by Oniecia Henry
My chosen topic is, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas In America, a book published by Ibram X. Kendi on April 12, 2016. The book entails the entire timeline of racist ideas in America through the lives of 5 of America’s greatest intellectuals; they are none other than Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Garrison, W.E.B Du Bois, and Angela Davis, in that order. The piece begins with the life of Cotton Mather, a Puritan Minister, whose father came to the New England colony in 1635 to “embark on a sacred mission to create, articulate, and defend the New England Way”. Following the teachings of both the Bible and Aristotle’s philosophy of the human hierarchy, theologians learned and perpetuated rationales for slavery. Next, Thomas Jefferson’s chapter picks up with the new intellectual era of Enlightenment. At this point, the beliefs created by the Puritans, was being secularized by enlightenment thinkers–Jefferson leading the way—and paved the way for anti-slavery and segregationist thinkers. Moreover, the chapter dedicated to William Garrison, the founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, reflects on how he and other colonizationists often treaded the line between slavery and freedom in favor of “gradual equality”. Then, W.E.B. Du Bois takes over, promoting antiracism while simultaneously enabling racist ideas with uplift suasion. Finally, Angela Davis appears during the civil rights era to blasts the false notions of equality ensured by our government. We are also forced to confront the idea of black’s having a personal responsibility for hardships and the “exceptional negro”. Through the course of the plot racial discrimination is recognized as the mother of racist ideas, well before the establishment of the America we know today, which continue to thrive in the form of ignorance and hate in the present-day. These ideas continue to thrive in part due to flawed strategies used by antiracists to end racism: “self-sacrifice, uplift suasion, and educational persuasion” (Kendi,503). The most significant of the strategies is uplift suasion. This is the act of persuading white people out of racists mentalities by proving to them that blacks can repair or uplift themselves their disparities.
Historical and Cultural Context
According to the author, the book got its inspiration from the culmination of social catastrophes that have shaken up the black community in the last 5 years: “This book’s moment, coincides with the televised and untelevised killings of unarmed human beings at the hands of law enforcement…and the shooting star of # Black Lives Matter” (Kendi,1). The heartbreaks of these killings have brought more attention to the statistics that reflect the racial disparities prevalent today; Blacks make up 13 percent of the population, own 2.7 percent of the nation’s wealth and make up 40 percent of the incarceration rate. Thus, leading to questions about how it began and where it all stops. Historically, the disproportions in police killings, imprisonment, education, and wealth have existed for as long as the nation was born and gave birth to western slavery. Even sadder, the racist ideas that fueled these disproportions predate colonization. What Kendi aims to do is explore how and why these disparities came to be and why they continue to thrive.
He begins exploring these ideas by introducing Puritanism through the lens of Cotton Mather and discussing the origins of early Puritan thought. “In studying Aristotle’s philosophy, Puritans learned rationales for human hierarchy…believing some groups were superior to other groups” (Kendi,17). They justified these notions using Aristotle’s theory on climate. Kendi summarizes these findings by expressing that “extreme hot or cold climates produced intellectually, physically, and morally inferior people who were ugly and lacked the capacity for freedom and self-government” (Kendi, 17). In Aristotle and Slavery by Paul Millett, Millett dissects chapter 3 of Book 1 of the Politics, a piece on political philosophy written by Aristotle, in which Aristotle examines the nature of rule that relates “slavery, household, and politics”. He asserts that those(slaves) who are not capable of forming a koinonia (community in Greek and in this case political community), are not men but are instead beasts (Millett, 182). According to Aristotle, “Property generally is a collection of tools, and a slave is a live article of property” and because their functions are entirely that of tools to be possessed by their masters, “[They] performs only physical tasks [and are] part only of the master’s physical nature” (Millett,183). The reduction of slaves to tools, not even living wholly functioning beings, stripped slaves of their complexity and humanity altogether. The Puritans laced Aristotle’s racist theories with religious, specifically Christian, rhetoric. Cotton Mather, the grandson of a prominent Puritan ministers, Richard Mather and John Cotton, “preached that Africans could become White in their souls” if they adopted the teachings of Christianity (Kendi,75). Slaves were to be subdued physically and spiritually.
However, the year of 1743 in which Jefferson was born, marked the transition into the intellectual area. Jefferson and other Enlightenment intellectuals “started secularizing and expanding racist discourse throughout the colonies” (Kendi, 79). Jefferson didn’t hold back when expressing his opinions of freed blacks in America. In Magnis’s analysis of Jefferson’s racist thinking, he analyzes Jefferson’s theories and opinions of blacks. Jefferson held back no punches as he blamed slavery on a clear distinction made by nature between whites and blacks (Magnis, 493). He also asserted that the differences in physical features saying “[the] immovable veil of black and lack of flowing hair” made them undesirable (Magnis, 494). In his pamphlet Notes on the State of Virginia he contributes to the debate about segregation vs. assimilation: the emancipation of slaves back to Africa. He outlines a plan to emancipate the infants of slaves born after the bill of emancipation passed, if it did. This piece made him the “preeminent authority on Black intellectual inferiority” (Kendi, 109).
More importantly, Garrison was the famous face for abolitionists during the Enlightenment period. Though, he did have very different attitudes toward abolition and equality. Garrison denounced any ideas of gradual abolition (and sending slaves back to Africa) in favor of immediate emancipation but expressed a strong preference for gradual equality. According to Kendi, Garrison and his fellow assimilationists fought for gradual equality, “calling antiracists who fought for immediate equality impractical…just as segregationists called him crazy for demanding immediate emancipation” (Kendi, 168). The problem is that abolition and equal rights were two sides of the same coin; one could not exist without the other. Garisson’s views were molded by evangelical influences of the Second Great Awakening and the time he spent mingling with the black community (Arkin, 77). Garrison spoke to blacks in The Liberator, a newspaper he created, urging them to “respect themselves” and continue to acquire respect from whites in proportion to the increase in education and morals on their part (Kendi, 168). This marked an early effort to perpetuate uplift suasion, and a reflection of the perspective of Black activists who also believed that achieving “whiteness” was the way to a better life.
Though slavery was abolished, the ideas that had justified the mistreatment and disenfranchisement of blacks continued to thrive into the Reconstruction Era. Through the life of W.E.B. Du Bois, Kendi shows us how uplift suasion facilitated the complex idea of “personal responsibility” in the black community and backed the narrative of blacks as a social problem. We also witness how Du Bois, despite being an anti-racist, helps spread racist ideas. Du Bois attended Fisk University, an HBCU run by white philanthropists and professors at the time and one of the “nation’s preeminent factories of uplift suasion and assimilationist ideas” (Kendi, 267). He readily absorbed these ideas and praised pieces like George Washington Williams’s History of the Negro Race. When Black revisionists like Du Bois, chose not to correct these racist studies, they “seemingly allowed racist studies excluding or denigrating Blacks to stand for truth” (Kendi, 267). He made it his life’ work to lead the American Negro to emancipation. In fact, in a popular newspaper called The Crisis, Du Bois dedicated a section to highlight blacks breaking racial barriers. It soon came to blame both “the Black have nots and discriminatory barriers” (Kendi, 303).
Finally, the book walks us through the life of Angela Davis, in which we get at the black power movement and disparaging of black mothers. During the Civil Rights Era, disputes about equality continued to define politics in America. US senator Barry Goldwater inspired conservative Americans with his messages opposing welfare. He insisted that welfare “transforms individuals… into a dependent animal creature without his knowing it” (Kendi, 387). Black mothers were often ridiculed and demeaned for using welfare as a means to get ahead in the same way that many whites had used it to overcome poverty. For instance, Charles Knipp, “a gay white man dressed in blackface and drag” would caricature a black woman on welfare (Nadasen, 52). Davis also boldly defended black women when people blamed the broken black family and the number of children being raised in single parent homes accusing them of “loose sexual behavior”. Moreover in her youth, Davis became increasingly involved in Black power organizations. Like many others her age, she began to realize that “civil rights persuasions and lobbying tactics” proved futile for the progression of Black Americans (Kendi, 397). According to Kendi, racists of all creeds and colors hailed Obama as the extraordinary Negro in an effort to end discussions about racism and push the rhetoric of a post-racial America (Kendi, 481).
Themes and Styles
Kendi’s main argument is that although many Americans believe that racism ended with the abolition for slavery, racist ideas are still thriving. To come to terms with this fact, Kendi suggests that we “understand how racist ideas were developed, disseminated, and enshrined in American society.” Because the book was written to be informational and historically relevant, the primary rhetorical strategies employed are logos followed by ethos. Kendi employs ethos by including a short paragraph about himself at the back of the book. In it he talks briefly about his educational and occupational backgrounds in African American History and journalism. Not to mention, the largely credible organizations that funded his educational research or requested visiting appointments with him. This ensures readers that he is well-versed in the historical knowledge necessary to write this book and without bias. Furthermore, logos is employed by the in-line citations and references he makes on every page. If the reader wants to fact check statistics or quotations made in text, at the end of the paragraph there is a superscripted number. This number indicates a book, publication, etc. from which his conclusions were drawn and can be found in the Notes section, organized by chapter, in the back of the book.
Stamped from the Beginning is a member of the intellectual history genre. According to Webster’s online dictionary, intellectual history is defined as “a branch of history that deals with the rise and evolution of ideas: history of ideas.” In this book, Kendi sets out to answer questions about where and how racist ideas started and how intellectuals justified and rationalized deeply entrenched anti-racist, assimilationist, and segregationist philosophies. In David Aaronovitch’s blog review of Stamped from the Beginning, he accuses Kendi of having a flawed thesis that prevents us from analyzing destructive behaviors that arise from “group perceptions”. This comes after Kendi’s critique of Obama’s 2008 seminal speech in which he places Obama on equal footing with other racist presidents like Nixon. Another critique, from kirkusreviews.com, points out the fact that despite the book being a “definitive history of racial ideas,” the book’s “structure and it’s viewing of racial ideas through the lens of five individuals means that it is almost necessarily episodic.” Further more, they felt as if it could be read as an “angry essay” despite being a fine analysis of racist history. Finally, Kiesha-Khan Y. Perry, a professor of Africana studies at Brown University applauds Kendi’s piece as a “bold and impressive contribution to the current anti racism agenda”.
Arkin, Marc M. “The Federalist Trope: Power and Passion in Abolitionist Rhetoric.” The Journal of American History, vol. 88, no. 1, 2001, pp. 75–98.
Jefferson, Thomas, and Nicholas E. Magnis. “Thomas Jefferson and Slavery: An Analysis of His Racist Thinking as Revealed by His Writings and Political Behavior.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 29, no. 4, 1999, pp. 491–509.
Kendi, Ibram. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Nation Books, 2016.
Nadasen, Premilla. “From Widow to ‘Welfare Queen’: Welfare and the Politics of Race.” Black Women, Gender Families, vol. 1, no. 2, 2007, pp. 52–77. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/blacwomegendfami.1.2.0052.
Millett, Paul. “Aristotle and Slavery in Athens.” Greece & Rome, vol. 54, no. 2, 2007, pp. 178–209.
Obama, Barack Hussein. “Transcript: Barack Obama’s Speech on Race.” NPR, NPR, 18 Mar. 2008, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=88478467.
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo, and David Dietrich. “The Sweet Enchantment of Color-Blind Racism in Obamerica.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 634, 2011, pp. 190–206.
Corry, John. “TV: ‘CBS REPORTS’ EXAMINES BLACK FAMILIES.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 24 Jan. 1986, http://www.nytimes.com/1986/01/25/arts/tv-cbs-reports-examines-black-families.html
Hochschild, Jennifer L., and Vesla Weaver. “The Skin Color Paradox and the American Racial Order.” Social Forces, vol. 86, no. 2, 2007, pp. 643–670.
Keller, Edmond J., and Lenneal J. Henderson. “The Journal of Modern African Studies.” The Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, 1974, pp. 158–160.
McKeen, Gayle. “Whose Rights? Whose Responsibility? Self-Help in African-American Thought.” Polity, vol. 34, no. 4, 2002, pp. 409–432.
Stephen A. Berrey. “Resistance Begins at Home: The Black Family and Lessons in Survival and Subversion in Jim Crow Mississippi.” Black Women, Gender Families, vol. 3, no. 1, 2009, pp. 65–90.
Thompson, Katrina Dyonne. “‘Some Were Wild, Some Were Soft, Some Were Tame, and Some Were Fiery’: Female Dancers, Male Explorers, and the Sexualization of Blackness, 1600-1900.” Black Women, Gender Families, vol. 6, no. 2, 2012, pp. 1–28.
racism, enlightenment, slavery, Angela Davis, Thomas Jefferson, welfare, Obama, Cotton Mather, W.E.B. DuBois, William Lloyd Garrison, hate, Jefferson Davis, segregationist, abolitionist, Aristotle, black, white