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Bearing 511 pages of text supported by nearly 70 pages of footnotes, Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning (Bold Type Books, 2017) is, for me, not an “alternative” American history but THE American history.

Kendi, founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracism Research, makes a convincing argument—which he emphasizes in his other books and public speaking—that, contrary to conventional assumptions, racist policies drive racist thinking and not the other way around. And, Kendi adds, it’s economic, political, or cultural self interests that give birth to such policies and motivate their rejection when new circumstances demand it.

In making his case, Kendi patiently and passionately traces the development, implementation, and adaptations of three racial dynamics across the history of the U.S.:

  1. Segregation: Blaming Black people themselves for racial disparities, and therefore denying them the privileges enjoyed by white Americans
  2. Assimilation: Blaming Black people and racial discrimination for racial disparities, and demanding Black people change their behavior in order to experience less racism
  3. Antiracism: Pointing to racial discrimination and policies while defending Black people’s right to be themselves

In addition, Kendi structures this narrative across five lengthy sections, each centered on the impact of a specific, influential “tour guide” and their contemporaries:

  1. Cotton Mather, early America’s greatest preacher and intellectual, and a staunch promoter of racist policies and ideas
  2. Thomas Jefferson, primary author of the Declaration of Independence, and America’s first Secretary of State, second Vice President, and third President, who held contradictory views amid incongruous political and personal actions
  3. William Lloyd Garrison, an influential publisher who opposed slavery but embraced assimilationist ideas
  4. W. E. B. DuBois, a towering Black intellectual who gradually shifted from assimilation to antiracism
  5. Angela Davis, one of the best known Black scholars and antiracist activists still alive today

When you’re done reading Stamped From the Beginning, you’ve gained a new framework for noticing and examining race and its interrelated justice issues. Current racial events take on a richer meaning, with their nuances and complexities more tangible than before. Other books on racial justice help to reinforce this framework and further develop a reader’s embryonic skills for noticing racism within themselves, others, policies, and systems—and doing something about it.

To grow increasingly fluent in Black history is to awaken from the slumber of an incomplete, biased, and often false American narrative that’s been drilled into most of our minds since we were young children. Since racism remains very much alive today, waking up is crucial and, from my experience, invigorating and teeming with possibilities for a more purposeful life.

 

John M. DeMarco is a writer, executive coach, and activist based in Nashville, Tennessee.