Stamped from the Beginning Analysis
Stamped from the Beginning is a detailed and accomplished narrative journey through the history of racist ideas in America. Taking into consideration the social mores, scientific beliefs, and popular culture of each era he examines, Kendi is able to make digestible and comprehensible the way in which American society has developed into the institutionally racist one it is today. The thread that runs through the book is that of slavery: from before it was a nation, America depended upon its black slave workforce.
As history progressed a number of questions arose regarding abolition, emancipation, and the rights of former slaves: Should Black Americans be assimilated into the general population? Should they be separated in some way? Should they, in fact, be sent to another country entirely, a piece of land in Africa chosen for them? As Kendi demonstrates, Black and white Americans alike, both racists and anti-racists, have debated and moved between all of these positions, proving the difficulty of the subject matter. What was done in the early years of America cannot be undone: a nation built on slavery must deal with the consequences of its inception and development.
Rather than simply construct a straightforward narrative history, Kendi helps the reader to place events in their context by illustrating, through the use of a series of central characters, the actual number of generations that have passed from Cotton Mather to Angela Davis. This is highly effective for a number of reasons. To begin with, it makes clear to the reader that the United States is actually a very young country. The five lifespans, from the Puritan Cotton Mather to the still-living Black academic Angela Davis, represent the entire duration of American history. This strategy also makes it more evident how America’s short history has been tied to and driven by attitudes about race. At the same time, the use of viewpoint characters personalizes the history Kendi is presenting.
Through the lens of a person like Thomas Jefferson, for example, the reader is shown why the attitudes of an 18th century white towards slavery might have been contradictory and complicated. A slaveholder and the son of slaveholders, Jefferson felt that slavery be maintained, not because he hated Black people but because their existence made him safe. This was true on a personal level—slaves were his servants, his mistresses, and his children—but also on a national level. Concerned with the health of the young nation he was seeking to develop, Jefferson knew that slavery was necessary for economic reasons: he deliberately chose to see no contradiction between this and the fact that he was fighting to overthrow his own “enslavers,” the British nation.
Kendi’s choice of characters is such that the reader can understand how vast changes across the course of a single person’s lifetime in the United States could cause them to alter their views on Race and race relations, often in significant ways. As a young man, W. E. B. Du...
(The entire section is 747 words.)