Chal­leng­ing look at racist ideas in US

Epic in scope, this book ex­am­ines dif­fer­ent and com­plex sources of racism, and iden­ti­fies racist ten­den­cies in those who sup­port and op­pose it

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Kevin Gildea

Stamped from the Be­gin­ning: The De­fin­i­tive His­tory of Racist Ideas in Amer­ica By Ibram X Kendi The Bod­ley Head, £18.99

This book, epic in scope, is a de­tailed look at the his­tory of racist and anti-racist ideas in Amer­ica. It traces their an­tecedents in the thoughts of Aris­to­tle and Chris­tian­ity, cit­ing Greek ideas of Greek su­pe­ri­or­ity and the curse the­ory – Noah’s son Ham as the cursed black per­son.

Equally the an­tecedents of anti-racist think­ing were also present. “‘The de­ity gave lib­erty to all men, and na­ture cre­ated no one a slave,’ wrote Alki­damas, Aris­to­tle’s ri­val in Athens.”

Be­fore the 1400s the slave trade was in east Euro­pean Slavs (this is the origin of the word slaves). By the 1400s the Slavs had built bet­ter for­ti­fi­ca­tions and Africa be­came the main area of op­er­a­tion for slave traders. This then al­lowed the curse the­ory to be fully ac­ti­vated as now the slaves were ex­clu­sively black.

Gomes Eanes de Zu­rara is cred­ited with writ­ing the first “recorded his­tory of anti-Black racist ideas...” with The Chron­i­cle of the Dis­cov­ery and Con­quest of Guinea, in 1453. It was a record of the Por­tuguese slav­ery trade in the 1440s un­der Prince Henry. As the au­thor, Dr Ibram X Kendi, points out, his words were “a prod­uct of, not a pro­ducer of, Prince Henry’s racist poli­cies...”

Kendi as­serts that “self-in­ter­est leads to racist poli­cies, which lead to racist ideas lead­ing to all the ig­no­rance and hate. Racist poli­cies were cre­ated out of self-in­ter­est.’’

Time and again Kendi il­lus­trates this as in the case of Thomas Jef­fer­son, who wrote: “No per­son liv­ing wishes more sin­cerely than I see racial equal­ity proven”. This from a man whose en­tire life and com­fort re­lied on the use of slaves (es­ti­mated at 600 in his life­time).


Anti-slav­ery con­cerns were of­ten sub­or­di­nate to other con­sid­er­a­tions as Abra­ham Lin­coln re­veals in this quote: “If I could save the Union with­out free­ing any slaves I would...”.

Kendi sur­veys the racist think­ing of ma­jor fig­ures such as Hegel, Hume and Voltaire, say­ing that “most of the lead­ing En-

Kendi sur­veys the racist think­ing of ma­jor fig­ures such as Hegel, Hume and Voltaire

light­en­ment in­tel­lec­tu­als were pro­duc­ers of racist ideas and abo­li­tion­ist thought”.

The book is hugely im­pres­sive in fol­low­ing the of­ten com­plex threads of var­i­ous racist at­ti­tudes and sources from pam­phlets, pul­pits and po­lit­i­cal dis­course. And in cul­ture, from Shake­speare to Spike Lee. There is a very in­ter­est­ing read­ing of Har­riet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 book Un­cle Tom’s Cabin. Although it was writ­ten to aid the anti-slav­ery lobby, Kendi iden­ti­fies a mul­ti­tude of racist ideas in it, in­clud­ing the idea that black peo­ple had soul and white peo­ple had in­tel­lect. Black male ac­tivists of the time “united in their dis­taste of Un­cle Tom for dis­sem­i­nat­ing the stereo­type of the weak black male”.

Kendi bril­liantly lays out chrono­log­i­cally com­plex and con­flict­ing ideas and ac­tions. In 1851, at a women’s rights con­fer­ence in Ohio, a sole black woman, So­journer Truth, got up to speak even though some of the white women tried to pre­vent her. A se­ries of male min­is­ters had pre­vi­ously out­lined the su­pe­ri­or­ity of men over women. Truth said “Ain’t I a woman? I can out­work, out eat, out­last any man!” Thus she struck a blow against sex­ism and racism.

The au­thor skil­fully lo­cates racist and anti-racist ideas in a ma­trix of race, gen­der and class, through the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence (“all men are cre­ated equal”), the War of In­de­pen­dence, the 1960s civil rights and black power move­ments (not­ing at one point the “in­verted racism” of the darker the colour of the skin the bet­ter) and on through US pres­i­dents Richard Nixon, Bush 1, Bill Clin­ton, Bush 2 and Barack Obama.

He sees the ul­ti­mate end­ing of racism as tied into gen­der and class equal­ity: he points out that anti-racism ul­ti­mately only ben­e­fits the top 1 per cent and that at the height of slav­ery there was a ma­jor­ity of poor whites in the Amer­i­can south.

The book is di­vided into five parts, with a ma­jor fig­ure from the his­tory of the racist/anti-racist strug­gle as its cen­tre: Cot­ton Mather, Thomas Jef­fer­son, Wil­liam Lloyd Gar­ri­son, WEB Du Bois and An­gela Davis. Kendi calls them “tour guides” and they pro­vide an ex­cel­lent or­gan­i­sa­tional frame­work for his ma­te­rial.

Kendi also re­turns to cer­tain key terms again and again in the book: mono­gen­e­sis, poly­ge­n­e­sis, as­sim­i­la­tion­ism, abo­li­tion­ism; there is also a cli­mate the­ory that claimed that black peo­ple ex­posed to a moderate cli­mate ef­fec­tively could be­come white!

In both racist and anti-racist po­si­tions Kendi iden­ti­fies racist ten­den­cies. He is crit­i­cal of the idea of “up­lift sua­sion”, the idea that blacks have to be model peo­ple to dis­prove racist ideas: “In­di­vid­ual blacks are not race rep­re­sen­ta­tives.” Be­sides, Kendi main­tains that racism per­sists de­spite any ra­tio­nal ev­i­dence – just look at the crazy Birther ac­cu­sa­tions lev­elled at Obama.

The hugely im­pres­sive fig­ure of Obama could be seen as the ul­ti­mate model per­son. How­ever, Kendi ac­cuses Obama of deal­ing in racist at­ti­tudes: he crit­i­cises Obama’s NAACP speech in 2009, say­ing that Obama’s call that black peo­ple needed to “free them­selves from their ‘in­ter­nalised sense of lim­i­ta­tion’” was pro­mot­ing a racist view that there is some­thing wrong with black peo­ple. There are points in the book where what seems to be an at­tempt to name the dam­age that black peo­ple have suf­fered at the hands of cen­turies of racism is un­fairly named as racism by Kendi. Or per­haps that’s a racist ob­ser­va­tion on my part.

This is a pow­er­ful book, brac­ingly chal­leng­ing and im­pres­sive in its schol­ar­ship and the bril­liant or­gan­i­sa­tion of its sub­stan­tial ma­te­rial. Its mes­sage is one for all of us: “Black is beau­ti­ful and ugly, in­tel­li­gent and un­in­tel­li­gent, law-abid­ing and law-break­ing, in­dus­tri­ous and lazy – and it is those im­per­fec­tions that make black peo­ple hu­man, make black peo­ple equal to all other im­per­fectly hu­man groups.”

In a way it is a call to arms (“power will never self-sac­ri­fice away from its self-in­ter­est”) but more than that, a call to hu­man evolve­ment.

A por­trait of civil war “con­tra­bands”, fugi­tive slaves who were eman­ci­pated upon reach­ing the north­ern states. Their loc­tion is pos­si­bly Freed­man’s Vil­lage in Ar­ling­ton, Vir­ginia, in the mid-1860s

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