SummaryStamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi provides a history of America’s racist ideas. Organized into five sections, Stamped from the Beginning tells the history of not just Black people in America but also how racist ideologies developed over time. This history is also viewed through the lens of categorizing people, events, and concepts into three positions on a spectrum ranging from racist to anti-racist. Of particular interest are explanations of the nuance of items that fall in the middle.
Concepts and Theories
Stamped from the Beginning is organized into five sections with each part anchored by a key figure from the period. In order, they are Cotton Mathers (Colonial Period), Thomas Jefferson (Revolutionary War), William Lloyd Garrison (Abolitionist and Civil War), W.E.B. DuBois (Post Civil War and Jim Crow), and Angela Davis (Civil Rights Movement to Present). I was familiar with all of the anchors except for Cotton Mathers.
I knew that Stamped from the Beginning was very popular as it was constantly mentioned during the political unrest of 2020. Sometimes I approach popular books with some pessimism as I’ve been disappointed on multiple occasions when books haven’t lived up to the hype. I made it a point to go into Stamped from the Beginning without doing too much digging into the book so I didn’t really have any preconceived expectations.
I waffled a bit while listening to the introductions because I really didn’t know if this was going to be for me. Those apprehensions quickly went away as I listened to Kendi discuss the breakdown of groups in relation to racist ideas. Kendi presents an interesting concept that there are three classifications for people and ideas with regards to racism: segregationist, assimilationist, and anti-racist. People of any racial or ethnic group can fit into any one of those three classifications. It’s not a matter of who you are as a person with regard to your race, gender, etc. but rather your ideology and approach to dealing with racism.
The segregationist is what we would think of as the stereotypical racist. In the present, they might no longer be out in the world calling people the N-word, lighting crosses on fire, etc. Rather they subscribe to the idea that anyone or anything non-White is inferior. And any issues Black people might have in society are a result of being Black as Blackness is a flaw in and of itself.
In the middle, you have the assimilationist who recognizes inequalities and injustice but believes if Black people would just assimilate into whatever the norm is then those problems would go away. They also subscribe to the idea of Black people’s supposed inferiority but believe it’s a condition that can be overcome by Black people adopting the habits, traits, characteristics, culture, etc. of White people. Within both of those ideologies, there’s little to no focus on eradicating the problems. Instead, they both blame Black people for the problems that society’s inequality has created.
At the other end of the spectrum is the anti-racist who recognizes the inequalities and problems in society and realizes that they are caused by societal issues, not the people affected by them. With regards to wealth inequality, mass incarceration, unemployment, and other inequalities that exist between racial groups, the anti-racist sees those things but recognizes those issues as the problem. They do not regard Black people as being inferior but recognize these problems as being the cause of inferior opportunities for Black people. Anti-racists identify and focus on solving the problems that plague Black people rather than seeing Black people as the problem.
During the protests of 2020, there were a lot of conversations about really drawing a line of distinction between not being racist and being anti-racist. This meant differentiating between not personally engaging in racist behaviors or activities and being someone who pushes back against racism. There is a vast difference between the two.
To clarify, Stamped from the Beginning is not a book about racism so it’s not like a history of racist events or on this day in the history of racism. Instead, Kendi reaches back through history to tell the story of how racist ideas have developed over time.
From the books that I’ve read, there’s this often-repeated idea that race was not a concept until colonial times. This is true to a degree with regard to the way that we think about race now. But it gives the false impression that prior to colonial times there were no racial or ethnic groupings. Kendi points out that slavery existed far before then and actually dates back to ancient Greece. The Greeks and Romans considered anyone that was not of their group to be inferior. Over time people have built on these and other early ideas of otherness being indicative of inferiority.
Yet, when we look back at those times, slavery wasn’t necessarily based on race. Europeans had contact with Sub-Saharan Africa during that time but there was still a great degree of ignorance. Over centuries this ignorance was allowed to run wild and different racist ideologies built on each other. Disparaging otherness provided a rationale for enslaving people because supposedly superior groups viewed themselves as having the right to rule over the group deemed inferior. The concept of the “white man’s burden” developed as a means of positioning White people’s oppression of others as ordained by God and their responsibility as the superior race.
As trading in flesh became more profitable, there were shifts in power as some countries rose to prominence based on the revenue slavery generated. Craving riches, Europeans ventured farther away from their countries. Individuals began writing books about some of the places they visited. But some accounts of people in these places were works of fiction masquerading as fact-based accounts. Much of what was being passed along as fact were imagined or embellished accounts created to support a preferred ideology.
They molded religion and other concepts to fit their agenda of supporting their capitalist goals with unpaid slave labor. Under British law, Christians could not be slaves but there was a distinction that slaves could be made Christians. This opened the floodgates for slaves being converted to Christianity as a means of control. They introduced this idea of African slaves being more suitable for harvesting crops in comparison to indigenous people of the Americas. Over the years, different people articulated this flawed idea which resulted in the importation of more African slaves. And the coveting of land led to the decimation of Indigenous people.
Promoting the idea of Black women as being hypersexual aggressive beings was a means of explaining away the reality that White men were the ones pursuing and coercing if not raping these women. They then portrayed Black men as lusting after White women and thus White womanhood as being in need of greater protection compared to other women. This propaganda helped to ensure White men’s continued access to any and all types of women while providing a built-in excuse for violence against men of other races that would remain in place for generations.
Having the status of the mother dictate the status of the child helped continue the racial hierarchy by ensuring that only children born of a White father and mother would reap the benefits of Whiteness. White men could impregnate as many Black women as they wanted but the children would remain in bondage and theoretically not pose a threat to the status of their wives’ children.
There’s a timeline of the history of the development of racist ideas and a key part of that is not just how the concept of racism came about but the definitions of Black and White. Within Africa, there were different ethnic groups but Europeans then came along and created their own classifications to serve their purposes. As a result, the different groups within Africa came to be viewed as “Black”.
Likewise, Europe was a collection of different countries, and within those countries different ethnic groups. For the most part, within Europe, Christians did not enslave other Christians. Originally, the term “Christian” referred to anyone that was a follower of the religion. But over time, the idea developed that slaves could be converted to Christianity so the classification within the context of slavery became muddled and the term “Christian” eventually came to signify Europeans.
The term “White” with regards to people developed through different schools of thought. Philosophers and theologians developed the concept of the color white being the presence of light, clean, unblemished, etc. With all of these positive characteristics being ascribed to the color white, the opposite was ascribed to the color black. And thus developed the concept of using white and black to classify people while ascribing the accompanying traits to the two groups.
We still see this in the present with regards to not just the connotations of words and phrases but imagery and stereotypes. It’s become so deeply ingrained that we don’t even realize that traits associated with Black people are portrayed as unattractive or bad. Blond hair, blue eyes, and white skin are viewed as beautiful while kinky hair, a flatter nose, and dark skin are viewed negatively.
These perceptions were not always in existence but were created to support this broader slave society that was being developed. Up to this point, there was no real unifying concept among the people now described as being “White” and it would actually change and expand over the centuries to follow. Within what we would think of now as “White people” was a division based on landowners, the slaveholding class, the wealthy or at least comfortable versus the landless, non-slaveholding, poor White people.
In the early days of colonial times, society was more firmly divided by class and income. Poor White people were often in closer contact with enslaved and free Black people than they were wealthy White people. In some situations such as Bacon’s Rebellion, they rose up and fought for an increased share of society together as their plight was quite similar. In response, the concept of whiteness was solidified to sow division and avoid having these two factions join together based on their similar economic positions.
The creation of a racial hierarchy did not change the economic circumstances or social standing of poor White people within White society. But it did elevate poor White people over both enslaved and free Black people. Poor White people continued to be poor but with racial privilege and jobs, particularly those related to preserving the racial hierarchy, their attention was diverted from their economic condition to a feeling of racial superiority over Black people. The racial hierarchy diverted attention away from how a relatively small amount of people controlling an outsized proportion of wealth was taking advantage of everyone else.
As the system coalesced over time, laws were created to strip Black people of their rights. And poor White people became complicit in the system in exchange for being placed above all Black people and a chance at elevating themselves financially. If they managed to acquire wealth, they could then gain access to additional privileges which included having the option to also oppress poor White people.
To provide for the elevation of poor White people, property was taken from some Black people and sold off. The proceeds were then distributed among the White poor. Wealthy White people effectively gave up nothing and experienced no change in position. These were early days but we see this trend often throughout American history. There is a pattern of property and other assets being seized from Black people. This also happened at points in the future, particularly with regards to lynching. The resulting financial difficulties faced by Black people would be blamed on Black people.
I don’t think I’d specifically heard of him before but Cotton Mather was a Puritan minister and loomed large during the Salem witch trials. Just about anyone who was perceived as questioning or going outside the norm of the religious doctrine and philosophies of the time was at risk of being condemned as a witch. At first glance, it might seem unrelated to the history of Black people in America but it is very relevant. The discussion of the Salem witch trials shows how people use religion to fit their various philosophies. And also how this idea of being a dutiful servant and being subservient came to be viewed as being in accordance with the will of God.
Women were supposed to submit to men, children were to submit to their parents, and slaves were to submit to their masters. This submission was supposed to be the natural order of things and none were to seek freedom from these obligations. This is one of the first and most thorough examples of religious ideas being manipulated in America to support philosophies that served individual people’s purposes.
Over time, when a White person’s actions or capabilities proved contrary to the traits attributed to Whiteness, the individual would be brushed aside as an outlier or anomaly. When a Black person did something negative it was viewed as in line with Blackness and would be deemed an indictment of all Black people and used to reinforce racist ideas and philosophies. Whereas when Black people showed themselves to possess some attribute or trait attributed to Whiteness, they would be brushed aside as outliers or exceptions.
Revolutionary War Era
We then move on to Thomas Jefferson and the Revolutionary War era where you have these individuals who were considered great thinkers, at least in the western world. It really shows how curated the mainstream version of history is with regard to the information you get about these people.
Thomas Jefferson and many of the others who would come to be referred to as the “Founding Fathers” owned slaves while at the same time advocating for freedom for the colonists. Jefferson put some effort into trying to explain how this young nation that was supposedly being built on freedom and all of these high-minded ideals related to self-determination could then turn around allow one human to own another. That a nation supposedly trying to build itself based on independence and equality could also have its economic foundation be the production and profits of slavery.
I had this goal (though it’s currently on hiatus) of better understanding the development of American policy by reading biographies about the various U.S. presidents (and a few other key figures). I began with George Washington and then proceeded in chronological order. You might assume that these books would be boring but in the right hands, they are filled with all kinds of gossip and tea.
I had previous knowledge about Thomas Jefferson, knew he was a slave owner, and had a sexual relationship with one of the enslaved women he owned. But some of the books that I read about him waffled on these topics, downplaying his role as a slave owner and misleading one to believe that Sally Hemings was some grown woman with whom he had a forbidden romance.
Following the death of his wife, Jefferson began sleeping with Hemings who was technically his sister-in-law as she was his wife’s half-sister and had been inherited by her after their father’s death. Hemings was a toddler when she arrived at Jefferson’s home and was about 14 and Jefferson was in his 40s when he is believed to have begun raping her. And I use the term rape because she was owned by Jefferson and very much underage so could not be said to have willingly given consent. She gave birth to her first of six children sired by Jefferson when she was 16. This was not some great love story.
I’m providing that background not to go off track but rather to provide some context about the moral failings of this hypocritical man. This is the same guy who elsewhere compared the supposed tender and civilized affection of White men to the animalistic aggression of Black men. Jefferson, like many other men of the planter class, was asset rich but cash poor. Living on credit he was quite irresponsible with his money as he was a spendthrift who lived beyond his means.
Reading Stamped from the Beginning really strips away a lot of the falsehoods that comprise the sanitized images of these historical figures. Often it’s like you might get part but not the full story. And because Stamped from the Beginning isn’t a biography of these individuals, it also branches out and discusses other prominent figures of the time. So you get some insight into Thomas Jefferson and his hypocrisy regarding slavery. But you also get some insight into people like Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, etc., and their ideologies related to slavery and Black people.
There’s some discussion about Phyllis Wheatley, a renowned Black poet of the time who caused a panel to be formed to investigate who had written her creations. Black people were viewed as lacking the intelligence required to create art. So while her poems were incredible there was suspicion that they were beyond the capabilities of a Black person.
All types of theories and conspiracies were offered to avoid giving this young woman credit. When that didn’t work she was then regarded as an exceptional outlier while others downplayed her talent. It’s one example of the mental gymnastics that were utilized and the goalpost constantly moving when Black people succeeded despite stereotypes. There’s always some explanation offered typically regarding cheating or some type of a con at play when Black people are excelling in areas in which racist ideologies say they shouldn’t.
There’s another example of a Black Jamaican kid that was sent off to school and college with the sons of White planters as part of an experiment. He proved himself as being just as intelligent and capable as the other young men. Yet his capabilities were also downplayed while these skills or talents would have been heralded in a White young man.
Then there’s the assimilationist explanation that these Black youths had benefited or been civilized by the positive influence of White people. That Wheatley was exceptional because she hadn’t been raised like the typical slave but within a White family that treated her like one of them. At first glance, that might seem like a positive observation but it’s actually racist. The comment that she was talented because she grew up surrounded by White people and in becoming civilized, picked up intelligence and other positive traits from them. It dismisses that Wheatley was naturally talented as were other Black people but he had access to books and the opportunity to learn how to read.
Not only do you have this concept of Black and White races but hierarchies within both groups. In the White race, the hierarchy was certainly based on your socioeconomic status but also the country from which you or your forefathers migrated. Being from a respected family or a family that had been living in America for generations or that was wealthy versus a poor family of recent immigrants. Or being from what was considered a desirable country in Western Europe versus Ireland, Italy, or Eastern Europe.
Yet, even ranking low in the White hierarchy would position an individual above Black people within American society with regards to legal and other rights. With White men claiming Black women to be inferior and their property, they exhibited racist and sexist behavior by coercing and/or raping Black women which resulted in biracial offspring. These children were not offered the same rights as a fully White person. But their proximity to Whiteness granted them a higher social standing in the Black hierarchy and sometimes even privileges such as manumission, property, etc. from White society.
The story of the Revolutionary War is often presented as a fight for independence, the colonies living under British tyranny and wanting to be free. One component was taxation without representation, the colonies grew tired of paying taxes to the British but had comparatively little say with regard to law and policy. It’s regarded as the colonists fighting for the right to self-determination which is true to a degree.
A major factor was commerce and capitalism. The colonists wanted to have more control over the rule of law and to be able to set their own taxes, tariffs, etc. Emphasis is placed on the creation of this democracy and it’s positioned as the desire for the founding fathers to create a country where men could be free. Sort of like a social initiative but capitalism was really the driving force.
When viewed through that lens, it makes it easier to reconcile that this supposedly shining example of democracy would be built on and powered by a foundation of slavery. That these individuals that claimed to be proponents of independence, self-governance, and the pursuit of happiness and all of these other high-minded ideals could turn around and benefit from the enslavement of other human beings.
Kendi points out that the colonists held racist views about Black people and the British were trying to rule over them by taking away their right to self-determination. The colonists viewed themselves as being forced into a type of slavery and it was wrong because it was happening to them. It was wrong because, in their minds, they weren’t Black, and thus they weren’t inferior to the British. The British attempting to subjugate them were taking away their human rights. The British were trying to treat them like Black people and that they could not abide by, thus you have this fight for independence.
During his lifetime, Thomas Jefferson half-heartedly floated ideas about a gradual form of emancipation for the enslaved. A lot of his and other planters’ wealth was directly based on or related to the slave trade. Slavery allowed them to operate plantations and farms without having to pay wages as they would with regular workers. That’s not to say that slavery eliminated all operating expenses but it reduced labor costs. Various racist beliefs were given as to why it would have been difficult to emancipate the slaves. But the chief underlying reason for keeping the enslaved in bondage was not wanting to pay the full cost of labor.
Jefferson and others fell back on racist ideas of Black people being naturally uncivilized and that being under the ownership and thus guidance of White people is what holds them in check. Thus the enslaved could not be freed until something could be worked out. Not just where the enslaved would go or how they would be kept under control but also how the slave masters would be compensated for the loss.
Within a few years after the Revolutionary War, there were quite a few free Black people though they were mostly concentrated in the North as those were the states that first abolished slavery. These numbers would increase in the North though due to the racial hierarchy they still didn’t have the same rights or opportunities as White people. Everything possible was done to treat them as second-class citizens. Free Black people were often prevented from owning property and couldn’t hold office. They were effectively held in check which made it impossible for them to move up.
America was called out by some thought leaders in Britain over the hypocrisy of supposedly fighting for their right to independence while continuing to hold slaves. And free Black people made White slave society very uncomfortable. There were cities and towns in the South that did not allow free Black people. A free Black person could pass through but might not be welcome to settle in the area.
These became the early days of the Back to Africa movement where shipping free Black people back to Africa was proposed. The assimilationist camp fell in line with emancipating Black people but not allowing them to live in America on equal footing with White people. They proposed that with free Black people’s exposure to White people they could go back to Africa and civilize other Black people.
Being exposed to a racist society that teaches one self-hate, some Black people adopted some of this unhealthy mindset and believed these racist ideas. They bought into the idea of them moving back to Africa and now being superior to the Africans that had remained. At that point, there was no real conversation about sending all Black people to Africa but rather just sending the free ones and keeping the enslaved in America.
Part of the growing discomfort with free Black people was the Haitian Revolution and various slave uprisings in America. This in part led to a ban on the import of slaves from Africa. It was believed that these individuals who were fresh from Africa had not been assimilated and it would require a lot more effort and energy to get and keep them under control. In contrast, allowing the population already in America to reproduce would theoretically normalize the experience of being enslaved as parents indoctrinated their children causing the natural desire for freedom to dissipate.
Great deals of money could also be made because importing slaves requires paying for them and that includes the costs and risks associated with their capture and transport. A slave that was already in America would only need to be purchased once and if the person was a woman, she might produce children which are additional slaves that you didn’t have to pay for directly. A slave master could expand the number of slaves owned, choosing who to keep and selling the surplus for profit. It sounds incredibly callous to speak about human beings in this way but it’s important to stress that they were viewed as products.
Another idea that began to take shape around this time was “upliftism”. As with other theories, it’s changed and evolved over time and is called something different now. Consider the concept of respectability politics. The idea is that if a Black person carries themselves as being a respectable and upstanding lady or gentleman, then they will be respected by White people and treated like human beings. Upliftism was much the same as it called on Black people to become pillars of society and positive examples of being upstanding citizens which would supposedly lead to their eventual acceptance into general society.
People, in general, should be decent regardless of race, income level, etc. because it helps society to function better. But you shouldn’t have to be a perfect person to be treated like a human being. Just because someone doesn’t fall in line with your cultural beliefs and traditions doesn’t mean that they deserve to be mistreated. Neither is it acceptable to mistreat someone because they aren’t an extraordinary Negro or a shining example of Blackness. It calls on the person potentially being mistreated to change their behavior to stop the mistreatment rather than calling on the person exhibiting bad behavior to stop.
Kendi shows how with assimilationism instead of you attacking the system and ideology that create these unfair conditions, you instead attack the victim and call on them to change. This becomes even more clear as the time shifts towards abolitionism. Abolitionists supported Black people being freed from slavery but digging into the ideologies of even some of the most well-known abolitionists, their philosophies included a bit of racism. They might have believed that slavery was wrong but they also bought into the idea of Black people being inferior.
This is why acknowledging a middle ground between being segregationist and anti-racist is important. It’s also worth noting that an individual’s classification should be based on their beliefs and actions rather than their race or ethnic group. There are examples throughout Stamped from the Beginning that not just White people fit into the three categories. Throughout the historical examples, few Black people fit into the segregationist group but quite a few fit into the assimilationist group.
The assimilationist idea shifted focus from Black people being enslaved in America versus free in Africa to being enslaved versus free in America. Theoretically, It was in the slave master’s best interest to give the enslaved at least enough food, shelter, and clothing to keep them alive. Not all slave masters saw things that way and even with just enough of everything you still weren’t free and likely didn’t have the best quality of life.
Black people who were free at this time had very limited rights and much of society was structured to keep them from becoming successful. Being free and completely on their own meant that some Black people would struggle. If you have limited access to getting an education or jobs and can’t vote in your interest, it’s going to be very difficult for you to be successful. Despite the proclamations of White people being superior, there was still a mass of White people who were also poor and struggling. Nobody was suggesting that they’d be better off as slaves. Yet there was this ridiculous comparison between being a slave or struggling as a free Black person.
There’s mention of a researcher (I don’t remember his name) who supposedly looked through census data. At this time the majority of free Black people in America were living in the North. He found that there was a greater rate of people deemed insane within that population than in comparison to the South where the majority of Black people were enslaved. According to him, this meant that being free versus enslaved, negatively impacted the mental faculties and capabilities of Black people. It was one in a series of junk research studies that would be used to support racist theories about Black people. Digging more deeply into the research other less biased researchers found the data used in the study to be flawed as were the conclusions that had been drawn. Unfortunately, lies often spread far more quickly and widely than the truth that comes after.
Abolitionist to Post-Civil War Era
Kendi’s choice of anchors for the sections of Stamped from the Beginning is quite interesting and he makes some good points with regard to his rationale. Using Frederick Douglass during the abolitionist period would seem the obvious choice and would have offered one perspective. But selecting William Lloyd Garrison as anchor provided a different and unexpected look at the abolitionist movement. Moving through the eras we start with segregationists move on to assimilationists and end in the present with an anti-racist. There is a vein that runs through all of these periods but centering the sections on the unexpected perspective presents an opportunity for deeper exploration of ideas and how they’ve developed over time.
Garrison might have been well-intentioned but his activism was paternalistic as was the activism of many others within the abolitionist movement. There are bits and pieces but this vibe becomes very clear once we get to the point where Douglass is introduced. Up to that point it had been White abolitionists speaking about their thoughts and philosophies. But Douglass working up the courage to step forward and share his experience at an abolitionist meeting was a turning point. Conversation on the topic of slavery had largely taken place between White people, slaveholders and abolitionists.
That’s not to say that free Black people up to that point hadn’t offered commentary. But rather that much of the conversation had been dominated by White people of either view speaking about how they thought slavery was experienced by Black people. Southerners had been promoting this idea of the enslaved being happy; enjoying and benefitting from the experience of slavery. And while White abolitionists could surmise this might not have been the case they couldn’t speak from personal experience. Douglass became one of the first Black enslaved persons to speak about their personal experience within the institution. Well-meaning people could assume and sympathize but the first-hand experience though specific to an individual was far more insightful.
While the abolitionists believed enslaved Black people should be free, not all of them supported freedom obtained through any and all means such as slaves revolting. When slave rebellions erupted in the early half of the 1800s, some were just as shocked as their slaveholding counterparts and regarded the aggression as barbarism. In time, attempts were made to tell Douglas how to speak, what to say, and otherwise, which aspects of his story were relevant or unacceptable for sharing.
We also saw these attempts to control Black people’s pushes for justice during the Civil Rights Movement and riots and protests in the years since. This idea of policing and tempering Black people’s response to injustice goes back to the 1800s if not earlier. There’s a consistent expectation, demand actually, for Black people to not react angrily to injustices committed against us. Black people are denigrated for not immediately turning the other cheek but are heralded for forgiving their trespassers. This approach excuses and allows people to continue the mistreatment while putting the onus of change on Black people.
When Black people directly call out injustice and push back not even necessarily violently, some regard it as being too aggressive. In the 1800s, enslaved people who had been largely deprived of educations and thus could not fight injustice with speeches and literature picked up whatever other weapons they could to secure their freedom. A century-plus later when Black people were being attacked during protest marches and children were being killed in churches, calls for armed Black self-defense and Black pride were deemed too drastic.
There’s this constant refrain that it’s okay for Black people to fight for freedom but only within this very prescribed way that causes no discomfort. It calls for Black people to put the feelings of segregationists and assimilationists before our very humanity. The message that’s conveyed is that it’s ok to share your feelings in response to injustice as long as it doesn’t upset or offend anyone.
Reviewing the history of Black people in America through the filter of these three categories causes you to look more deeply and ask more questions. It opened up my mind to really reconsider things and look at them in a new light. I had to question myself at some points with regard to the things that I believe or ideas that I might otherwise allow to slide. At first glance, some of the ideas shared seem rather progressive until you dig more deeply and realize they’re actually quite racist.
There’s this repeated idea here in Stamped from the Beginning and elsewhere that Black people needed to be enslaved because they’re lazy, criminally inclined, oversexed, etc. But the reality is pointed out that the people holding them in bondage were lazy because they weren’t doing any work, they were just passing orders. They obtained slaves so that they wouldn’t have to be the ones toiling away on plantations or in factories. Enslaved people being criminals is also a lie because you’re essentially stealing labor from them to build your wealth. Whatever revenue, profit, etc. generated from their work is funding your lifestyle and they share in a minuscule portion of those funds. Black men and women are supposedly lacking self-control with regards to sex but they’re not the ones raping Black women. It’s hypocrisy because all of these character traits that they condemn the enslaved for supposedly embodying are found within them.
With the Civil War, because the Union won, they tell the story and President Abraham Lincoln becomes “The Great Emancipator” while the war itself is transformed into having been fought to free the slaves. The North is portrayed as the region of anti-slavery, anti-racism, etc. a very progressive and egalitarian place built on equality. That image would persist through and beyond the Civil Rights Movement especially as the South would respond to calls for change with relatively more blatant violence than other parts of the country. But the reality is that the methodology might have been different but the ideology between regions was not quite so far apart.
Slavery had mostly ended in the North by the early 1800s, only about 50 or so years before the Civil War. But the reality is that the North continued to profit from slavery in the South. Northern banks provided funding for Southern planters and institutions. Raw goods such as cotton were produced by slave labor in the South but the majority of factories and mills were in the North. These distinctions aren’t intended to present the South as unjustly maligned but rather to show that both the North and South were complicit in the horror of slavery.v
The accurate and balanced reality is that America as a whole was hell for Black people but the temperature varied in different areas of the country. Quite a bit of people in the North didn’t believe that Black people should be held in bondage but that doesn’t mean they weren’t believers in the idea of Black inferiority. Riots started by White people had been occurring in the North dating to way back when in response to Black progress, the Civil War draft, and even in the years leading up to the Civil Rights Movement.
Kendi does a really great job of breaking down how popular culture now tells the story of the Civil War as it tells the story of the Revolutionary War. Two moral and just fights for humanity, when the reality is that when you dig deep they were both motivated by capitalism. With the Civil War, it was a battle for political control of America not to necessarily curtail the spread of slavery on moral grounds but for economic and political reasons. To allow the then non-slaveholding states to avoid having their representation in the federal government be rendered ineffective as a result of the number of slaveholding state states increasing.
Lincoln nor his parents were slaveholders but this was most likely because they were poor. He held racist views and was of the belief that Black people were inferior to White people. Lincoln was wishy-washy on the subject of abolition prior to the Civil War. But he entertained the idea of sending Black people back to Africa free and/or enslaved as well as gradual emancipation with restitution paid to slaveholders.
The question of emancipation was being kicked around dating back to the time when the Constitution was being created. But sensing the potential uproar, politicians had been kicking that can down the years and creating compromises and agreements in attempts to delay the inevitable that it would need to be addressed.
When things came to a head and states began seceding the North responded in part because of economic interests. Banking was based in the North and banks had provided financing for Southern planters, industry, and expansion. The South had financial obligations to the North and was in a sense trying to run away with the bag. Seceding from the Union was effectively like taking out a loan and then trying to leave the country. As a result, there were political and financial motives to bring the secessionist states back into the fold and obtain restitution from them.
Likewise much is made of the Emancipation Proclamation but the reality is that the slaves were emancipated specifically in the secessionist states and only as a strategic measure. Enslaved people continued to be a valuable resource for the South even during the war. Their labor helped to produce food, make munitions, and otherwise provide support for the war effort enabling the Confederates to keep fighting. By emancipating even only on paper, it provided a pathway to eliminate one of the Confederacy’s greatest resources. The Union had no real authority to free slaves behind Confederate lines but they could encourage the enslaved to flee with the promise of freedom. And once behind Union lines they were either neutralized or would become potential resources for the Union Army.
I appreciated that Kendi didn’t just discuss the development of racist ideas with regards to Black people as a whole. He also explored the intersection of racism towards Black people and sexism towards women. How those two converged into racist sexism and specifically how these ideologies affected Black women and less expectedly, Black men as well.
Within America, the definitions of manhood and masculinity are based on White men. For the most part, White men were free to run amok with the options to control and subjugate everyone else. Thus a man controlling and subjugating those around him became the definition of manhood in general. The idea developed that by being held in bondage, Black men were being subjugated due to their race because they weren’t being allowed the full expression of their humanity. Their manhood was also believed to be compromised because their wives and children were not under their full control due to them being owned by slave masters.
There were early signs during the abolitionist period that there would be an expectation that with emancipation, Black women would basically adopt the role White women were depicted as playing in White society. That Black women would play the subservient role when Black men were finally allowed to fully dominate their homes. This was despite Black women’s condition and experiences being different from that of White women. And being negatively impacted by slavery like Black men. Yet, there was an expectation for Black women to be submissive to Black men as a means of rebuilding the Black male ego.
Within White society at that time, White women for the most part remained in the home and were not very active in public life. They were expected to not speak or advocate for themselves publicly. Assimilationism saw the adoption of these social practices as being part of the anticipated changes that would occur after abolition. Up to this point, Black women in America had been wives and mothers in the most trying conditions but also workers and otherwise playing an active role in Black society and public life. So after achieving freedom from White oppression, Black women would be expected to continue to be oppressed but now completely by Black men.
There’s a breakdown of a meeting between an officer and leaders of the Black community in I think Savannah, Georgia. The Black people explained that they saw a difference between being emancipated as in no longer being enslaved versus truly being free. They recognized the need for economic independence. The economy was still very agrarian so they knew they would need land that they could work for themselves instead of having to return to work for their old masters. Without economic independence, they wouldn’t truly be free.
In the North, there was a fear that newly freed Black people would move to the North from the South and become a problem as they tried to take over. But these fears were unfounded as Black people in the South weren’t planning to move into White communities en masse to take over White society. They wanted a share in the country’s political power but were otherwise fine with creating their own communities and having land that they could work for themselves.
Many were more focused on getting their post-slavery lives in order rather than pushing for integration. It was an interesting insight because it really helped to sum up and answer the integration question that flows throughout much of the more recent history of Black people in America. There has been this continued idea where racist people are absolved from the responsibility of eradicating their racist views. Instead, the conversation skirts around what they need to do and instead focuses on what Black people need to do to make people understand that they’re racist and become motivated to be less racist.
The federal government had started selling confiscated and abandoned Southern land to private owners in 1863. More than 90% had gone to Northern White people (carpetbaggers) over the widespread protests of local Black people. Yet, there was this fear in the North of Black people relocating and taking over Northern cities. Northerners come in and took over land that should have gone to the enslaved because they’d been working the land for generations and hadn’t been paid. They deserved some kind of restitution and it would have increased their likelihood of being on solid financial in the future.
There are different anecdotes from the time some of which show the perils of Black people growing up in a racist society and internalizing some of those beliefs. When it was nearing the end of the war and Black people wanted to form their own communities, under their own guidance, independently from White people, Douglass pushed back against this plan. He felt that the newly freed should live in integrated communities and have contact with White people so they could offer guidance as Black people emerged from slavery.
It was around this time that public schools and colleges were being established to educate the newly freed. I had previous knowledge of why the historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) were formed but excluding Tuskegee, I didn’t know the theory behind the difference in their developments. A good amount of the HBCUs received contributions from the newly freed, philanthropists, and people from the North. A lot of people also came from the North into the South to work as teachers and help educate the population. But the North still wasn’t a panacea of equality and people had different motivations for coming to the South. Some held prejudiced views based on beliefs of Black inferiority.
And unfortunately, variations of these beliefs also existed within the Black community. The racial hierarchy that had begun during slavery extended to the HBCUs. Some schools developed their curriculum based on the rubric of the Northeast which followed the classic European educational model and then others taught trades. Kendi points out that both models are arguably racist. Both were intended to educate Black people but there were limitations because of how the schools were being formed and who they admitted.
Typically, the schools that used the classic education model didn’t admit dark-skinned students. They were intended as schools for biracial individuals with the assumption that they would automatically become leaders within the Black community. By default, dark-skinned students were guided and often limited to the schools that focused on trades. It’s a positive that Black people had more opportunities for the possibility of obtaining an education but because of the foundation on which it was built, the education system for Black people was inherently flawed.
After Reconstruction, there were different factions fighting for voting rights. On one side, you had Black people (which includes Black men and women) fighting for voting rights which would have only applied to Black men as women couldn’t vote. On the other side, you had the early period of women’s suffrage (which included both Black and White women) fighting for voting rights that in some parts of the country would have excluded Black women because of their race.
If both groups didn’t get the vote at the same time, Black women would continue to be excluded from voting rights. Intersectional voting rights were needed but instead, things devolved into everyone looking out for their own interests. Adding insult to injury, there was a willingness to denigrate and repeat negative stereotypes about other groups in an effort to explain why they were unfit to receive voting rights.
The logical choice would have been to all join together and create a mighty force for everyone to get voting rights at the same time, you instead got factions. It’s another example from Kendi that really drives home the point of oppressed people choosing not to fight against overall prejudice and discrimination. Instead, they opt to adopt biased beliefs and integrate into the flawed system instead of questioning how things are and pushing for an overhaul of the system. Instead of fighting to get rid of inequality, they end up pushing for access to the privileges of the people that are taking advantage of everyone else. What they’re calling equality is really a privilege.
What I’ve learned from reading about history is that it’s usually a bad idea to pick and choose for certain groups to get rights while limiting the rights of others. If you tolerate someone else being discriminated against today in exchange for acceptance and privilege, you put yourself at risk of also being discriminated against tomorrow. The solution can’t be to look out for me and mine while being willing to kick you and yours further down. It should be that we all join together and push for reform at the same time. It has to be equality for all rather than for some because you’ll end up with privilege for some and disadvantages for everyone else.v
Reconstruction to Civil Rights Movement
The period following Reconstruction through the early Civil Rights Movement is anchored by W.E.B. DuBois. He was a really great selection to cover that time and is actually Stamped from the Beginning’s first Black anchor. Du Bois being Black offers a different perspective as he is on the receiving end of discrimination. We read of his early experiences as a child coming to the realization that his race is different from the other people around him which will lead to him being viewed and treated differently. Those early experiences combined with a drive to please his mother led to him initially following the theory of upliftism where he has to be a perfect shining example of Blackness.
As with the others, we get some insight into his early life and development. We come to understand how being raised in uncomfortable circumstances created a strong drive to succeed and make his mother proud in return for her having sacrificed so much. I never realized that DuBois lived such a long life, his life spanned from shortly after the Civil War to the early 1960s resulting in him living through quite a number of momentous events.
There was no room for him being human or flawed, just going through life being a regular person and doing things in pursuit of his own happiness. Instead, there was pressure to be an example that refutes the racist expectations that America has for Black people. In pursuit of higher education, DuBois passed through Fisk and Harvard internalizing these assimilationist ideas along the way.
Racism was raging in the South as efforts were made to keep Black people in a forced position of inferiority where they could be exploited for labor. A system of black codes and Jim Crow was combined with racial terrorism in the form of lynchings to push Black people into what was essentially a second slavery. So there was state-sanctioned discrimination against Black people as well as terrorist groups targeting Black people who are perceived as making too much progress or pushing for change.
DuBois sympathized with Black people in the South who were dealing with the hell of lynching. But having attended these prestigious institutions he picked up a lot of negative ideas about Black people. He subscribed to the idea of upliftism but getting out and observing the real world ensured that his perspective and philosophy would change.
At this point, it was near the end of Frederick Douglass’ life but (my shero) Ida B. Wells and Booker T. Washington were very active during this period. As Kendi points out, Wells probably would have been the best leader for the time. That’s not to say that she wasn’t flawed or didn’t go through a period of self-development to cultivate an anti-racist ideology. But that once she arrived there, Wells would have been the fittest person to occupy a leadership position within the Black community. In general society, her gender held her back while her gender held her back within the Black community.
We end up with DuBois who though well-intentioned had these assimilationist ideas. With DuBois we get a chance to see his journey towards having an awakening. There’s a breakdown of the Soul of Black Folks and the idea of the “Talented 10th” as well as other ideologies which Kendi regards as an apologists’ way of being Black.
Moving towards the other end of the spectrum somewhere between assimilationist and segregationist would be Washington. Publicly he co-signed and made concessions to the segregationists but also promoted some assimilationist ideas. Privately he made strides and supported causes that ran counter to what he was saying and doing publicly. The more I learn about Washington, the more complex he seems.
I always find it crazy when you read history books or watch documentaries and hear racist comments that people made in the past. That’s not to say that people now are any less racist but because it was socially acceptable to be blatantly racist back then, people would utter absolute nonsense. Throughout Stamped from the Beginning, there were a variety of quotes from various presidents openly sharing their racist views. For example, there is discussion of President Theodore Roosevelt commenting on a racially motivated incident in Brownsville, Texas. Misinformed about the situation, he simply parrots ridiculous notions about the reason for the lynching of Black people in the South.
Through the years there are examples of propaganda related to Black people. And by the early 1900s this expanded to a non-factual retelling of history that included slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. People wrote fictional accounts that played into what others wanted to believe, providing support for their racist ideas. They would take that fiction and knowingly use it as a basis for relaying history in an inaccurate manner.
Telling the truth about what occurred during these earlier periods would explain a lot about the conditions that Black people were facing. Providing the real history would contradict the points these authors were trying to make, showing the folly of their beliefs. This continued the trend of recasting slavery as a paternalistic institution that benefited slaves where they were happy in bondage and struggled or devolved into a life of crime with freedom. In telling history, Black people were either left out or their roles were re-imagined to present them as happy-go-lucky slaves or savage brutes depending on the intent of the story.
White people engaged in slavery are portrayed as taking care of Black people while little is said about their inhumanity and depravity. After the Civil War, the Confederates are now presented as fighting for states’ rights and the freedom to preserve their traditions and way of life. The rise of terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the introduction of black codes and Jim Crow are presented as the South taking a stand against overreaching Northerners and out-of-control Black people.
It helps to explain how we’ve ended up with this warped public knowledge of history in the present. Black Americans built this country through centuries of being America’s unpaid workforce. They suffered generations of degradation, multi-faceted trauma, and economic abuse. And that’s in addition to a lack of comparable property ownership, education disparities, health issues, and a variety of other problems. All of those factors combined to create a wealth gap that has only gotten larger over the years. In this fictionalized retelling of history, the issues faced by Black people are boiled down and simplified to Black pathology.
But by this point in Stamped from the Beginning, it’s clear that Black Americans are not lazy, they built this country and simply no longer want to be exploited. And this is after performing unpaid physical labor, building this country, and generating wealth for other people. When the formerly enslaved and their descendants asked for their fair share in the form of restitution, they were called lazy and accused of looking for handouts. Slave masters and traders had become wealthy through slavery and generations later people were still directly living off of this money or otherwise benefitting from the resources it made possible.
While this battle for the telling of history and control over public opinion would be fought in different areas of society, literature ended up being a more powerful weapon than scholarly books and articles. The books that serve to dismantle the fallacies of racist ideas and ideologies were mostly ignored or their rational arguments were talked down upon or spoken around.
As someone that reads a lot of books and watches a lot of movies, I enjoyed Kendi’s breakdown of the racist or progressive undertones of specific books and movies. With blatantly racist books or movies you have an idea of what to expect. But, the author also breaks down some classic abolitionist titles that because of their assimilation nature contain quite a bit of low-key racist ideology. It really helps to drive home the point that because this deceptively milder form of racism isn’t so in your face, it’s easier to overlook and thus quite dangerous.
The contrast between the NAACP and Marcus Garvey showed that Black people and organizations can vary with regard to their approach to racism and their position on the spectrum. Both the NAACP and Marcus Garvey were well-intentioned but neither was perfect. We see how Garvey was an early anti-racist who took pride in being Black rather than aspiring to perceived whiteness. Some people wanted to preserve, enjoy, and celebrate their culture and thus saw nothing wrong with being Black.
They liked and were perfectly content to live and be amongst Black people. But because so much of the foundation of society is built on the belief in Black inferiority and White superiority, anything that counters that is viewed as suspicious. This is how the concept of things like reverse racism comes about.
Part of this is because so much of White culture throughout history, especially in America, has been based on not so much pride in one’s culture but rather its assumed superiority to other people and their cultures. When Black people celebrate themselves rather than White culture, it’s assumed that they’re also viewing themselves through this lens of superiority to others. It’s much the same as when people hear the term “Black Power” and assume the same connotations as “White Power” when really it’s a call for Black self-determination rather than Black domination.
We see this constantly when an art form is decidedly Black such as music that is created from the Black experience. Genres such as ragtime, blues, jazz, rock and roll, etc. were viewed as inferior or negative when they were still predominantly performed by Black musicians. But when they were adopted and performed by White artists, they were then reframed as being more artistic and creatively complex. There’s also a comparison made about how ballet is elevated but typical Black dancing is denigrated.
The Birth of a Nation is obvious nonsense but at the time of their release a person might have been less likely to pick up on its relation to King Kong and Tarzan. With Tarzan here’s this White man, who is taken and transported to Africa set down amongst apes and manages to thrive and eventually rules over the Black people. He then rejoins White society and has no major issues functioning there. It presents the underlying idea that a White person taken and put into any environment will not just thrive but rule. It’s implied without saying that the same is not true for Black people. The 1933 version of King Kong presented the giant ape as being from an island in the Indian Ocean. But its racist undertones seemed to imply that he was a metaphor for Black men. King Kong is brought to New York City where he escapes and begins terrorizing White society while running after a White woman.
At that point, people still felt comfortable being more blatantly racist. But as we move more towards modern times, racism becomes more subtle. The racist undertones are still there but it’s conveyed in such a way that provides some cover from criticism.
I’ve recently read a few books about American housing, banking, and other economic policies as they relate to Black people. Here we see President Franklin Roosevelt’s housing policies during the Great Depression and how they would result in redlining, underdevelopment, and instability in predominantly Black neighborhoods. While Truman was in office he pushed through some fairly progressive laws and programs such as the GI Bill.
The GI Bill would help to expand the White middle class by enabling returning veterans to purchase homes and attend college. But unfortunately, stipulations prevented a comparable amount of Black veterans from reaping the same benefits. Overcrowding and maintenance limitations along with unfairly low property valuations would continue to be an issue in Black communities. But decades later with the influx of gentrification, these neighborhoods would become prime real estate while long-time Black residents would be pushed out.
Under Jim Crow, the facilities and resources provided for the use of Black and White people were supposed to be separate but equal. This was certainly not the case in the real world. With the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the maintenance of segregated public schools was struck down as being unconstitutional regardless of if the facilities were equal.
A lot of these solutions that were implemented during the Civil Rights Movement didn’t focus on addressing the economic disparities that had been built into the system. Instead of addressing the lack of resources at Black schools, the focus was instead placed on integrating schools. The solution was to take Black students and send them to White schools but not the reverse. Black schools were severely underfunded and under-resourced so nobody was going to advocate for White students being sent to those schools.
Within the early Civil Rights Movement, a lot of the participants were members of the Black middle and upper class. They were certainly standing up for their rights but also arguably at least in part, for access to White spaces and acceptance into White society. These are the campaigns that are more prominently featured in the telling of this period’s history. But individuals and organizations that were more focused on anti-racism and economic empowerment rather than social segregation were denigrated.
Truman as the post-war president made some early forays into desegregation. Yet, because Eisenhower saw societal inequalities as not being government or institutional problems he absolved the federal government from responsibility for fixing these issues. With JFK there was initially an attempt to stay away from civil rights. Yet, as with Lincoln, JFK’s assassination led to a legacy of staunch support for civil rights being crafted around him. Much of what came about was a matter of politicians focusing on optics, what would look best versus what would have the most impact.
There had been multiple campaigns and initiatives in the years between the end of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. But it seems like things came together and kicked into overdrive in the 1950s. The government also started to get on board with the Civil Rights Movement though it was mostly for politicians’ own ulterior motives rather than any real concern for Black people.
In the period after World War II, America emerged as a new world superpower because most of the other key players were located in Europe and were preoccupied with rebuilding their countries and economies. It looks terrible for you to be a superpower, attempting to police other countries elsewhere while having all of this drama within your own borders.
Up to this point, the political system in the South that had been created through Jim Crow made it incredibly important to appease Southern politicians. As the federal government began pushing through legislation to address some of these issues, it broke the segregationist South’s political stranglehold by finally providing support for Black voting rights. And with that, the North once again kicked into overdrive with its assimilationist ideologies.
The Civil Rights Movement wasn’t perfect and we can argue about the effectiveness but some smart decisions were made with regards to optics. Realizing that America was trying to rebrand itself as the leader of the free world and an example of democracy, it was a smart decision to put America’s racism on full display for the world to see. Protesters peacefully marching, sitting at lunch counters, or taking some other nonviolent action while being harassed by rabid racists, was a powerful image.
Unlike in earlier years when people could lie about events such as lynchings, images and even video were now widely available. Previously there were movies and radio but now people could see this imagery at home, every night on the news. These images of citizens being viciously attacked were being put on display and broadcast around the world. It made America appear hypocritical and was damaging the country’s new image.
When we look back at the Civil Rights Movement, a lot of the activists were figuring things out on the fly. It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback and see the flaws, problems, and shortcomings of their strategies now. But they probably did the best that they could at that time. Growing up within the racist Jim Crow society, many adopted an assimilationist philosophy that if they could just reach out and educate racists then their problems would go away.
Equality was viewed as becoming a full member of society rather than realizing that the society itself was unequal. This resulted in too much focus on trying to get acceptance into society as it was rather than trying to overhaul society and push it to progress and improve. It’s like having a house built on a wonky foundation and you just keep patching the problems within the house without addressing the foundation itself.
That’s why in the present we’re still dealing with so many of the problems that the Civil Rights Movement was supposed to address. Progress was and is regarded as being able to go to formerly all-White schools, join organizations, and get jobs at particular companies. But the goal should have been for everyone and anyone to be able to get a quality education, equal access to opportunities, and equal protection under the law rather than token access to White institutions.
Something that I noticed throughout Stamped from the Beginning and particularly with DuBois and later Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the importance of keeping your mind open. Constantly learning and growing by questioning your thought processes. Both men started out as assimilationists but over time they had experiences that disproved their early theories. They evolved over time and moved from being assimilationist to being more anti-racist.
It was interesting to see that juxtaposed against figures like Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, and the Black Power movement. How an activist or organization is covered in the media can vary depending on whether their ideology is aligned with the perspective that the mainstream media is taking. As with science and research, journalism is supposed to be objective but people still add their own two cents which affect the manner in which they write reports.
There is some insight into how political figures and machinations behind the scenes contributed to the development of equality and civil rights legislation. How laws would be written in a manner to enforce and deliver on some promises of rights while others would be crafted with so many loopholes that they would be rendered pretty much useless. On paper, at least, it looks like so much progress has been made but it’s pointed out that for the majority of Black people in America, life hasn’t changed in much of a substantial way. Poverty is still a problem. Discrimination is still a problem. Lack of access to quality education is still a problem. And thus opportunities for progress remain hard to come by.
Black Power Movement to Present
Angela Davis serves as Stamped from the Beginning’s last and only female anchor, covering the period from the late Civil Rights Movement / Black Power Movement to the present. In the middle of the 60s, the Civil Rights Movement took a turn as uprisings in the form of riots began to occur in major cities across the country. Throughout American history, there has been an assimilationist push for protests in certain forums on a specific timeline. Not pushing too hard or going too fast.
Society had worked to keep lower-income people silent and as the Movement gave way to these very people, it was viewed as unacceptable. The upper and middle class were pushing for full citizenship while those with lower incomes were pushing for basic resources and economic fundamentals. These more aggressive methods of pushing for rights made the media and general public more uncomfortable as these campaigns were organized and fully controlled by Black people. Some of the early Movements were, if not completely, then at least in part organized and controlled by White people.
In response to all of these varied progressive movements, came the rise of the law and order ideology. With that, any kind of progressivism or protest that went against the norm, whether violent or non-violent, was deemed as being a problem. If you think about it, up to that point and even coming to the present, these movements are a threat to the American way of doing things. They are a threat to the very bedrock of America’s identity as a White male heteronormative society.
Anything that threatens to change that structure is viewed as being un-American and must be stopped. This is along the lines of what happened after the end of the Civil War. In response to calls for change, segregationists (racists) implemented new policies to neutralize progressive changes.
Stamped from the Beginning goes deep but also wide at points so there is a discussion of racism in general but also how racism cuts across gender and sexuality. I was initially taken aback when Kendi began discussing Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver. I try to be open-minded about books but I thoroughly hate that book with a passion. It is one of the few books that I’ve ever sat down to read and found absolutely disgusting to the point that I was unable to get through.
Cleaver expressed his convoluted and incredibly sexist ideology of having raped Black women as a trial run for his true aim of raping White women as an attack on the White establishment. Despite the content, I know a lot of people regard Soul on Ice as a classic and have deep respect for Eldridge Cleaver. So when Kendi began speaking about Cleaver, I was like, here we go. But I was surprised that Kendi spoke about not just Cleaver but also the Black Power movement and sexism as it relates to both.
Even here within these movements against racism, there were factors that perpetuated racist ideas. Within this call for Black Power, meaning Black self-determination, there were factors that aimed to continue the oppression of Black women in efforts to stroke the Black male ego.
Government studies launched the discussion about the decline/collapse of the Black family. It’s another one of these situations where at first glance the research seems scientific and unbiased. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with having a two-parent family. But deeming a household as dysfunctional and the cause of the family falling apart because it is headed by a Black woman or where the Black man and Black woman stand on equal footing is sexist. Viewing a household in which the Black man is not the head of the household and breadwinner as the family automatically being deficient is problematic. These assumptions are sexist because it plays into the idea as with racism that any situation that doesn’t have the preferred race or gender in the elevated superior position as being wrong. It perpetuates the idea that one group of people based on race or gender is naturally superior and has the right to rule over the other.
The sexual revolution and feminist movements were also taking place around this time. As in the past, it renewed the conflict of whether Black men or Women, in general, are more oppressed, with the intersection of Black women once again being left by the wayside. A key difference was that this time around there was seemingly more tension between Black men and Black women.
The Moynihan Report was supposed to focus on Black poverty, answering questions, and providing solutions. What was causing poverty was institutional racism and lack of access to resources and opportunities. Rising tensions and mounting frustrations led to people responding by rioting. The solution should have been more access to resources and assistance for these people who were struggling and felt hopeless and ignored. But because these answers and solutions weren’t what politicians wanted, the response was continued neglect combined with aggressive policing.
Black people were struggling in slightly different ways around the country but struggling all the same due to a society that was built on keeping Black people oppressed. Better schools, housing, jobs, access to health care, and whatever other forms of assistance were needed. And because the government had played a role in creating this structure, the government should have played a role in fixing the problems it had caused. But because such programs would be costly and weren’t in line with what was politically or personally rewarding for politicians, they changed the focus of the conversation.
One recommendation for avoiding future riots was diversifying the police force, having a greater representation of the people from the community in the police force. But instead, local police forces across the country were militarized. Solutions to a lot of America’s social issues are regarded as being too expensive or unfeasible. Yet, the government somehow managed to find money to fight the Korean War, Vietnam War, support the militarization of the police, and expand the prison system.
With the introduction of “law and order” policies during the Nixon administration and the “war on drugs” during the Raegan years Black people, especially young Black men were pushed into a sort of third slavery. This time they were imprisoned for lengthy terms and emerged to be stripped of their voting and many other rights as citizens.
As Stamped from the Beginning gets closer to the present, it touches on more recent current events. The O.J. Simpson trial, Bill Cosby and his infamous pound cake speech, Hurricane Katrina, etc. At this point it felt like Stamped from the Beginning was going quite fast and a lot of things were condensed into this period. But as I was alive for some of this stuff or have heard about it since, I was fine with the pace.
Stamped from the Beginning was enjoyable (or more accurately informative) from start to finish so I can’t point to one particular part of Stamped from the Beginning that was better than the others. It was just a really great cohesive, comprehensive, chronological history of the development of racist ideas in America. I regard Stamped from the Beginning as being a modern classic that is long but definitely worth reading. I’m comfortable deeming it one of the best non-fiction books that I’ve ever read about Black history or the Black experience. I plan to check out Kendi’s other books and hope that he releases more titles in the near future. I would love to read something like this from Kendi (or another equally talented author) about other parts of the Black diaspora.
Shop on Amazon
- Before the Mayflower [Book Review]
- Many Rivers To Cross [Movie Review]
- Black Fortunes [Book Review]
- Medical Apartheid [Book Review]
Disclosure: Noire Histoir is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for the website to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Noire Histoir will receive commissions for purchases made via any Amazon Affiliate links above.