Tuesday, December 13, 2016
Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
The insights and understanding shared with us in this dazzling work of erudition and scholarship entirely make up for its enormous length. One wonders how it can be that such a book has not been written to date, the need for such a work obvious from the moment Kendi begins to trace the evolution of America’s history of racist ideas, from the pre-revolutionary settlers and the sermons of Cotton Mather right through Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois, and Angela Davis. By the end we have a framework to evaluate and calmly deconstruct the words of Clarence Thomas and Bill Clinton, among other voices like those in Black Lives Matter.
The work has a momentum that develops from a stately walking pace in slave times, gathering steam after the Civil War and the First World War, until we experience a positive torrent of ideas, criticisms, actors, detractors in the 1990s and 2000s when everyone has a megaphone and it seems no one is listening. Kendi strips all qualified “asks” away and insists that black people be accepted in the fullness of their humanity: good or bad, talented or not, criminal or not.
This often surprising history reminds us how completely our opinions are shaped by political and economic realities rather than by the most logical or rational argument. In the 1600’s Cotton Mather was a product of his time: blacks were inferior in every way except for their physicality, but they should be baptized. Jefferson thought they weren’t as inferior as all that, but some blacks are more enlightened than others, and even those must rely on white people for their “safety and happiness.” The “time wasn’t right” to free the slaves. This was also the opinion of George Washington. William Lloyd Garrison believed fervently that blacks should not be slaves, but they were not the social equal of whites. “It is not practicable to give undeveloped Black men the vote.” This was the opinion of Abraham Lincoln as well, who wanted to free the slaves and send them back to Africa. W.E.B. DuBois was a well-educated black man who believed black men could be the equal of white men, but perhaps just some black men, not the great unwashed. And finally, Angela Davis thought black people shouldn’t copy or aspire to white life in any way, that black people, including black women, were absolutely the equal of whites in every way, if only they had equal opportunity.
In every period Kendi discusses, the latest scientific theories put forth “prove, undeniably” that black people were inferior to white people, in structure, in mind, in morals, in attitudes. Kendi discusses each with a dispassion bordering on amused curiosity. Each argument is eviscerated with cool observation before he moves on to the next attempt to convince white people that black people were worthy. By the end, he has inoculated us against outrage and taught us to evaluate each argument ourselves without falling into heated rhetoric or getting tangled in “should” and “oughts.” Kendi himself has concluded the only way black people would not be discriminated against in some way is if everyone recognize that blacks are at least as talented or flawed as whites and should be treated accordingly, that is to say, with the same amount of attention and acceptance of their potential talent, as for their potential for error. Anything less is racist.
I became utterly rapt when Kendi enters the period of Angela Davis and the modern day us. This is recent memory, and anyone can get first-hand corroboration on what people were thinking just forty years ago, as well as investigate the thickets surrounding any race discussions today. We, all of us, but especially white people, were lied to about what black people were about in this period. Because we were segregated, it was hard to get a clear idea or perspective on what was happening in each community. Kendi calls Davis’ first book, Women, Culture, and Politics, published in 1989, an “instant classic.” Davis wrote many more books once she began teaching classes in the university system in California. She understood right from her youth in Birmingham, Alabama that uplift suasion (becoming acceptable to whites by copying their attitudes, look, & culture), or assimilation (actually becoming more white through intermarriage & cultural overlap) were not going to give black people rights or respect. Black people needed then, and need now, the protection of the law. Enforceable law.
Kendi writes beautifully, in a totally engaging way, but the size of this tome may be a little intimidating. To assist uptake of his ideas, Kendi has provided a detailed Prologue and Epilogue. I recommend you read those, and then begin with the Angela Davis section. The momentum one attains in this whirlwind of ideas, popular figures, and known events will allow one to grasp his major theses. Then go back and allow him to carefully outline his research and thinking. It's worth studying.
This book won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
You can buy this book here: Tweet