Stamped from the Beginning; The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. Nations Books, 2016.
Ibram Kendi won the 2016 National Book Award for his Stamped from the Beginning, a history of “long and lingering” racism in America. He is a member of the Department of History, University of Florida. Congratulations Professor Kendi.
Kendi has recreated the conversation between segregationists – those who believed that the races should be kept separate as much as possible, and assimilationists – those who believe that African-Americans should be absorbed into white America. His distinction between antiracist and racist is not so clear-cut, however. Both segregationists and assimilationists, he contends, can hold racist views. Kendi identifies five American intellectuals who have shaped our on-going discourse about race: Cotton Mather (1663-1728), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963), and Angela Davis (1944 – ).
Segregationists vs. assimilationists. Segregationists would argue that blacks are inherently different, though this is not a justification for their unequal treatment. Perhaps different but equal. Assimilationists argue that existing inequalities are the result of black misbehavior, which could change and black people could assimilate into white middle-class America. And white Americans should welcome that integration.
Racists vs. antiracists. Racists argue that African-Americans are a biologically distinct species. They take a polygenesist position. In contrast, antiracists are monogenesists; they believe in one creation. Differences are only ‘skin deep’ and explained by arguments such as the Biblical curse pronounced on Ham by God in the book of Genesis. Or black racial characteristics may be environmental, for example due to the greater sunlight in the earlier African environment. Monogenesists’ arguments get silly. For example they have attributed the light-skinned African-Americans to a prolonged association with white skins. Proof! Household slaves in the pre-emancipation South tended to be lighter skinned than field slaves. Polygenesists, on the other hand, run into their own wall: genetics!
Did the “all men are created equal” as stated in the Declaration of Independence include Thomas Jefferson’s slaves? In truth, underlying Jefferson’s racist views and those of most of our founding fathers was the fact that the Southern colonies needed the labor of slaves to harvest their cash crops. Kendi describes how important slavery was to Southern agriculture, tobacco and sugar cultivation and after Eli Whitney improved the gin, raw cotton.
William Lloyd Garrison’s advocacy for the cause of abolition is exemplary of the drift of attitudes toward black emancipation. In the 1830s he was a strong advocate of the relocation of slaves to Africa, adhering to anti-assimilationist arguments. He then went on to adopt the assimilationist position, mingled with his fight for women’s political rights. Toward the end of his life, he was an assimilationist, part of the fight for the political rights of freedmen.
Why were slaves so passive in the face of often brutal exploitation? Kendi argues with that premise. Slaves, when given the opportunity, abandoned their masters. During the Civil War, thousands fled to Union lines where they were treated as Contraband.
How might the history of racism been different had Abraham Lincoln presided over Southern Reconstruction? The Fifteenth Amendment as administered by President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, did not bring about the end of servitude. Kendi explains that under Reconstruction, the Southern economic elite created an effective system for controlling black labor and conduct. There were three classes in the post-war South, an economic/political elite, a class of “poor white trash,” and freedmen now eking out an existence with a mule and forty acres. The latter two groups, he argues, were successfully pitted against each other by the Southern elite. Class hatred was fanned by the Black Codes and by violent night riders, the Ku Klux Klan that used terror – lynching – to “keep the niggers in their place.”
In May 1896, much to the despair of assimilationist like W.E.B. Du Bois, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, enshrining the different but equal doctrine. DuBois was also challenged by another prominent African-American spokesman, Booker T. Washington. An assimilationist of a different stripe, Washington argued that blacks should settle for jobs in the lower rungs of the service sector. Steady employment, he argued, was the best opportunity for blacks to participate in American society.
Angela Davis, the last of Kendi’s five intellectuals, has been many things to many causes. She was an author and political activist, interested in feminist issues, in prison reform, economic justice, and an Afro style-setter. But her placement in the talented five is the most tenuous.
Ibram Kendi has used fresh perspectives to discuss the many complexities of American racism. And that appealed to those who awarded him the prestigious National Book Award.