interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library

A History Book Like I Never Read in School

Our church book group settled on the book Stamped earlier this summer, as a follow-up to our study of Difficult Conversations. We figured reading about race together in our white rural congregation would probably spark a few difficult conversations all by itself, and we wouldn’t even have to do any role playing.

Our pastor had highly recommended Stamped, so the first difficult conversation for me turned out to be admitting how much I didn’t like it. I chalked this up to my resistance to being addressed by the text as a poor reader who’s basically uninterested in history. [“Excuse me, but I like to read and I don’t have a problem with the history books I’m ‘used to reading in school.’”]

Cover of *Stamped*

When I got to the part where Jonathan Edwards was spearheading a “racist Christian awakening” and “carrying on the torch of torture” (40), without a shred of additional evidence, I had to go buy the original Stamped from the Beginning, just to find out how much of Stamped was Kendi’s scholarship and how much of it was Jason Reynolds’s easy-breezy loosy-goosy translation of that scholarship into 12-year-old.

[Because I was emotionally not OK with labeling Jonathan “Heaven is a World of Love” Edwards a racist torturer. Call Cotton Mather all the names you want, but leave Jonathan Edwards alone! The “torch of torture” comment turned out to be Reynolds’s gloss, by the way; I didn’t find it in Kendi’s original. Although admittedly I had to acknowledge the partiality of my affections after I did a little homework on the topic of Jonathan Edwards and slavery. But by then I had already bought the adult edition, which is more like the history books I’m used to reading in school, particularly in the department of endnotes and supporting evidence.]

[And don’t EVEN get me started on the subject of whether PRESENTING CONCLUSIONS WITHOUT EVIDENCE in the version addressed to younger readers is doing those younger readers any favors in the critical thinking department.]
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In the department of new information, on the other hand, Stamped from the Beginning was definitely not like most of the history books I’ve read in school. That difference made it particularly informative, even perspective-shifting, as well as fascinating reading.

Kendi’s project, as announced in the subtitle of Stamped from the Beginning, is to present “The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” His

… definition of a racist idea is a simple one: it is any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. I define anti-Black racist ideas – the subject of this book – as suggesting that Black people, or any group of Black people, are inferior in any way to another racial group (5).

That simplification, with its attendant clarity, allows him to demonstrate the way three distinctive “voices” in American racial discourse, “segregationist,” “assimilationist,” and “anti-racist,” have “rationalized racial disparities, arguing why Whites have remained on the living and winning end, while Blacks remained on the losing and dying end” (2-3).

As our book group acknowledged, identifying “assimilationist” arguments as racist ideas – which for Kendi they are, by definition – involved a major shift in perspective, since most of us have been hearing those kinds of arguments as enlightened and probably making those kinds of arguments ourselves if the subject ever comes up, most of our lives. [So there was the second difficult conversation for us.]
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Kendi is a narrative historian, and I found his presentation of the history of racist ideas in America pretty lively, even without Reynolds’s editing and glosses. He organizes it around five emblematic figures in the life of the nation: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois, and Angela Davis. Kendi weaves the biographies of these individual figures in and out of his discussion of themes that become especially visible in the events of their lives.

So, for instance, Cotton Mather’s defense of slavery in North America, on the grounds of its purported role in civilizing and saving the souls of the enslaved black Africans brought to this continent, shows how the earliest ideological use of racist ideas took shape in what was still colonial America.

Thomas Jefferson’s profound personal ambivalence to, and deeply compromised involvement in slave ownership, juxtaposed with his central role in framing the paradigmatic statement of democratic liberty, dramatizes the painful double-mindedness of the Founding Fathers, and shows how deeply embedded racist ideas are in the bedrock of American intellectual, political, social and economic history.

[As an aside, several of us in the group acknowledged that this section really affected our thinking about Jefferson. As someone who thought of Jefferson vaguely as the author of the Declaration of Independence, the charming protagonist of the Broadway musical 1776!, the statue in the Jefferson Memorial, and the guy who bought Louisiana, I really didn’t understand demands to re-assess Jefferson. Knowing more about his thinking on race, and on slavery, and about his practices as a slave-owner, made me a lot more sympathetic to those appeals. At least, I think I understand why the folks at Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church in Louisville decided to change their name.]

William Lloyd Garrison demonstrates how radical anti-slavery politics and unquestioningly racist presuppositions of the assimilationist variety made friendly fellow travellers.

Kendi’s definition of racist ideas makes axiomatic that such ideas need not be the exclusive property of white people. Kendi’s treatment of the intellectual development of W.E.B. DuBois makes this especially clear. Kendi traces DuBois’s transformation from a dedicated assimilationist, committed to the power of “uplift suasion,” to a forceful articulator of anti-racist sentiments over his long career.

And then there’s Angela Davis.[*]

Kendi’s history comes right up to a few days ago, or so it seems.
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We don’t necessarily look to historians for solutions to our present problems, even though our present problems are frequently the fruit of seeds planted in the past. Kendi, however, does offer his readers some thoughts on solutions to the present problems of racial disparity and the racist ideas that justify it.

First, he argues that

The history of racist ideas tells us what strategies antiracists should stop using. Stamped from the Beginning chronicles not just the development of racist ideas, but the ongoing failure of the three oldest and most popular strategies Americans have used to root out these ideas: self-sacrifice, uplift suasion, and educational persuasion (503).

Aside from the psychological fact that people in general don’t like to give things up, Kendi points out that White Amerians don’t really need to give anything up to allow Black Americans to advance. Racism hurts everyone.

It is not coincidental that slavery kept the vast majority of southern Whites poor. It is not coincidental that more White Americans thrived during the antiracist movements from the 1930s to the early 1970s than ever before or since. It is not coincidental that the racist movements that followed in the late twentieth century paralleled the stagnation or reduction of middle- and low-income Whites’ salaries and their skyrocketing costs of living (504).

According to Kendi, everyone would be better off in a more equitable society, with the possible exception of a numerically tiny elite. And if you factor in the benefits of enhanced social stability and social satisfaction that would attend a more equitable future, probably even them. So the ultimate solution, on Kendi’s analysis, is to mobilize people’s intelligent self-interest in the direction of that outcome, while restraining the narrower, shorter-term self-interest that historically leads to the institution of

… racist policies, which lead to racist ideas leading to all the ignorance and hate. Racist policies were created out of self-interest. And so, they have usually been voluntarily rolled back out of self-interest (506).

To Kendi, that effort looks like it will require political action and the institutionalization of anti-racism:

An antiracist America can only be guaranteed if principled antiracists are in power, and then antiracist policies become the law of the land, and then antiracist ideas become the common sense of the people, and then the antiracist common sense of the people holds those antiracist leaders and policies accountable (510-511).

After reading Stamped from the Beginning, and coming to terms with Kendi’s impressive and persuasive account of this side of American thought, my guess is it will look like that to many of Kendi’s readers as well.

What that will mean precisely and concretely, however, is presumably for some future historian to chronicle.
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Kendi, Ibram. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive Idea of Racist Ideas in America. New York: Bold Type Books, 2016. Kindle edition.

[An installment of the “Read Me” Project.]
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[*] Of course in Presbyterian church book group people’s various personal experiences of “the Angela Davis thing” came up. “The Angela Davis thing” is that the denomination gave $10,000 to Angela Davis’s legal defense fund in 1971, which precipitated a bitter controversy within the denomination. Technically, it was the United Presbyterian Church, the Northern Presbyterians, who made the contribution. But that would get us into the complicated history of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, and how it split over the issue of slavery around the time of the Civil War, and how the Northern and Southern entities didn’t manage to find enough common ground for a merger until 1983. Which starts to make more sense when you realize that making that contribution to Angela Davis’s defense fund was one of the “10 Valid Reasons for Opposing Union with the United Presbyterian Church” from the perspective of the opposition to the merger in the Presbyterian Church in America, but from the perspective of the UPC defenders of the action it looked like acting like Christians. Liberal Christians, that is. Which was not everyone in the denomination. People have argued that “giving all that money to Angela Davis” was one of the “10 valid reasons” for a lot of northerners who disagreed about that acting like Christians perspective to stop giving money to the church. There don’t seem to be good numbers on this, but one estimate I found was that the church’s official stances on civil rights and racial reconciliation issues between 1965 and 1971, of which the Angela Davis move was arguably the most dramatic, cost the church something like $18 million dollars in lost mission contributions during that period, to say nothing of loss of members who seem to have voted their consciences with their feet. On the other hand … some of us have left other churches and joined this one, so that kind of thing works both ways.
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A circular view of an endless stack of books
Surrounded by books

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