Book Review: Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
I think that Stamped from the Beginning is one of the heaviest and one of the most informative books that I have read this year. Often, I speed through texts, even nonfiction, but with a project this large I took my time digesting the material, as there was only so much I could read at once. This book calls itself the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, and in its 511 pages (not including notes — that’s up to 561) I certainly had many things defined as I consumed the wealth of information offered.
Stamped from the Beginning was an emotional book. Alternating feelings of surprise, disgust, anger, fear, shame, despair, resignation, but also hope, determination, and resolve arose within me as I read through and followed the journey that was laid out for me as I read, from the foundations of racism in the United States to 2015, when I suspect the writing of this text was more or less completed, given that it was published in 2016. These heavy emotions were not prompted by any sort of direct emotional manipulation. That was more or less unnecessary on the part of the author, because the raw facts of what black people have had to face in this country is damning and provoking enough that it doesn’t need any extra sheen to make it more tragic or devastating. This book holds no one up as a hero, but instead shows the ways in which people have been, to varying degrees, directly or indirectly, knowingly or unknowingly, contributing to racism and its effects in the United States and elsewhere. Stamped from the Beginning uses the five figures of Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis as lenses through which to view the progression of conceptions and actions regarding race and racism within the United States in the time periods within which their lives and actions had strong impact on those relations. There are deviations of course, and overlaps. At times some of the connections seemed like they were stretches, but for the most part the framework functioned quite well.
I talked a couple weeks ago about what it means to be well-read, and in that context, it can seem strange for me to insist on something being mandatory reading for anyone and everyone, so I won’t say exactly that. What I will say, is that I consider this book to be vital and, dare I say, foundational in that it I feel as though reading it has grounded me in a way that I had not felt grounded before. Much of the history within Stamped from the Beginning is that which I already had varying levels of knowledge of, and many of the foundational works that Kendi mentions as critical to thought about race and race relations are ones which I have read, but by placing it in a linear, cohesive, context, I feel as though I have been given a new lens from within which to view them.
This blog isn’t about politics, so I won’t get into a deep dive of the state of our union since 2016, when the history as covered by this book ends. But what I will say is that 2016 was a wake-up call for a great many people for whom the world stopped making sense. I think this book provides context for the fact that, actually, the world never made sense. Or rather, the sense that it makes is deeply entrenched within a racist, sexist, homophobic, Christian-centric, xenophobic society. The book does not make nearly as much mention of the transphobic, cissexist, or ableist nature of the United States as I would like, but a book can only be so long. Still, I wish it had been better integrated, because I absolutely believe that at the very least transgender folk should have been mentioned prior to page 500 during the epilogue. But I digress.
This book is long and will potentially require a great deal of mental and emotional energy to digest, but it is 100% worth it. Ibram X. Kendi’s scholarship is excellent and conveys a wealth of knowledge and several thought provoking messages. I’ve typed my particular favorite quote (of the dozens I have sticky notes on) below:
“Individual Blacks are not race representatives. They are not responsible for those Americans who hold racist ideas. Black people need to be their imperfect selves around White people, around each other, around all people. Black is beautiful and ugly, intelligent and unintelligent, law-abiding and law-breaking, industrious and lazy – and it is those imperfections that make Black people human, make Black people equal to all other imperfectly human groups” (505).