NEW YORK, N.Y. – “Stamped from the Beginning,” winner of the National Book Award winner for nonfiction, is a work of history very much rooted in recent events.
Ibram X. Kendi’s 600-page narrative traces the origins and justifications for racism in the U.S. from colonial times to the present. Kendi began working on the book shortly before the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, and he felt a special urgency to write about what he calls “stimulations,” individuals “who believe that black people were culturally or behaviourally inferior.”
“There are notions that scientists, and journalists, and scholars can be objective,” he says. “And typically those ideas that have connoted that black people are in some ways inferior have been cast as these objective ideas, which then legitimize them and allowed for their circulation.”
Kendi, an assistant professor of African American History at the University of Florida, structured “Stamped from the Beginning” around five people, ranging from Thomas Jefferson to Angela Davis, and around the efforts to combat racism, whether the self-help ethic of Booker T. Washington or the moral persuasion of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The book’s title comes from a speech by Jefferson Davis, given the year before he became president of the Confederate states.
“This country was created by white men for white men, and inequality between the white and black races was stamped from the beginning,” Davis said.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Kendi discussed his findings on racist ideas, why some breakthroughs in American history were not such breakthroughs after all and whether he would have made any major changes had he completed the book after the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.
ON THE ORIGINS OF RACIST IDEAS:
“I chronicle a history in which we’ve been taught this notion that it’s ignorance and hate that lead to racist ideas about black people, and then it’s these people with these racist ideas that are the people who create racist policies. And I actually find, through my research, that that line of thinking is ahistorical, and it’s actually been quite the opposite. Racist policies have been created typically out of self-interest and those policies have bred racist ideas to justify those policies, and then the circulation of those racist ideas has led to ignorance and hate.”
ON WHY BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION, THE SUPREME COURT DECISION THAT DEEMED SEGREGATION IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS UNCONSTITUTIONAL, WAS ALSO AN AFFIRMATION OF RACIST THINKING:
“Most Americans have not read the actual majority opinion written by Chief Justice Warren, and in that opinion, he states very clearly, and I’m quoting him, that ‘The segregation of the white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon colored children,’ and not white and colored children, but colored children, and his decision was based on all of these psychological and social science studies that were making the case that segregational poverty was literally making black children inferior. … These studies then suggested that what black children need is to be closer to white children.”
ON SIMILARITIES HE SEES BETWEEN TODAY AND THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY:
“One hundred years ago a wealthy New Yorker by the name of Madison Grant published a bestselling book called ‘The Passing of the Great Race,’ and this book was translated into several languages, including German, and it became the bible of somebody by the name of Adolf Hitler, and this ‘Passing of the Great Race’ author made the case that the ‘great race,’ of course an Anglo-Saxon white race, was basically under attack by everyone else. By immigrants from Eastern Europe and Southern Europe, by non-white immigrants, by civil rights activists …”
ON WHETHER HE WOULD HAVE WRITTEN THE BOOK’S OPTIMISTIC CONCLUSION, IN WHICH HE WONDERS IF “MAYBE THE TIME IS NOW” FOR REAL PROGRESS AGAINST RACISM,” HAD HE FINISHED IT AFTER THE ELECTION OF TRUMP:
“I would say that in order for anybody to bring about change you have to believe that change is possible, and so first and foremost that epilogue, and that ending, is coming from that perspective. And then, secondly, being an historian, I know that changes have usually come as a result of people feeling and recognizing that things are pretty bad. And so it would not surprise me if we are able to create an anti-racist America in the near future …”