Nonfiction

Stamped From the Beginning

This book is intimidating – it is heavy and thick – but I knew as soon as I saw the IG-hosted readalong from @melanatedreader, @_pagesgaloree, and @booksteanhenny that that was the community to read with and the time to pick it up. (As an exciting addition, my college roommate messaged and wanted to join as well, so we are doing some discussion calls as we read as well!) Plus, I’d like to note, that being intimidated by something is never a reason not to do/try it and, in fact, should rather be an impetus to do so. In that case, I’d like to thank these wonderful bookstagrammers for hosting (despite the fact that I fell behind the schedule, it still encouraged me to start in the first place), and recognize in myself why I was nervous to read this before/on my own. 

Stamped From the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

“Time and again, racist ideas have not been cooked up from the boiling pot of ignorance and hate. Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify the racist policies of their era, in order to redirect the blame for their era’s racial disparities away from those policies and onto Black people.”

Before I started, I made this note in my phone and I want to share it here as well, for context and transparency and so you can see where my head was at before I had even cracked the book open. It is a direct copy and paste, so bear that in mind with grammar/punctuation, but I felt that was the best way to get my thoughts and vibe across: “what I can tell you, and make no mistake, is that what I learned in US History in high school was WHITE history, and make no mistake, to be even more specific it was white economic history, because cash is king in this capitalist society, and anything not in line with that, be it other political ideologies, sexuality, and ESPECIALLY race was not discussed unless it was to be denounced or in some way serve the greater white narrative, and I didn’t realize it then, but I’m older know and I recognize it was a privilege not to realize it then, and it is past time to correct that BS.”

I had originally planned to write this review in sections that lined up with the Five “guided” Parts within Stamped: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois and Angela Davis. And I took copious notes, jotted down so many thoughts, marked a ridiculous number of passages, recorded all my reactions as I read, all in line with my normal reading techniques and original plan. However, I realized that, after noticing that all those notes are almost 10 pages long, perhaps I needed to rethink my normal review-writing, in this case. I’ll keep that for my own reference later. No one needs my myriad specific thoughts and reactions to everything in these pages or a transcribed quote section at the end that is basically half the book rewritten…if you are even remotely interested, I would recommend you just read it…learn for yourself and note your own reactions to it all. I mean yes, of course, I’m going to give you some overall words, because I just can’t help it. But I feel like this is a book that needs to be read widely, by as many people as possible, and should (in my opinion) be a parallel text/educational tool for any US History classes. Or, at the very least, synthesized concepts need to be included in other US History texts, in order to make them more legitimately representative of the true history of this country.

In the prologue, Kendi describes a theory that he bases this whole book around: the theory that racist ideas/people do not lead to racist policies, as we commonly think and are taught, but rather that the opposite is true. Kendi posits that racist policies, that are created by those in power to benefit their own self-interest/gains, lead to a need for racist ideas to support their implementation…and therein lies the origination for all the race-based assumptions and stereotypes of the general public. It’s mind-bending, mind-opening and, as he spends the entire 500 pages of this book showing, absolutely sensical.

Now, a few common threads throughout this book that I noted and want to include for, I don’t know, posterity? Whatever. They don’t really flow/go together, but it is what it is. First, the fact that any public advances that were made in this country related to race were done so for reasons of self-interest or from outside pressure and in no way because they were the right thing to do (i.e. – Lincoln freeing slaves not because he cared about their liberty specifically/morally but because it was the best option for “saving the Union,” or Civil Rights Act in the 60s being championed because the US was losing face/reputation internationally for our internal inequality) AND because of that, often these advances, though they first lead to better situations, ended up also leading to even more covert/subtle pushback that actually further ingrains the systems of inequality in potentially even more damaging ways, but, like at least the optics were better? Ugh. A number of illustrations of how our Constitution is not infallible and its flexibility/vagueness that allows for change (which generally would be considered a good thing) is incredibly limited by the *many* (moral, single-view education, self-interested) limitations of those with the power to actually do the interpreting. The open-ness of the Constitution is not equally applied if those with different backgrounds (in this case especially, Black people, Black women, queer Black people and women) are not allowed to participate in the interpretation/application of its guidelines. Something that struck me that I hadn’t considered is how many leading antiracists in their time, in the past and today (Garrison, DuBois, MLK, Obama) espoused and supported and spouted many assimilationist and segregationist and class racist ideas, often potentially without necessarily even realizing it, because they too were raised in this racist society/education system – it’s a mark of the terrible insidiousness of racism that it flows so deeply as to be internalized by those it most directly effects. The focus on the false idea/narrative of “uplift suasion” (individually successful Black people) and the concept of educating away racism have been touted for years and have never been successful – a greater level of change and shift is needed to eradicate racism – was a strong and important theme throughout. And last, the power and inclusiveness of Black women, and Black queer women, in the fight for equality is something that is so often underplayed and ignored. I first was truly introduced to this concept when I read when they call you a terrorist (about the three Black [queer] persons that began the #BlackLivesMatter movement and whose names should be, but are not, household names the same as MLK and Malcolm X), and it’s been further engrained and enforced as I read How We Get Free and now here, in Stamped From the Beginning, in the look at Angela Davis as out final (and only female) guide.       

Honestly, reading this taught me so much, guided me as I un-learned/re-learned so much, and really opened my eyes. And, honestly, it made me really angry. As it should have. (To center myself briefly, I am at least partially angry at how many misleading explanations and straight lies I was taught, and completely swallowed, over my lifetime – both in school and outside of it. It’s a terrible feeling to know that my education was so wildly manipulated and how privileged I was to be able to swallow and believe it all because nothing in my own life/experiences was truly contradicting that worldview.) To bring it back to where the issue should be centered, that’s not the point. It’s terrible, and it’s super hard and embarrassing to admit to being duped and complacent for so long and about so much, but that’s literally the point. It’s not about that feeling. So, I need to get over that and move onto the fact that now that I do know (or at least know how much more work there is to be done as I continue to address past failings), what else am I going to do about it? How am I going to help address this history of racism that my country, my fellow white people, prefer to pretend doesn’t exist to the extent/depth that it so clearly does? And what am I going to do to, as I move forwards, to continue to center the correct voices and perspectives (i.e. – not my own)? Well, I don’t have all the answers to that yet, but that’s my own journey. I’m sure it will at least include more antiracist reading, donations, voting and (now much more confidently based in knowledge and research, as opposed to vague feelings of right/wrong) discussions/arguments with family and friends. In the meantime, I want to encourage anyone who was taught US History in the US to read this and start to rearrange your own view of reality, to relearn all the “Lincoln saved the slaves and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement ended racism” history that we were taught and understand that that narrative serves a select few, those with the power to write history/policies/ideas to fit their own purposes, and take advantage of anyone else (especially Black people). As this book clearly explains in the epilogue, it’s not only absolutely the right and altruistic thing to do to fight against that legacy, but it’s also in the self-interest of us all (with the exception of those select few) as well. The momentum is there right now, let’s not lose it.    

My overall thoughts after reading can basically be summed up like this: “OMG this was such an incredibly deeply-researched, comprehensive and intellectual nonfiction tome that somehow manages, at the same time, to be completely accessible!” I mean yes, it’s long, it took me three months to read, but that’s because I wanted to take my time to process and add additional research of my own on the side, not because I felt actually overwhelmed or confused by the content. It’s an amazing literary and scholarly accomplishment and, as correctly subtitled, definitive.

5 thoughts on “Stamped From the Beginning

  1. Very brilliant review!!! I still have it on my library waitlist and can’t wait to read despite already having read the YA version of the book which was equally eye opening, with so much to learn from.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! This is one I definitely had to purchase a copy of….I don’t know if a three week library loan would have been enough time to get through it! But if you’ve already experienced the YA version, that might help. I’ve actually heard a number of people say they loved reading both because they complemented each other really well, as far as allowing a reader to absorb as much info as possible. Anyways, I hope reading this is as rewarding for you as it was for me!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I actually bought the audiobook of this one but realized that I wouldn’t be able to absorb it properly without having the copy in my hand. That’s why waiting for the library copy, so that I can use both formats simultaneously.
        The YA version was really wonderful and I agree that they will be complementary, because it felt like a good foundation and hopefully this will build and expand on that knowledge.

        Liked by 1 person

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