Stamped From the Beginning is another one of those books that I have waited too long to write about. I finished it nearly a month ago and almost immediately started How to be an Antiracist. They are such different styles of books that they are hard to compare. But they complement one another well. Stamped from the Beginning is more academic, much longer, and a history book. How to be An Antiracist is shorter, more personal, with Kendi using his personal development as a lens to understand racism and antiracism. The fact that he had already written Stamped from the Beginning I think gave more credibility and meaning to the more personal How to Be an Antiracist.
Stamped from the Beginning is one of those books I purchased years ago on several recommendations. I read enough about it to know the rough focus, and then I did not start reading. It was finally a very negative review that I assumed was largely a misreading of the book, that propelled me to start reading.
Stamped from the Beginning, despite its length and subtitle, as the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, uses five people as a framing technique. Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, WEB DuBois, and Angela Davis are the voices that give focus to different eras of racism.
There are a couple of veins of though on the development of the social construct of racial identity construction in the academy. Some identify racism and White supremacy as a development of colonial expansion starting in the 14th to 16th centuries. And some suggested that racism and White supremacy expanded during that era, but are older (Willie James Jennings is in this group and roots racism in antisemitism that was developed out of Christian supersessionism.). Kendi appears to mostly be in the first group.
Cotton Mather and his ancestors were the upper crust of the early English settlers of North America. Mather and his family were religious elites that gave voice to the theological self-identification of Puritan New England as a special place for God to identify another special group of people. That perceived calling and the accidents of history, in Mather’s view, were proof of God’s particular blessing.
That ideological movement did not stop with just religious justification for racism and racial hierarchies, but those hierarchies mattered to the development of science. Science attempts to give explanations to data. But those explanations are limited to the conceptual frameworks that are culturally present. If racism exists, then examples of differences must be considered as biological or cultural if there is not a theoretical framework to think of sociological influence.
How to Be an Antiracist Kendi is working around three models of racial interaction. Segregationists do not want any integration. There are the assimilationists that accept some understanding of racist ideas, but want integration, although they are willing for it to be slow and hierarchical. And then there are the antiracists which oppose all racist ideas, both segregationist and assimilationist. That rough framework is present in Stamped from the Beginning but far less explicitly. With Thomas Jefferson and later William Lloyd Garrison, slavery and racial hierarchies exist within ideological concepts of freedom from oppression. Garrison and Jefferson would disagree on much, but both would have found ‘uplift suasion’ as the only real model of integration if they had to support integration.
It was not until WEB DuBois that there is an antiracist voice, and even DuBois alternated at times to an uplift suasion model. Angela Davis was a radical that honestly before this book, I knew almost nothing about her, other than a connection to the Black Power movement. After I finished Stamped From the Beginning, I picked up a recent audiobook of her speeches or essays that gave more context to that final section of a relatively recent racist history.
There are things to quibble with here. One review took significant umbrage to the early discussion in the Cotton Mather section about White and Black being theological descriptions about sin and forgiveness. I do understand the critique, but I think the reviewer that thought the reading was wrong, did not understand how the implications of that theological framing have continued to recent years. White skin is not white as a sheep are white. Black skin is not black as coal is black. So I think Kendi is right that the theological implications of Black being the descriptor for sin and rejection of God and White being the descriptor of redemption, holiness and perfection does matter to the later theological understanding of racial history. The word Black was used to describe people of dark skin primarily of African descent. And White was used to describe light-skinned people, primarily of Northern European descent. Other words could have been chosen that did not have the theological connotations, but they were not.
I wanted to push back against Kendi for giving some people, like WEB DuBois space for changing opinions in ways that he did not allow for others, like Lincoln. That does not minimize that there was racism for people like Lincoln, but Lincoln’s opinions over time did change. Lincoln did not ever become a modern anti-racist. However, his opinions from the Lincoln/Douglas debates until the end of his life did change, and they changed significantly.
This is a book that I think will cause many to push back. That is often good. It is what we do with the push back that matters. I do think that reading the two books, Stamped From the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist as complimentary is helpful.