Stamped from the Beginning

by Ibram X. Kendi

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Stamped from the Beginning Summary

Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi is a 2016 nonfiction book about the history of American racism, from the colonial period to contemporary times.

  • Kendi discusses the role of slavery in the economic, political, and religious systems of the early American colonies.
  • In the eighteenth century, the burgeoning nation continued to condone slavery in many regions, despite increasing calls for emancipation.
  • The Civil War erupted over the question of slavery, which split the nation in two.
  • In the century after the Civil War, racism continued to pervade American life, despite emancipation.
  • The push for civil rights and anti-racist policies continues to this day.


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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 825

In this extensive and densely researched history of racism in America, Ibram X. Kendi takes the reader through centuries of opinion, misinformation, and fact. He divides the book into five sections, each of which revolves around the life of a person who contributed significantly to the discourse around race—specifically regarding the dynamics between Black and White Americans. To contextualize the progression of racism and racist ideas, Kendi presents extensive information about the state of race-based science during the lifetimes of all his key characters, as well as the state of popular culture and its depictions of Black Americans.

The first character in the book is Puritan minister Cotton Mather. Through the lens of Cotton Mather’s life, Kendi describes how racist ideas that had been developed some centuries earlier in the Arabic world and in Europe were subsequently brought to America, where they proliferated, in large part through the colonial colleges. Before the English settlement of America, many Slavs and other European whites had been enslaved, but during this period the word “slave” became synonymous with the word “Black.” While there were some early drives towards abolition, especially following the abolition of slavery in the wider British Empire, early discourse around slavery and Blackness revolved around the questions of whether Christianizing Black people could improve them and whether it would then remain feasible to keep Christians as slaves.

Next, Kendi focuses on the life of Thomas Jefferson, who grew up in a house that had slaves in it, owned slaves throughout his life, had multiple children with a slave, Sally Hemings, and died while tended to by slaves. Kendi presents the early history of the American nation as being inextricable from changing views of Blackness. Scientific debates abounded during this period as to whether Blackness was caused by a “curse” or by climate; could Black people ever truly become white? He emphasizes the fact that a person such as Jefferson could be deeply conflicted, loving and respecting certain Black people (resulting in the trope of the “extraordinary negro”) but also expressing contradictory views of Black people and slavery for personal and political gain. Kendi notes that Jefferson constructed slavery as something being imposed upon the young United States by England, where slavery was much criticized. The young nation needed slaves to have any economic prospects, and thus slavery and Capitalism became inextricably intertwined, an issue which only deepened during the Civil War.

William Lloyd Garrison is the figure through whom the crucial Civil War period of American history is explained. Garrison’s changing views about anti-racism are used to indicate the many difficulties the United States was experiencing at this time, not only in terms of how to deal with the Black Americans recently released from slavery, but also in terms of how to relate to poor whites in the south who felt they had been disenfranchised. Garrison, for his part, does not believe Blacks are genuinely inferior to whites but continues to espouse racist ideas, such as that exposure to whites can help improve Black Americans morally. Garrison’s belief in such ideas indicates the seeming intractability of racist theories in the American intellectual sphere.

Through the figure of W.E.B. Du Bois, who was born in 1868 and died the day of the 1963 March on Washington, Kendi illustrates the difficult life of an “extraordinary Negro” living in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. Throughout this period, physiologists continued to debate whether Blacks and whites were actually of different races, while policies that sought to prevent Blacks from voting often also disenfranchised poor whites. Thus racism led to deeper economic gulfs within...

(This entire section contains 825 words.)

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American society, while also helping turn poor whites against Blacks seeking economic security rather than against Capitalist elites who kept them poor.

The campaign of radical misinformation run by American presidents on the subject of race is epitomized particularly in the final section of the book, which takes Angela Davis, the former Black Panther and leading Black academic, as its central figure. In the 1960s, lynchings by Klansmen began to give way to increased police brutality. At the same time, misinformation efforts proliferated the idea that Black people were more likely to live on welfare, more likely to commit crime, and more likely to deal drugs. These ideas ignored the facts, but they steered the political discourse towards stances such as “tough on crime” and “hard on drugs”; in reality, these stances were fundamentally anti-Black. Kendi explores the recent idea of post-racialism and colorblindness, and explains how these damaging ideas came to a head with the election of Obama. Although he was received problematically as an “extraordinary Negro,” Obama's presidency enabled many racists to argue that the problem of race in the United States is over and that society is now post-racist. However, as Kendi’s book—and the recent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement shows—this is quite clearly not the case. Much work remains to be done.


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