Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which won this year's National Book Award for nonfiction, is an altogether remarkable thesis on history, but, in ways that are both moving and immediately painful, it also reverberates with the post-election autopsy we're all conducting right now. Kendi is reading Thursday, December 1, at University Book Store.
Donald Trump just hired a neo-Nazi, Jim Crow Paleo-conservative as his right-hand man, and he's stuffing his staff with a slew of violent nativists. Meanwhile, countless numbers of white liberals are venting their spleen with theories that the left will gain traction when all the outsiders pipe down about "identity politics" (I'm looking at you, Mark Lilla) and plead their humanity, pre-civil-rights style, to the masses who elected a monster (I'm looking at you, Jonathan Pie).
Now when I come across a breathless sentence from a populist liberal arguing that the fearful masses voted for the most frightening tyrant this nation has ever seen because a handful of students and activists on social media hurt their feelings, this quote from Stamped from the Beginning comes to my head:
"Uplift suasion [Kendi's term for respectability politics] is not only racist but impossible for Blacks to execute. Free Blacks were unable to always display positive characteristics for the same reasons poor immigrants and rich planters were unable to do so: Free blacks were human and humanly flawed. Uplift suasion assumed, moreover, that racist ideas were sensible and could be undone by appealing to sensibilities. But the common desire to justify racial inequities produced racist ideas, not logic."
If our conversations transition to explorations on how we need to reach the depressed working class that didn't vote, then maybe we can find a way to beat the forces of Trump. We're not there yet. By understanding the long history that led up to this moment, though, we might have a shot. That's where Kendi comes in.
Stamped from the Beginning centers on five figures: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis. Through their lives, and with novelistic flair, Kendi details the American construction of white supremacy as a three-pronged tragedy of religion, government, and activism.
According to Kendi, these political actors fall into three categories—assimilationists, abolitionists, and anti-racists—and they all paved a road to hell out of good intentions. Which is okay. Kendi draws out a lot of powerful ideas by not presenting six centuries of history as a zero-sum game.
He shows Mather as a refugee who created a god and a racist religious ideology that failed many. Jefferson is an aesthete whose pathological appetites overtook his high humanism. Du Bois and Davis are neither saints nor sinners, but intellectuals and activists navigating minefields set by racists and other activists. These complex profiles upend conventional narratives of these figures and refreshen their histories for our era. Cumulatively, they also challenge the popular notion that ignorance bred racist policy.
I have hard qualms with some of Kendi's theories. In my view, Eldridge Cleaver—a leader of the Black Panther party—wasn't a visionary intellectual. He was a rapist who was abusive to almost every woman of color in the party and whose apologies don't mean as much as Kendi thought they did.
Also, Kendi very occasionally puts forth false equivalencies. There is an important difference, for instance, between a respectability politics demagogue like William Hannibal Thomas, whose book The American Negro was the linchpin for damaging policy, and activists who took positions very much of their time in order to survive. See for reference the politics Sojourner Truth had to triangulate in regard to women's suffrage.
Just as we miss Ta-Nehisi Coates's particular talents when we compare him to James Baldwin, so we would miss Kendi's major talents if we were to compare his work in Stamped from the Beginning to the work of such epochal historians as Lerone Bennett Jr. (Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America) or John Hope Franklin (From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans). You can, however, see both historians' influence in the way Kendi structures his book as a compendium of facts written with a focus on individual stories.
Some of Kendi's histories can feel a little crammed-in compared to Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom, and there are places where his arguments aren't as concisely developed as Bennett's Before the Mayflower, but only under these high stylistic standards does the book fall short. Stamped from the Beginning is a riveting (and often rivetingly written) work, well deserving of the National Book Award. Plus, he does Bennett and Franklin one better by making black women central characters in African American history.