How it got on our list
Kelly: I suggested reading this book after a friend asked “Hey, have you read that book A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America? I think you would find it interesting.” I said, “No -- that does sound interesting! I’ll have to look into it.” And then she texted me a photo of the cover. And it was Stamped from the Beginning, which was already sitting on my TBR shelf! Heh. She’s an academic and you know they love their subtitles.
Since then, she’s been using it as a textbook for at least one of her classes and she says that her students are finding it super readable, so I’m looking forward to that. [Ed. Note: To everyone’s surprise “super readable” has a different context in academia than in the jennyandkellyreadbooks blog.]
Jenny: We put it on our list, and I added it to my Amazon shopping cart when I needed to have enough to get the “add-on” items. I was secretly hoping to convince you we should read it sooner rather than later. But after TPB (The Putin Book) and Underground Railroad, I figured we’d have to wait a while. We were so exhausted from those books, would we be ready to tackle something that looked so intense right away? [We weren’t.]
The bookWe had a pretty long discussion about the prologue, which isn’t something you can skip. As Jenny said, “it really should have had a different name. Something like, 'Chapter one.'” We talked about how we often skip Prologues, but we're so glad we didn't skip this one, as it outlines three words that are the foundation for understanding racist ideas throughout the entire text. Kendi argues that historically, there have been three sides to the discussion about race in America:
A group we can call segregationists has blamed black people themselves for the racial disparities. A group we can call antiracists has pointed to racial discrimination. A group we can call assimilationists has tried to argue for both, saying that Black people and racial discrimination were to blame for racial disparities. (2)For an example of this IRL, listen to this podcast with Kendi where he explains it in these simple terms: Black Lives Matter is anti-racist, Blue Lives Matter is segregationist, and All Lives Matter is assimilationist. Even though these ideas weren’t exactly new, something about Kendi’s language and description was so clean and precise. Both of us had the experience of reading this book as organizing many of the things we already knew into a more logical and meaningful way in our brains.
Part of the reason this is so important is that Americans believe that assimilationist thinking isn’t racist. But both segregationist and assimilationist thinking is racist. Full stop. Even as a I go back and write this, I feel sort of dumb for not really “getting” that before. But then again, if there’s a second major take-away in this book, it’s to demonstrate just how powerful racist ideas are and the way that they so effortlessly morph and change through the generations.
Kendi argues a second major point in the prologue: racist ideas are created and used to justify racist policies. Policies are created that benefit rich white men, and racist ideas are created afterwards to justify it. As racial progress happens, new racist ideas are created to prevent that progress from happening. In other words, racist policies always come first and racist ideas come along behind to justify them.
It’s probably important to talk about the organization of the book. Stamped from the Beginning advances through American history in chronological order, with each of the five major sections using the life of a famous American at that time for showing the development and advancement of racist ideas: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, WEB Du Bois, and Angela Davis. As a general rule, this worked better for us when we already knew a lot about either the person or that historical era. I have previously discussed how the organization of non-fiction can feel inorganic and clunky. It makes sense to use real people to show the power of racist ideas, but the marriage of storytelling to history is never quite seamless.
The first section about Cotton Mather was especially difficult. Neither of us were as familiar with this part of history, and it felt a little boring at times. Kelly said, “For the most part, even when things that I’ve never thought about were pointed out as racist, I was all ‘Yup. Yup. Oh, yeah. I totally see that. Sure.’” But we also discussed the book’s claim that Newton calling “white light” contributed to racist ideas. It raises the question if the words “white” and “black” now *only* refer to race? That was a sincere question, and one that we chewed over for a while. After all, it’s clear as day that even today in pop culture, the good guys/bad buys are often portrayed as white/light and dark/black. Jenny wondered why it’s so easy to see that now, but we struggle when we talk about where those ideas may have originated. We call our skin “white” even though it’s peach or beige. Isn’t white light really “clear” more than it is white?
Of the subsequent chapters, I’d say that I really enjoyed the Thomas Jefferson section because I think he’s the perfect example of how we lionize and excuse horrible racists. I actually want to kick the shit out of anyone who talks about Jefferson being “in a relationship” or “in love” with Sally Hemmings. And Kendi thoroughly debunks all of that, although Kelly did find reference to “intercourse” rather than rape. Overall, Kendi is firmly committed to intersectionality and always discusses how racism combines with sexism and other forms of bigotry.
Kelly found the WEB Du Bois chapter to be particularly strong, especially because his personal journey from assimilationist to antiracist is so compelling. [Kelly here -- adding this a few months after we read this book: I still think about this a LOT. The idea that we all have an opportunity to "do better" and that it's within our power to do so, if we want to. I guess it gives me hope -- if an antiracist historical icon such as Du Bois had to go on a journey to become antiracist then 1. We all probably have some journey to go on and 2. It's a journey we can all take.]
Once we get into this section, the book also starts to take on a weight and heft as the accumulated centuries of racist thought reveal themselves to be so malleable. Even though we’ve been trained to believe that things have gotten better (and they have in so many ways!), it was in this section that we also see how little has changed. As Kendi states, “Racist logic didn’t have to be logical; it just had to make common sense.” (303)
Angela Davis is a bad-ass, and learning more about her was one of the real pleasures of this book. We had a lot of questions about the source material, and at times wished for more extensive endnotes, but that's a pretty minor complaint. Several times, I wished there was a similar book on feminism that told it as a long story.
The TakeawaysEven though we didn’t come to a satisfactory conclusion on Newton, both of us did talk about how the book illuminates the world around us. Over and over again, it challenged what we have both been taught as white people, which is to assume that philosophers, scientists, and thinkers are “neutral” when it fact they are just as steeped in racist ideas as we are, and that they often explicitly advance those racist ideas to further their own agenda.
Throughout the book, we both noticed that the way racism works now is entirely the same as how it worked in the past. Here’s a list of some those moments where we exclaimed something like "This is still the same today!"
- Rich white people use poor white people to advance their own wealth and power at the expense of black people.
- Black people’s actions are always viewed through a lens of criminality and deviance.
- Failures of individual black people to thrive are always blamed on individual choices rather than racist politics and policies.
- Black women treated as either hyper-sexualized or ignored as hapless victims.
- White people are always seen as individuals with compelling reasons for their behavior, while black people are always generalized as a part of their group identity.
- Respectability politics (or "uplift suasion," as our author calls it) is the carrot by which black people are lured into believing whites will accept them, but it never works.
- White Northerners believe that “real racists” are in the South, so they never evaluate the ways Northerners have created, embraced, and furthered racist ideas
Finally, although this was a often difficult read for a variety of reasons (content, writing style, disconnect with the historical figures), it was well worth it. Reading this book changed both of us --we each think about it ALL THE TIME, and the segregationist-assimilationist-antiracist language will forever be useful to us in both our personal and professional lives.