Title: Stamped From The Beginning
Rating: 5 Stars
When men oppress their fellowmen, the oppressor ever finds, in the character of the oppressed, a full justification for his oppression.
That line is from Frederick Douglass. That one sentence manages to sum up the history of racism.
Before I go any further, I should say that this book hit me like a sledgehammer. I read a lot of history and since I lean in a progressive direction, I do read a lot of history that exposes other sides to history to that which is conventionally mainstream. However, the point of view that Kendi took shook all of my foundations. The closest that I can come to how I felt reading it was when I first read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States over twenty years ago. Clearly, I’d never read a history written from the standpoint of such an ardent anti-racist. It has changed (hopefully permanently) the way that I think and feel about our world.
Stamped From The Beginning is an encyclopedic treatment of racism in America. In fact, it goes even further back and talks about the slave trade of Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal during the 15th century (the first slaves from Africa were brought to Europe in 1444).
The primary emphasis is on the United States. The primary thesis of this work is that the history of racism can be broken up into three camps: racist, assimilationist, and anti-racist.
The racist line is probably pretty obvious. At a basic level, racists believe that blacks are fundamentally unequal to whites and our culture reflects that, as it should.
The assimilationists believe that whites and blacks are equal, but that the blacks are lagging behind. This could because of the legacy of slavery, the legacy of Jim Crow, some fundamental problem with the black family, and/or other similar ‘cultural’ reasons. If the black people just worked a little harder or behaved just a little better, than some wonderful day in the future, all inequalities will fade away.
The anti-racists reject all of this. There is no difference, at a human level, between whites and blacks. If black people suffer from a higher rate of poverty, a higher rate of incarceration, or similar such ills, then it must be that there is something systemic in place that is actively defeating them. Equality at a social level can never be achieved without knocking down all of the barriers that hold people back.
Kendi breaks the history up into five sections, with each section centered around a significant figure of that period. The five figures that he chose were:
Cotton Mather: A key religious figure of the Puritans, he grappled with the notion of slavery and humanity. Ultimately, he decided / taught that slaves do have souls, but they are degraded and it is the white man’s responsibility to raise them up and teach them Christianity.
Thomas Jefferson: A key figure of the Enlightenment, he understood the basic immorality of slavery but could never divorce himself from the economics of it, and like men of that age, he bemoaned the curse of miscegenation but also partook of it. The only slaves that he freed in his lifetime were the ones that he fathered with Sally Hemings. At his death, some 130 slaves from Monticello were sold to pay off his debts.
William Lloyd Garrison: The man that essentially started the white abolitionist movement. He labored at it for over 30 years. He lived to see the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves. Thinking that his mission was accomplished, he shut down his organization. In hindsight, perhaps a tad premature…
W.E.B. Du Bois: One of the great intellectuals of his time. In his very long life (he lived and was still active into his mid 90s), you can chart the progression of his views. In the early 1900s, you can see him start off as an assimilationist, advocating for the gradual advancement of blacks and bemoaning the segments of the black community that makes the Talented Tenth look bad. By the end of his life, he has become a full anti-racist.
Angela Davis: She was an anti-racist from the start and has been unequivocal in her fight to recognize the equal rights of blacks. During her era, the rights of the LGBTQ community has blended in to create truly a civil rights philosophy for all.
The book closes with a epilogue that is a stirring call to action. It is time for all of us to throw off all of the excuses of the racists and the assimilationists. The answer is not for black people to work harder. The answer is not to educate white people on why racism is bad. The answer is not for black people to act white.
The answer is to take action to explicitly put into place anti-racist policies at every level.
To quote from the final paragraph in the epilogue:
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.