I’ll be honest with you: Stamped from the Beginning is a very intimidating book in more ways than one. It’s a 511-page tome, which makes sense considering that it is, as the subtitle tells us, The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. It’s won several awards, and for good reason.
In short, Stamped from the Beginning is Ibram X. Kendi’s telling of the United States’s racist history, starting in 1635 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and ending in 2016 pondering the election and presidency of Barack Obama. I wish that this book had been published more recently, as it certainly feels as though racist ideas in America have been at an all-time high between the years of 2016 and 2021, and history is being made every day. Regardless, having the backstory of where in the history of racism our chapter takes place is vital for understanding how to move forward.
(Before diving into the content of the book, I want to note that Kendi capitalized both Black people and White people, so in this post I will be following his capitalization standards.)
I was always frustrated in school when a one-semester course tried to fit hundreds or even thousands of years of history into its curriculum. I knew that those classes must have been leaving a lot out, but this book filled in much of what they missed. Not surprisingly, the book opened my eyes to the fact that America is built on a racist bedrock. It’s not just the fact that White people used to own Black people as slaves, realized that was wrong, and set them free. In many ways it feels that the country is rotten to its core, and it has been very important to understand that when slavery (mostly) ended, the racist structure didn’t end, it just changed.
Beyond the obvious fact that history classes like to hide how White people have been the antagonists throughout much of history, another thing they miss is how racist ideas actually work and evolve. Kendi’s explanation of this cycle and the interplay between different flavors of racism reveals that it is much more complicated than bad people and good people, White people and Black people, racist people and non-racist people. You might have heard by now, thanks to Kendi’s other bestseller, How to Be an Antiracist, that one isn’t just racist or not racist. There is no such thing as deeming yourself outside of the circle of racism; if you are to be truly not racist, then you must be antiracist: actively fighting against it.
It gets more complicated yet, because there aren’t two categories, the good antiracists and the bad racists, but three. The ratio of antiracists in America’s history has been relatively slim compared to the two massive forces of racism: segregationism and assimilationism. In short, segregationism is the belief that Black people are biologically inferior and assimilationism is the belief that Black people are culturally and behaviorally inferior. As the names suggest, segregationist people want to keep Black people away from, or at least below, White people, deeming them irremediably less-than. On the other hand, assimilationists have the racist hope that Black people can strive to one day become White, if not physically, then at least in the way that they act and think.
I think that as many of us have had our eyes opened to the ongoing evils of sytemic, cultural, and interpersonal racism, those of us striving to be antiracists, myself included, have tried to take the easiest route of completely avoiding and discounting people and ideas that we identify as racist. However, Kendi’s explanations of how racism actually works shows that it is not always as clear-cut. Not only can somebody be “doubly conscious,” holding both antiracist and assimilationist views simultaneously, but antiracism and racism are forces that have danced around each other through America’s history. Furthermore, racist ideas are often substantially interwoven with their sexist, homophobic, classist, ableist, and ethnocentrist counterparts, to name a few. Discrimination of any form will not truly end until they all end.
Kendi does a fantastic job of dispelling the myth that racism simply stems from hatred. Instead, he reveals the pattern that he discovered when researching the history of racist ideas: that in fact, “racial discrimination [leads] to racist ideas which [lead] to ignorance and hate.” It seems that racial discrimination generally arises from one race using another for its own self interest, be that for money, power, labor, or even entertainment. The racial discrimination comes to the aid of those looking to justify this inequity, and the race who sees itself as superior then manufactures racist ideas to make the injustice seem natural. (This is, by the way, why anthropology and paleoanthropology have such truly atrocious histories.) This momentum accumulates in the manifestation of ignorance and hate, at which point no amount of facts or peaceful pleading can stop it, because it has no basis in reality or fairness. For what it’s worth, the South was much more compelled to end slavery after witnessing violent slave uprisings than after reading free Black elites’ books and newspaper articles advocating for equality. And Abraham Lincoln only declared emancipation out of his own self-interest, not out of any good will toward Black people.
If what I’ve explained so far seems surprising or in any way revolutionary, then buckle in. So far I have essentially only touched on the big ideas found in Stamped from the Beginning‘s prologue. You see, this is why the book is over 500 pages. Kendi examines all of these beliefs and puts historical figures, writings, and events into the context of how these three facets of racism (and antiracism) have been at play in the United States. At the beginning of the book, I found myself declaring on every page, “He’s racist, and he’s racist, everybody is racist!” But just labeling everything racist would make for a very short book indeed. Everyone mentioned was just a piece of a very long and convoluted story of the network of evolving racist ideas. No one person formed his own ideas by himself. For example—not to justify what he did—famous slaveowner Thomas Jefferson’s first memory was of a ride on a horse on his father’s plantation, accompanied by his family’s slave who took care of him during his childhood.
Racist ideas, like all other ideas, have been constantly evolving. If you look at the big picture in this book, you’ll see more segregationism in the beginning, more antiracism in the end, and assimilationism throughout. You’ll see that, at least by Kendi’s analysis, very few people have achieved true and consistent antiracism, not even W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., or Barack Obama. Assimilationism is a hell of a drug, if only for the reason that it is racism disguised as “not being racist.”
Admittedly, after learning how assimilationism declares everyone equally White if we all just work hard enough as we melt into the Great White Melting Pot, I recognized that I was fed these assimilationist ideas growing up in the Pittsburgh suburbs (and in a 100% White church and 99% white college) in the 2000s and 2010s. If you had tried to explain to me that Black Americans can have different cultures, experiences, and dialects from White people, and that those differences should be acknowledged and celebrated rather than ignored, I probably would have been confused. I grew up thinking that to be equal, we should all be and act the same. I’m ashamed to have believed that for twenty-five years, but I’m glad to be free of it.
I have yet to read Kendi’s 2019 hit How to Be an Antiracist, but I think that it must greatly complement Stamped from the Beginning. In merely telling us the history of the interplay between segregationism, assimilationism, and antiracism, Kendi leaves readers wondering how we, too, can be antiracists like the legendary Angela Davis, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neal Hurston. I’m certainly inspired and eager to continue to educate myself and actively fight at the intersection of racism, sexism, and homophobia. I feel like being called an antiracist is a high honor, so I don’t want to bestow that label onto myself when I am still working to dig up and dismantle my own ingrained assimilationist ideas. This is why I believe that books like this are especially necessary in helping aspiring antiracists like myself to get there, one step at a time.