Stamped from the Beginning is a heavy book. The fact that it is a physically large book notwithstanding, the debut work from Ibram X. Kendi, historian and African studies professor, tackles some incredibly tense issues. And with a subtitle that reads, “The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” you will know exactly what to expect, which is to say that it is not a pleasant book. In fact, the majority is understandably troubling. However, this does not make the presented facts any less important. Instead, the upsetting nature makes the book all the more challenging and powerful.
Professor Kendi divides the book into five chronological subsections, each headed by a principal character of each era. Those characters have defining roles in racial relations of each time period, ranging from emphatic civil rights activists to prominent racist agitators, with some situated confoundingly in between. The effect of framing each era around a major figure, regardless of that person’s stance, serves to analyze each individual era in the development of racist ideas throughout the history of the country. Rather than title each section based on a certain era in the country as a whole, Kendi personalizes each section by following the individual, a unique choice for a book of this type.
Over the course of the book’s 500-some pages, Kendi demonstrates an incredible amount of research. Every era is thorough and well-documented, and you get the impression that he has dedicated years to tracking down all of the quotes, passages, and works he references. The way Kendi manages to walk through the history, however, does not feel simply like reciting facts and quotes. He expertly leads a train of thought through the history in a logical manner, drawing conclusions among different participants. At the same time, though, Kendi does not force an opinion on the reader. Of course, it would be difficult to read this book and not arrive at a conclusion. Personally, I think this book is required reading for anyone with an interest in American history.
Around the same time, I put on the audiobook for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. It is a short listen (the book is only about 180 pages), but another powerful one. Presented as a letter to the author’s son, Between the World and Me describes what it is like to be a Black individual in present day America. Coates describes his reactions to injustices both personal and in the news (which is heartbreaking, naturally). Furthermore, he narrates his own audiobook, so his words are quite literally his own. Imagine listening to this on your commute, and then picking up Stamped from the Beginning at home.
At this point, I was concerned that my high praise of the two books was based on the terrible concept of purported ‘white guilt,’1 (because I also felt similarly about James Baldwin’s anti-racist treatise, The Fire Next Time, after reading it last year). The more I thought about it, though, the more that seemed preposterous. No, I appreciated all three books because the writing is emotional and beautiful. The subject matter inspires the writers, to be sure, which affects the sheer impact of the words. But subject matter does not define the sole reason these books are excellent.
What originally drew my attention to this book was the 2016 National Book Awards. Stamped from the Beginning rightfully received the honor of being the best literary work in non-fiction. After reading it, I wholeheartedly agree. It is the perfect complement, if you are interested further, to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, the previous year’s recipient of the National Book Award. In fact, I suggest experiencing them back-to-back, but you should probably plan for a happy read afterwards. Not only was Stamped from the Beginning the best non-fiction book I read in the last year, it is one that will stay with me for a long time.
1 The despicable idea that groups of (white) people can and should feel shame for the racist ways their ancestors treated other people. On its own, this may not seem like a bad thing, but it can be if it is equated to false or hypocritical social progression. The term de-legitimizes the ability to appreciate a racial critique by turning it instead into some sort of apology. Honestly, I think accusations of ‘white guilt’ are both reductive and offensive to considerations dealing with works about race. Instead, we can appreciate the works for what they are: excellent literature.↩