Review and Response to “Stamped from the Beginning” by Ibram Kendi

“The title Stamped from the Beginning comes from a speech that Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis gave on the floor of the US Senate on April 12, 1860.” (Pg. 3) It’s the summation of so much. This is a book about the many forms that racist ideas have taken throughout the history of America told through the story of five significant figures in our nation’s past up to the present.

Kendi does a great job of talking about a difficult topic in a narrative form that draws the reader in because it shifts from racism being just another abstract political debate to something that impacts actual people. In these stories we hear how these individuals struggled with racism, fought against it, promoted it, and tried to find some kind of middle ground between racism and anti-racism. As with all stories of people throughout time, it is a story of how these people changed over time – no different than how racists ideas have changed too.

Throughout the book Kendi weaves the arguments that were being made by three distinct groups. “Historically, there have been three sides to this heated argument. A group we can call segregationists has blamed Black people themselves for the racial disparities. A group we can call antiracists have pointed to racial discrimination. A group we can call assimilationists had tried to argue for both, saying that Black people and racial discrimination were to blame for racial disparities.” (Pg. 2). The names of who are making the arguments and the specific arguments change throughout history, but the basic premise behind each group remained the same and still do today.

At its core, this book is the story of an idea and how it shaped and effects not only Black people, but all people. Racism isn’t just interested in arguing that Blacks are inferior (regardless of whether that inferiority comes from a self-imposed situation, or is genetic). At its core, racism is a rejection of the image of God. Kendi doesn’t make this argument, that’s my theological take on the topic.

“But if there is anything I have learned during my research, it’s that the principal producers and defenders of racist ideas will not join us. And no logic or fact or history book can change them, because logic and facts and scholarship have little to do with why they are expressing racist ideas int he first place. Stamped from the Beginning is about these closed-minded, cunning, captivating producers of racist ideas. But it not for them.” (Pg. 11).

The five individuals that Kendi uses for this narrative all hold significant historical importance for their time and place. It starts with Cotton Mather. The more I read about the Puritans the less I like them. They didn’t like the English. Why? “As dissenters from the Church of England, Puritans believed themselves to be God’s chosen piece of humanity, a special, superior people, and New England, their Israel, was to be their exceptional land.” (pg. 16). That’s the short summary of Puritanism in America. Can I puke now? Combine that with other ideas that have had an impact on society, such as working hard to earn what you have (which sounds good on the surface, but really dismisses grace theologically) and you have a movement which shapes the foundation of America into what it becomes later.

Puritans believed in human hierarchies, and they placed themselves as the top, of course.

During this time period, the popular racist idea was that climate played a role in the formation of race. So if someone had dark skin, they could become white by being brought further North. Yes, that’s the actual theory. Can you see the problems that would create? The discrimination? The dehumanization of people? The assumption that anything black was inferior – people, culture, language, religion, etc. All of this allowed for the rationalization of enslavement.

One of the main racist ideas that formed in this era was “individualizing White negativity and generalizing Black negativity. Negative behavior by any Black person became proof of what was wrong with Black people, while negative behavior by any White person only proved what was wrong with that person.” (pg. 43).

In addition, the prominent assimilationist view dehumanize Black and Brown people in other ways. “These assimilationist ideas of Christianizing and civilizing enslaved Africans were particularly dangerous because they gave convincing power to the idea that slavery was just and should not be resisted.” (pg. 48).

Throughout this section I wrote comments in the margins in utter disbelief of what I was reading. The comments centered on two things. 1. this is about control over people, especially when it comes to making a profit. 2. What Christ where these people following because nothing about this is Christlike.

The second character of history that Kendi tells the story of is Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson is a complex man throughout his life – writing the Declaration of Independence with hints of getting it, and living in complete contradiction of the ideals he wrote about.

In this era, the focus is on an ends justify the means set of beliefs. People were beginning to understand that slavery was wrong. “It was the irony of the age: slave traders knew that cloth was the most desired commodity [in Europe and Africa], but at the same time some of them were producing the racist idea that Africans walked around naked like animals. Producers of this racist idea had to know their tales were false. But they went on producing them anyway to justify their lucrative commerce in human beings.” (pg. 81). Evil is always accompanied by abusive economic systems.

Jefferson grew up in a home where his father “preached to his children the importance of self-reliance – oblivious of the contradiction – to which he credited his own success.” (pg. 87). A contradiction because the Jefferson family had 60 slaves making them the second-largest slaveholding family in the county. (pg. 87). I’m not sure how you can preach self-reliance while you are relying on enslaved human labor for your standard of living. But if the ends justify the means, then who needs consistent logic?

Climate theory continued through this era allowing for a “natural human hierarchy.” (Pg. 95). What better way to dehumanize and keep people enslaved, or at the very least make efforts to change Black people into Whites with White culture.

It was also during this era that contradictions were rampant – slaves were docile and lazy while at the same time they worked hard and provided for the slaveholder’s lifestyle. It was during this era that a new racist thought took hold too – uplift suasion. “Uplift suasion assumed that racist ideas were sensible and could be undone by appealing to sensibilities. But the common political desire to justify racial inequalities produced racist ideas, not logic.” (pg. 125). In essence, uplift suasion “was based on the idea that White people could be persuaded away from their racist ideas if they saw Black people improving their behavior, uplifting themselves from their low station in American society.” (Pg. 124). The problem, of course, is that you can never do enough. There is always some excuse as to why any uplifting either doesn’t count, or was the result of someone who was “extraordinary.”

Kendi goes on and touches a variety of topics related to all of this – reparations being one. What is fascinating in the discussion is the historical record in which White landowner and plantation owners were given reparations for each slave killed in a revolt, but the idea of providing reparations to slaves for their labor was somehow immoral or economically unfeasible or some other excuse. (pg. 140). On the other end of the spectrum, Thaddeus Stevens, one of the most antiracist of the Radical Republicans of the Reconstruction era, “proposed the redistribution of the 400 million acres held by the wealthiest 10 percent of southerners. Every adult freedman would be granted forty acres, and the remaining 90 percent of the total would be sold in plots to the ‘highest bigger’ to pay for the war and retire the national debt.” (pg. 236). A novel idea that essentially argued that there is cost for betrayal to the nation and for enslaving human beings.

It is during this era that we also read the arguments for why slavery was a “positive good” for the slaves. “Freeing happy Africans could endanger the community, undermine property rights, and render them ‘more wretched’ than they already were.” (pg. 141). Of so considerate. #sarcasm.

In this era, there was a great push for developing a colony in Africa where freed slaves could be sent back to Africa to live out their lives. The people who pushed for this were not anti-racists. They still believed that Blacks were inferior. They just argued that Blacks and Whites could not coexist because of the racial hierarchy.

This is also the era in which religion was used to promote racist ideas the most. “Protestant organizations started mass-producing, mass-marketing, and mass-distributing images of Jesus, who was always depicted as White. Protestants saw all the aspirations of the new American identity in the White Jesus – a racist idea that proved to be in their cultural self-interest. As pictures of this White Jesus started to appear, Blacks and Whites started to make connections, consciously and unconsciously, between the White God the Father, his White son Jesus, and the power and perfections of White people.” (pg. 153).

The third person’s story that Kendi follows is William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison fluctuated between being an assimilationist and an anti-racist. This was the era leading up to and then including the Civil War. Arguments went all over the board from using slavery to maintain the social order which included the lie that slavery was a positive good for the slaves, all the way to emancipation.

Antislavery activist David Walker “identified and decried America’s favorite racist pastime: denying Blacks access to education and jobs and then calling their resultant impoverishment state ‘natural.'”(pg. 166). This same line of reasoning would continue.

Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina said, “‘I hold that…the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two [races], is, instead of an evil, a good – a positive good.’ Calhoun went on to explain that it was both a positive good for society and a positive good for subordinate Black people. Slavery, Calhoun suggested, was racial progress.” (Pg. 178). Martin Luther once wrote in the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518 that “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” (Source – https://bookofconcord.org/sources-and-context/heidelberg-disputation/). Luther was certainly on to something.

Frederick Douglass stated, “‘When men oppress their fellow men, the oppressor ever finds, in the character of the oppressed, a full justification for his oppression.’ Douglass, amazingly summed up the history of racist ideas in a single sentence.” (pg. 199). Indeed he did.

And what look at this era would be complete without an examination of the Confederacy. The best statement I found in Kendi’s book that summarized the Confederacy was this – “On March 21 [1861], the Confederacy’s Vice President, Alexander Stephens, responded to Lincoln’s pledge in an extemporaneous speech. The Confederate government, he declared, rested ‘upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.’ This ‘great…truth,’ Stephens said, was the ‘corner-stone’ of the Cornerstone.” (pg. 215). The Confederacy was evil, founded on evil ideas and was an evil system. Unfortunately, the idea of this evil didn’t die with the ending of the Civil War. The “lost cause” ideology lingered and still has a firm grip on many people. Evil systems abuse people, even those that think they benefit from them. They don’t. No one wins in abusive and evil systems.

The fourth person Kendi traces is W. E. B. DuBois. Again, this is another complicated figure of history who exemplified the “extraordinary negro” and as his life progressed, became solidly antiracist. DuBois initially believed in uplift suasion, but would eventually reject it for what it was – “in the 1870s and 1880s, no matter what [DuBois] and other young Blacks like him achieved in school and in life, they were not changing the minds of the discriminators.” (pg. 264). Again, you can’t satisfy evil. You’ll never be good enough.

Kendi masterfully tells the story of long running racist ideas as they continue through this era. The ideas always carry the same line of “reasoning.” That evil is good, that there is a racial hierarchy, that contradictions in logic are acceptable in order to maintain discrimination, and stereotypes are seen as normal. All things devoted to dehumanizing Black people.

Lastly, Kendi tracks Angela Davis, maybe the most controversial figure that he writes about – at least in our modern times. This is the age of Civil Rights up to when the book was published – 2016. What makes Davis controversial is that it is easy for some to dismiss her because of her alignment with the Communist Party USA. But maybe that’s why Kendi uses her as the character who signifies the most recent history. Not because of her party alignment, but because easy dismissal has become an American past time – when we don’t like something that conflicts with our preconceived ideas, we are more likely to dismiss someone than to listen and learn.

Kendi traces the modern idea of “law and order” in this era. This leads to mass incarceration of Black people – a new type fo Jim Crow. Incarcerate people and they lose their right to vote. They also end up economically poor. It’s the same argument from the past.

Kendi’s epilogue at the end of the book is powerful. I could easily quote almost the whole thing. But here’s the the real question summed up in one line – “When will the day arrive when Black lives will matter to Americans?” (Pg. 503). Persuasion of any type hasn’t worked and won’t work because we aren’t dealing with an education deficit. It’s about power and control over people. “If racism is eliminated, many White people in the top economic and political brackets fear that it would eliminate one of the most effective tools they have at their disposal to conquer and control and exploit not only non-Whites, but also both low-income and middle-income White people.” (pg. 508).

Kendi ends on a hopeful note saying that while racism has been ingrained for a long time, it doesn’t have to be the norm. It can change. Policies can change. Culture can change. Leadership can change.

There’s a ton of material I did not cover in this review. I didn’t go in-depth in the more modern era – mostly because it is closer to us and I have found that the closer to the present we are, the more difficult it is to talk about it because people’s identity is more attached to it. The goal here was not to prove something, call anyone racist, or trash America. The goal is to have conversation. Racism is a problem that this country has had since the very beginning. Ignoring it or pretending that it is no longer a problem has never worked. Until we are ready to acknowledge that we have a problem and are willing to face it, we’ll never learn from it, grow, and move on. As long as White people are afraid of talking about racism, then it will continue. And as I’ve stated before – abusive systems abuse people. All people. Blacks certainly suffer as a result – history certainly shows that. And White people do too. Is it better to remain in an abusive and deadly system if we believe the lie that we benefit from the abusive system? Or is better to see reality and see that the abusive system of racism benefits no one ultimately? That our survival and ability to thrive are interconnected with other people?

This is not a short book, but Kendi is a really good writer. He has the ability to tackle a difficult topic and keep the reader’s interest. Kendi isn’t interested in throwing blame around. He’s interested in ending racism. He does this by telling the history of racism in America so that we can learn the historical trends, the core arguments, recognize them, and put an end to them.

I highly recommend this book.

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