was before Northern Rhodesia became the independent country of Zambia). The two posts were Can I Pull My Plug? and Movies and Midnight Feasts (“Boarding School Memories, Parts 1 and 2). In the five years since those two pieces were published here on the blog, they have become my second and fourth most popular posts ever, and in the last 12 months specifically, they are the two most popular posts. Why, you ask? Because, I think, former Beit School students have been taking their own trips down memory lane and searching for information about the school; Google searches for “Beit School” turn up my blog posts.

So I’m kind of hoping that one or two (or more) of the girls in the photo will happen upon this post during their internet searches and respond with their own memories of Beit School in general and this Brownie pack in particular. Wouldn’t it be cool if Judy and I connected again after all these years?!