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Thursday, May 04, 2017

Stamped From the Beginning

The subtitle of Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped From the Beginning says it all: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. It was a tough book to read, but must have been tougher to write, as Kendi had to wade through four hundred years of American racism. As he puts it in the foreword: "I somehow managed to write this book between the heartbreaks of Trayvon Martin and Rekia Boyd and Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and the Charleston 9 and Sandra Bland, heartbreaks that are a product of America’s history of racist ideas as much as this history book of racist ideas is a product of these heartbreaks."

This book will classify that the idea we are a post-racial society is a lie.  "The United States remains nowhere close to racial parity. African Americans own 2.7 percent of the nation’s wealth, and make up 40 percent of the incarcerated population. These are racial disparities, and racial disparities are older than the life of the United States."

Kendi structures his book (the title comes from a speech by Jefferson Davis, who said that inequality between blacks and whites was "stamped from the beginning") with five "guides": Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois, and Angela Davis. He takes us basically through American history, but through the prism of racism. The ignorance is staggering. There were arguments between those who believe in "polygenesis," that is, black people weren't human, and those who believed in "monogenesis," that blacks and whites were both human, but blacks were descendants of Ham, the son of Noah, who was cursed. Its hard to know who was more foolish.

Kendi's definition of racism is "any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way." He calls those who don't believe this antiracists, and they include people like Bill Cosby, who Kendi cites as an assimilationist who denies culture heritage, especially when he made a campaign of believing "he was showing African Americans what was possible if they worked hard enough and stopped their antiracist activism."

I found Kendi's discussion of pop culture most interesting, citing such racist films (in his view) as The Birth of a Nation (no-brainer there), Tarzan, Gone With the Wind, King Kong, and most interestingly to me, Planet of the Apes, which had never occurred to me, but his description of the fear of a black planet makes sense, if you associate with apes with blacks, as many white racists do. "While Tarzan put on America’s screens the racist confidence of conquering the dark world that prevailed in the first half of the twentieth century, Planet of the Apes held up in full color the racist panic during the second half of the twentieth century of the conquered dark world rising up to enslave the White conqueror."

Kendi is not strictly objective, lending support for the idea of Ebonics as a legitimate language, and favoring cultural diversity over assimilation. He finds the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a good thing, but notes "The Civil Rights Act of 1964 managed to bring on racial progress and progression of racism at the same time." He also has some bad things to say about Brown v. Board of Education: (Earl) "Warren essentially offered a racist opinion in this landmark case: separate Black educational facilities were inherently unequal and inferior because Black students were not being exposed to White students."

So you may find yourself angry while reading this book, both at Kendi and at the nincompoops throughout American history. But I suspect more often than not you'll be nodding in agreement. The book ends with Barack Obama president: "Barack Obama presented himself as the embodiment of racial reconciliation and American exceptionalism." I'd hate to think what he's going through now. Perhaps a sequel is in the works.


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