Stamped from the Beginning Summary
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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Summary

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...

(The entire section is 825 words.)