August 3, 2020

American Must-Reads: Stamped from the Beginning

posted on: Thursday January 31, 2019

Life is too short to read everything. It may even be too short to major in American studies, history, or English. This column, brought to you by professors in American studies, history, and English, highlights the books you simply cannot let pass, whatever your major. Start your list! 

 

by Dr. Keith Morton, Professor of Public & Community Service Studies

 

Book cover Stamped From The Beginning

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE JUNTO/ EARLYAMERICANISTS.COM

It is hard to believe that a 500-page history, sweeping in its scope and spanning 400 years, can claim to be “definitive.” As much detail and as many buried stories as Ibram Kendi relates and analyzes in Stamped from the Beginning, there is much that is undeveloped or left out. It is a definitive study, nonetheless, because of the consistent historic pattern Kendi surfaces with meticulous attention. 

Most work in undoing racism, anti-racism, or diversity, follows a familiar logic: people have some unfounded beliefs and ideas about an “other,” and this distorted perspective, when combined with power, leads them to treat “the other” badly, and to justify it as normal. The remedy in this formulation is education and a dose of empathy.

Surveying a history that stretches from 17th-century Puritan, Cotton Mather, to Barack Obama’s presidency, Kendi argues that this conventional logic has it exactly backwards. Whites in power, Kendi argues, wanted to take land, labor and capital from the “other,” took it, and then constructed justifications: racist ideas that amplified “otherness,” and justified the taking. Left unchecked, these others would threaten the social order, and so their oppression became necessary. 

Undoing racism, then, is not a problem to be solved with education and empathy alone. “An antiracist America can only be guaranteed if principled antiracists are in power,” Kendi concludes. How we can get there is the subject of his equally compelling and just-released book, How To Be an Antiracist.

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