Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America takes on the monumental task of offering a history of racist ideas throughout American history. Such an endeavor might seem foolish. Yet, while it is worth noting that Kendi focuses exclusively on antiblack racism, leaving out racist ideas about other communities of color, this book is, in fact, definitive. To that end, this is an exhaustive work that, in covering the better part of four centuries, offers significant insights into the historical continuity of antiblack discourse in the United States.
Kendi, a professor of history at the University of Florida, separates racial discourse into three categories—segregationist, assimilationist, and antiracist. This tripartite approach moves us beyond the simple dichotomy of racist versus not-racist conceptualizations which belie the ways in which seemingly egalitarian attitudes on race, those which Kendi deems “assimilationist,” actually, despite their often good intentions, re-enforce and re-inscribe white supremacy. The possibility of racial justice lies solely in antiracist politics, according to Kendi.
Stamped from the Beginning centers around five intellectuals—Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis. These thinkers become the historical anchors from which Kendi takes his reader on an intellectual tour of their [End Page 421] historical epoch. Part one focuses on Cotton Mather, the thinker who “evolved” racist discourse beyond the debate over whether blacks’ supposed inferiority was because of the harsh African climate or the result of the Hamitic Curse levied by Noah in the Book of Genesis. Mather, who was by the end of the seventeenth century America’s foremost minister and intellectual, preached that Africans were not cursed but instead sent to the Americas by God for the purpose of their enslavement. It was the responsibility of whites, according to Mather’s divine mandate, to teach Africans the gospel and save their white souls from their black skin.
Thomas Jefferson (the subject of part two) read Mather religiously. Although he wrote often of his disdain for the institution of slavery, he had no tolerance for the idea of black equality. In fact, he aggressively pursued the idea of “re-settling,” or “colonizing,” blacks in West Africa or the Caribbean throughout his adult life, a view later shared by Abraham Lincoln. Jefferson, therefore, represented the ways in which many nineteenth-century thinkers reconciled white supremacy and antislavery viewpoints.
This idea is continued in Kendi’s discussion of William Lloyd Garrison, the focus of part three of the book. Opposition to the institution of slavery among white abolitionists like Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe rarely meant a belief in justice or equality. Intellectuals like Garrison and Stowe supported, at best, gradual equality for blacks. Like Mather, his racist predecessors, and their proslavery contemporaries, these thinkers shared a belief in the inferiority of blacks. They simply blamed that inferiority on the immoral institution of slavery, rather than divine curse or climate.
The remaining two parts shift to the antiracist intellectuals—W. E. B. Du Bois and Angela Davis. However, as Kendi argues, Du Bois took some time to perfect his antiracist credentials. Against the backdrop of the rise of Social Darwinism and the eugenics movement, Du Bois’s initial “assimilationist” ideas of the black poor and uneducated evolved into a truly antiracist Pan-African worldview with the publication of The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. In showing the [End Page 422] early Du Bois as imperfect, Kendi illuminates the manner in which antiracism, like racism, is the product of history. Antiracist ideas had to be developed, cultivated, and tested in the crucible of American history. The historical conditions to which Du Bois responded indicates the myriad ways white supremacy was inhabited, mobilized, and reinforced, even in the interest of so-called equality or racial justice.
This context is important. By pulling back the reader’s focus, Kendi reveals that Du Bois was not simply speaking to Booker T. Washington, for example. Instead, The...