This chunky, 500-page book has a lot to say about the history of racism in the US. Kendi talks about the disputes between early settlers over whether slaves were human at all, and how this shifted from looking to Noah’s story in the Bible for justification to “scientific” theories of racial hierarchy.
He discusses ideas held by anti-slavery activists about whether African societies had always been primitive and if black people had something to learn from “Anglo-Saxon culture”. Kendi explains about how ideas of race interact with those of class and gender, using intersectional terminology.
The book comes right up to date, discussing current arguments over whether being “colourblind” is the same as being anti-racist — it isn’t — consider the All Lives Matter slogan.
However, Stamped From the Beginning falls short of being a definitive history for a couple of reasons.
It starts from ideas and then links them to the struggle. He says that actions come before justifications, but that is not the way he writes. This makes the book weak on how ideas change through struggle. So it is least able to cope with the most dynamic periods, when ideas and actions change in rapid and complex ways, like the civil war.
Kendi is fascinating on the Enlightenment arguments that were key to developing racism, but also argues — wrongly in my opinion — that racism predated this. The emphasis on ideas makes it hard to explain why President Barack Obama, who understood all the subtle nuances of race, did so little for poor black people while in office.
Kendi divides ideas on race into three categories: racist, assimilationist and anti-racist. Assimilationist ideas are those that say that while black people aren’t inherently inferior, the way to end racism is for black people to accommodate with white society. But many anti-racist activists have held ideas that could be described as assimilationist or even racist.
So he criticises the great anti-slavery and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth for taking a somewhat confused position on whether black men should get the vote before white women, saying, “After wielding racist ideas against coloured women, the 80 year old legend turned her racist ideas onto coloured men.” But describing her argument like this hardly clarifies our understanding of the issues or the dispute.
The book tries to fit the entire history of racist ideas into five sections, based around the lives of five people. These are racist puritan witch-hunter Cotton Mather, US president Thomas Jefferson (the slave owner who drafted the declaration of independence), anti-slavery newspaper editor William Lloyd Garrison, historian and activist WEB Du Bois and Black Power communist Angela Davis.
Each is important, but using them to sum up the period each lived in is constricting. For instance, Du Bois was politically active until his death in 1963, aged 95. His anti-racism moved from elitist gradualism, through Marxism to a sort of black nationalism. It is hard to cover all these subtleties, while making him representative of a period.
Stamped From the Beginning is full of fascinating facts, but for a history of ideas could do with being clearer.