Review- Kendi, “Stamped From the Beginning”

Ibram X. Kendi, “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas” (2016) (narrated by Christopher Dontrell Piper) – “Stamped From the Beginning” demonstrates the pitfalls of what historians call “presentism” – and, if such a historiographical sin may be permitted a positive side, its benefits. You never know how much authors, as opposed to publishers, decide things like book titles and subtitles. But Kendi doesn’t shy away from big claims and claiming, at the beginning of one’s academic career (he’s about three years older than I am), to have written THE definitive history of racist ideas, is a big one indeed.

Does he back this claim up in the book? Forgive me, reader: I am going to split the difference. I think that Kendi’s methodological choices limit this work from being anything a historian would call “definitive.” His choice to organize “Stamped From the Beginning” around five lives — Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis — and interweaving the larger societal changes in racial/racist ideas around them could be called methodologically conservative, if I thought he was doing so out of an idea that great men (or women) are the engine of intellectual history. I don’t think that’s the case. I think it just provides a narrative hook to the book, which is aimed at a wide educated audience- think NPR listeners. Either way, I don’t think the method allows for the degree of exploration of the dynamics of the history of ideas that other methods might. Arguably, it’s not the point of works of history to be “definitive” as in “ending the discussion” at all, but that’s another conversation.

But what makes something “definitive?” Kendi bids to make an impact on the larger conversation around racism in America, not one restricted to nerds like me who care about methodology and historiography. To that end, “Stamped From the Beginning” is less “definitive” in the sense of “marshaling all of the methodological resources of the field and answering all of the questions” and more “definitive” in the sense of “providing a set of definitions and applying them widely.” Because Ibram Kendi has definitions, and he wants you to use them as thoroughgoingly as he has. If it works, then his subtitle makes more sense.

In this book, Kendi defines racism as the belief that there is something wrong with black people. Antiracism is opposition to that belief and the actions undertaken under its auspices. There are three basic positions available to everyone in the world of this book. Two are racist: the segregationist position, that holds that black people are inferior and always will be, so they should be segregated away from white society, and the assimilationist position, that holds that black people are inferior but aren’t stuck that way, that they can join white society by imitating it. Then there’s the antiracist position that black people are not inferior. Everyone in history from the beginnings of the Atlantic slave trade in the fifteenth century on down can be slotted into one of these definitive and never-changing categories.

The issues this raises should be obvious. Let’s dispense with the methodological quibbles about unchanging and possibly anachronistic categorization schemes for now and start with an activist objection I’ve seen in a few places and that I wondered about as I listened. A lot of rhetorical labor has gone into redefining the word “racist” away from an emphasis on personal comportment and towards an emphasis on the use of power, and the job is by no means finished. The equation in organizing circles, as far as I’ve seen, is basically “bigotry + societal power over the target of bigotry = racism.” This means black people, effectively, cannot be racist, at least not against whites and maybe not against anybody, depending who you ask. I’ve been quietly ambivalent about this. I basically agree it’s more useful from an organizing perspective. But it’s also been a pretty transparent instrumental move, a scramble on the part of antiracist thinkers and organizers to deprive the right of its beloved cries of “reverse racism.” On the one hand, I think it’s wrong to deny any part of the human experience to any part of humanity, and that includes the worst bits, like racism. On the other, language evolves, and a term that includes both “the worst human oppression” and “little Skyler got his fee fees hurt because someone called him ‘a honky,’” like the old definition of racism did, is worth evolving beyond. I am, as I said, ambivalent, and basically willing to go along with the consensus of organizers who’ve thought more about it and have more “skin in the game.”

Well, if Kendi has any ambivalence about calling black people racist, he does not display it in “Stamped From the Beginning.” I don’t recall him talking about segregationist black people (though he does talk about separatists like the Nation of Islam, a little). But there’s plenty of assimilationist black people, or it might be more accurate to say, black people who hold to assimilationist ideas. Anyone, after all, black or white, can dispense with their previously held ideas and become antiracist. This is roughly the character arc Kendi ascribes to W.E.B. Du Bois. But, according to Kendi, assimilationism is a racist idea, holding a racist idea means the holder is a racist, therefore, any and all holders of assimilationist ideas are racist, black or white, no exceptions. Among the exceptions that Kendi pointedly does not make are those for Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Richard Wright (the latter of whom Kendi dismisses almost entirely as a writer and man).

For an effort at definition, this raises many more questions than it answers. For one thing, Kendi’s definition of racism is a ratchet: it only goes one way. You’re a racist if you entertain any racist ideas, even if you also hold antiracist ideas, as Kendi graciously grants Douglass, King et al did. That’s not reversible- the holding of antiracist ideas don’t make you an antiracist in spite of your racist ideas. For another thing, Kendi’s concept of assimilationism is probably the most presentist of all of the ideas presented in this book- frankly, it reeks of twitter. The list of black heroes who hold to some idea that could be called assimilationist — which, especially in the early parts of the book, means any suggestion that anything in black communities need change other than their experience of oppression — is basically coextensive with the list of black heroes pre-… well, pre-twitter, basically, though Kendi would make an argument for Angela Davis. This includes figures that Kendi praises as antiracist. I’m reading a biography of journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells, as courageous a figure as you’ll find in American history. Kendi cites her as an antiracist. Well, in her early days at the very least (I just started the biography), Wells very much believed black people needed lessons in “civilization” – the dreaded “uplift/suasion” (not sure how it’s written in the book). I’m not sure if she changed her mind. We’ll find out.

But more pertinently than “throwing under the bus,” to use the current and kind of insufferable phrase, generations of black leaders who fought and suffered for the rights of their people, there’s another activist conundrum here. My understanding, from the cheap seats, was that it was basically accepted that generational trauma has, in fact, created serious problems within the black community, and indeed, every other community that has ever been oppressed. That’s not to say it’s the community’s fault- many operating in the trauma framework seem to basically not bother with “fault” or else find it with oppressive structures and those on top of them. It’s not to say other communities don’t have the same problems but use their privileged positions and generally broader margins for error to avoid the brutal consequences oppressed communities face. But it’s also not to say there’s nothing wrong with the communities affected. Mass illiteracy within the community of freed people after the US Civil War was a problem, one the freed people strove mightily to solve. Every black freedom rally I have ever been to has included black speakers calling for an end to gun violence within their communities, generally to widespread applause from black attendees. Are all of these people assimilationist racists?

The nineteenth century lacked much of the vocabulary for things like “intergenerational trauma” or “structural racism” that we now have. What it did have was an idea of “civilization,” a progressive hierarchical grading of societal capabilities and niceties. There were a lot of problems with this conception, as, no doubt, there are problems with our conceptions that future generations will point out to us. It definitely loaned itself to racism, by anyone’s definition of the term. But I think that people used the concepts they had to express the truths in front of them. A lot of civilizational “uplift” thought and action seems aimed at making up for the toll generations of oppression will inevitably take. They didn’t always have the best ways of talking about it, by our standards or maybe by anyone’s. As Kendi would no doubt point out, racist ideas were intertwined with antiracist ones in the best of cases. But they worked with the framework they had, and the reality of the wounds left by generations of oppression in front of them. There was a whole range of opinion and action surrounding black community self-improvement. Lumping it all in as assimilationist racism is anachronistic at best.

There exist two candidates for the nadir of anachronism in this book. Worse in terms of anachronism, for my money, is the aforementioned wedging of black community efforts to self-improve — I’m not talking Booker Washington appeasement here, I’m talking real accounting with the wounds of slavery — into a twitter disputant’s notion of assimilationism. Worse in terms of simply being a series of low blows, from where I sit, is Kendi’s treatment of the civil rights movement and integration. I get criticism of the Brown v Board of Education decision and think the logic that black kids need white kids around to feel good about themselves does, indeed, smack of exactly the sort of assimilationist racism around which Kendi partially structured the book. But he comes perilously close to supporting “separate but equal.” In so doing, he trashes the legacy of the millions who fought segregation. They weren’t all assimilationists and they weren’t stupid people in need of Kendi’s categorization scheme to see the light. They knew that separate but equal was a lie and always would be. Kendi takes his trashing to the literary sphere when he basically kneecaps Richard Wright for his supposed assimilationism and upholds Zora Neale Hurston, integration opponent and literary black darling of the libertarian right, as the real deal, not to mention engaging in some deeply selective readings of James Baldwin.

The book gets better as it goes on and works its way towards the present, reasonably enough for a book with a presentism problem. The segregationist-assimiliationist-antiracist triptych makes a fair amount of sense for American history starting at around the rise of the Black Power movement, though it would remain controversial and questionable as it would still posit many black people as racist. That’s when the discourse settles into something like the recognizable contemporary form, with the rhetorical framework that allows for discussion of problems in oppressed communities that doesn’t sound like, to use the current term, “victim-blaming.” His history of the rise of “color-blind” racism in tandem with the Republican southern strategy and the “New Democrats” is as good as any I’ve seen. He ends on a high note, encouraging his readership to abandon uplift/suasion and educational efforts at eradicating racism and embrace an antiracist framework that emphasizes doing away with racist policies, for which racist ideas are cover. Get rid of the policies and the ideas go away. Seems about right to me.

This is a big, long book that covers a lot of time (I really don’t have the early-modernist chops to critique his handling of the beginnings of racist ideas) and tries to convey much to a popular audience. Many of the pleas he makes to the reader — especially that of the relationship where racist policies make racist ideas necessary — are good correctives to other received ideas, though I’d say even those are open to some critique (where do racist policies come from?). I am ambivalent about how to rate it, and not just out of nervousness as a white critic judging a living and working black writer writing about racism.

As I listened to this book, its author has been the subject of some public comment. Kendi’s newer book, “How To Be An Antiracist,” is a bestseller in difficult and divisive times, which gets him a lot of attention. I’ve seen some highly complimentary profile pieces. Pieces from the right-wing press, notably Reason Magazine and I think First Things if I remember right, have been wringing their hands over Kendi proposing a federal-level “Department of Antiracism” and getting a fat check from Jack Dorsey, twitter’s founder, to pursue his work. And I just recently read a piece from Black Agenda Report denouncing Kendi, taking Dorsey’s gift as evidence (along with some stuff from “How To Be An Antiracist,” which I haven’t read) that he is a stooge for the racist capitalist power structure. Apparently, in “How To Be An Antiracist,” he plumps for “antiracist capitalism.” In “Stamped From the Beginning,” Kendi refers to capitalism and racism at twins, deriving from the same origin point in the early modern slave trade. Rare and virtuous- Kendi seems to be the only contemporary writer who uses twin metaphors who acknowledges, even implicitly, that twins aren’t photocopies. They live separate lives, have separate experiences, develop separate attributes, and die separate deaths. So it makes sense in his conception — if not in reality — that capitalism and racism can be separated. I happen to think that’s wrong, and even if it were right, capitalism, however “woke,” would still be an oppressive system and one our planet cannot sustain. I don’t regard myself as the fit judge of Kendi’s organizing potential. I will say Jack Dorsey’s faith in him reduces mine. If he was that dangerous to the status quo — if his frankly cack-handed scheme for a federal department of certified antiracism experts sniffing out racial inequities in government programs was a threat to anybody with power — he would not be sitting where he is today.

Let’s put it this way: Ibram Kendi occupies Elie Wiesel’s old chair at Boston University. Wiesel wrote at least one important book and did a lot of good things for Holocaust remembrance. He left an indelible stamp on how we process that particular historical event- for good and for ill. He was a Zionist (wonder where Kendi stands on Palestine), a moralizer, and a contributor to the idea of the Holocaust as utterly unique and ineffable, an idea that is coming back to haunt us. I can’t imagine Kendi, with his prioritization of the Atlantic slave trade as the fulcrum of history, agreeing with his predecessor there. There were other Holocaust writers, like Primo Levi and Tadeusz Borowski, without Wiesel’s baggage. There are other writers on racism and antiracism out there today who lack Kendi’s conceptual issues and his platform, and presumably jealousy over the latter helps drive criticism, right and wrong. But in neither case does it make sense to dismiss their contributions entirely, if nothing else because of the prominence of their platform and the ways they reflect the times. Time will tell if Kendi makes the sort of impact Wiesel did, but in many ways, he is an ideal successor. ***’

Review- Kendi, “Stamped From the Beginning”

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