by Sara Conway ’21 A&E Co-Editor
“To the lives they said don’t matter.”
With these seven words serving as the dedication, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi opens Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America in remembrance and defiance. This fragment lingers in the readers’ minds as they turn the page to start reading.
Originally published in 2016, the work of the former professor of history and international relations at American University, current director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, as well as the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, received numerous accolades when it was first released. One of these awards included the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
Stamped From the Beginning jumped onto the New York Times’ bestseller list the week of George Floyd’s murder as the Black Lives Matter movement simultaneously experienced a revitalization in the mainstream consciousness. For those determined to commit to meaningful anti-racist action, but are also uncertain where to begin, Stamped From the Beginning may be a good place to start. Kendi’s book sheds light on a critical part of American history that is rarely taught in schools or discussed in everyday life.
Kendi tracks down the first anti-Black racist idea that then sailed over to the Americas through the Puritans and other pilgrims. He defines a racist idea to be “any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way” in the prologue (5). Kendi tracks the dominant racist ideas generated during a specific period in American history through five guides, who are notable figures from that time. The book is divided into five sections, titled for the “characters,” as Kendi calls them, of that era. These “characters”—Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis—allow readers to have a main focus, otherwise, the weight and sheer amount of information becomes almost too overwhelming.
This organization is not the only thing that makes Stamped From the Beginning more accessible to the ordinary reader. Kendi writes with an engaging voice that draws readers into a conversation. While the book can be intimidating length-wise as it is over 500 pages, it is available for the general public to read, not just historians. Otherwise, what is the point of writing a book like Stamped From the Beginning if the masses do not read it?
Through this book, readers witness the endless battle between antiracists and the two parties of racist ideas: assimilationists and segregationists. Assimilationists blame racial discrimination and Black people for the “racial disparities,” while segregationists blame Black people (2).
The heart of Stamped From the Beginning, however, proves that it is not hate and ignorance building the racist ideas and forming the racist policies that have continuously existed. Instead, it is the reverse. As Kendi writes, point blank, “Racist policies have driven the history of racist ideas in America.” Racist ideas are conjured to justify these policies and racial discrimination. This then sows hate and ignorance. Readers consistently witness the defiance of logic as racist ideas are written and rewritten to uphold these policies.
Racism does not exist in one form, as Kendi also notes throughout the book. Racism can also be intersectional. There is structural, historical, sexual, medical, class, queer, gender, ethnic, cultural, and political racism. Understanding that racism is intersectional can then alert readers to be aware of where racism exists, to see how deeply ingrained it is in American society, and to, hopefully, change.
With Stamped From the Beginning comes the desire to see more specific studies on racist ideas in the United States, since it is incredibly difficult to fit the details into this book while maintaining the tone necessary for an overview. There is so much to be written about and to be discovered. Hopefully, Kendi’s work is also a definitive call to action for each reader to delve into their own research, starting with what Stamped presents.
The 500-plus-page book may seem daunting to confront, but it is a comprehensible treasure trove of necessary information for Americans, especially. However, Stamped From the Beginning is also a must-read for everyone, as racism exists everywhere.
Kendi’s work was recently adapted into a young reader’s version with the assistance of Jason Reynolds, an award-winning children’s author. Published through Little, Brown for Young Readers this past March, Stamped From the Beginning received a new title as well—Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You. This adaptation carries on Kendi’s goal of making his research accessible, since it can reach an even larger audience, both younger and older.
Stamped From the Beginning is yet again another reminder that racism needs to be acknowledged, conversations that will be uncomfortable must be had, and systems must be overturned. It is time to be aware of our racist histories. It is time to remove these racist policies and ideas that have become an integral part of American society. The time is now.