U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Salon Post #1: On Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning

Editor's Note

I am so excited to get our “Salon” featuring Ibram Kendi’s Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Before I get started I just wanted to note, that this book selection will hopefully be the first of many (our next pick will be in January). I apologize for the delay in posting, but I hope it gave more of you time to engage with this wonderful (and rather lengthy) read. My reflections and discussion points are only meant as a jumping off point here: they are not a fully fledged response to the book.

 

 

In Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning he traces the history of America’s racist ideas from pre-enlightenment Europe through the Black Lives Matter. I am generally skeptical of large scale surveys, but Kendi’s Stamped has the detail (and exacting prose) of a good monograph but the accessibility and call to arms of a popular history survey.

Kendi argues that racist ideas have not inspired racism and racist policy, but were spurred by racist policies themselves. Racist ideas historically developed to justify everything from slavery to segregation to mass incarceration.

Not only does Kendi (in my perspective) soundly prove this, he gives insight into the developers of America’s racist (and anti-racist ideas). What books did Cotton Mather read on race? Why did Thomas Jefferson so revere John Locke? Popular “well known” historical figures are interrogated and in terms of the lineage of their racial ideas.

Though I learned so much from the early sections of Kendi’s work, my favorites were near the end. His exploration of Black Power, the development of intersectional feminism, and the profound critiques leveraged by Gangsta Rap are brilliant, and accessible enough for undergraduates to read.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed Kendi’s work, I do wish he had included some of the less well known intellectual figures and thinkers, particularly regarding African American women’s intellectual history and the politics of mass incarceration. Until the development of Black Feminist and intersectional feminist theory in the late 20th century, Kendi rarely interprets the impact of African American women intellectuals (with the notable exception of Phyllis Wheatley).

These are just a few thoughts on Kendi’s groundbreaking Stamped from the Beginning! I hope to include more polished thoughts in a later post, but for now I want to know what you all think! Remember, please submit your guest posts and look forward to an interview with Ibram Kendi.

  1. How does Kendi’s work fit with other works on African American intellectual history, like How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women.
  2. Would you use this an undergraduate course? Which sections?
  3. Much of Kendi’s discussion of Cotton Mather and the puritans was new to me. What was the newest/most surprising insight for you?
  4. Kendi very clearly centers his work in the present political moment: #BlackLivesMatter and the post Obama era. How does this affect his argument? What value does this add to the book?
  5. What does Stamped From the Beginning add to our understanding of American intellectual history? Has it reframed your conception of intellectual history in any way?

Obviously, these are not meant to be pedantic and are just a starting point!!! I can’t wait to hear your thoughts! And also, any suggestions for our next read.

18 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Would you use this an undergraduate course? Which sections?

    Teaching two surveys in American History I and one in World History II, I used the first few chapters from Kendi’s book to lecture on the roots of racism. I was eager to set up both classes with an idea that the Transatlantic Slave trade didn’t just happen out of a void, but was rooted into something much larger and philosophical.
    For my American History course the inclusion of historical narratives of race, matched with Puritan Mather’s views really worked well into the course and was a constant touchstone. When we discussed early abolitionist thought, John Woolman, and eventually matching up well with a lecture based on Robert G. Parkinson’s Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution, we collectively as a class were able to constantly return to that early lecture on the roots of racism. Wrapping up the semester now, encountering primary sources dealing with the racial views of Lincoln, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, the ideas from that first lecture based on Stamped From the Beginning are educating all of our conversations and assignments.
    I’m not sure I was as effective in my World History II class of making it a touchstone, but that is on me and the scattered nature of a world civilizations class.

  2. Holly, thanks for leading this discussion. So far I have read the first five chapters, and will knock out another five chapters or so tomorrow. I am taking my time and dog-earing pages and passages that I think I should revisit in teaching the survey.

    A few takeaways: First, this book is a model for how to write the history of ideas for a broad readership. If I understand the broadest thesis of the book, Kendi is discussing the emergence of the modern conception of “race” as an immutable heritable physical characteristic that implies certain characterological “truths,” and his argument is that theories race/racism develop as apologias for various hierarchies of power — from chattel slavery to the marginal position of poor whites in a slave society, and forward (or, maybe, downward) from there.

    The discussion of the gradual but relentless closure of “legal loopholes” that converted slavery from a slightly fluid socioeconomic status to a fixed, lifelong and heritable condition is excellent — he traces the strategic and systematic work of various colonial and imperial bodies to, for example, move away from English common law (status of the child derives from the father) to an older legal principle used to regulate the offspring of livestock — the issue of the womb belongs to the one who owns the mother. That’s a profound, if perverse, intellectual innovation — one I always emphasize in teaching — and Kendi does such a good job of clearly, plainly, delineating this and other steps taken so that the intellectual apparatus of the slave system could catch up, to some extent, with the practices on the ground.

    Now, as an intellectual historian who generally comes at things from the idealist side rather than the materialist side, I am reading this both nodding my head at the case Kendi makes and cocking my head to one side at the issue of temporality. It could be that the emphasis on practice before principle is more heuristic than absolute, and one might say that race-based slavery and racist theories sort of spiraled into and out of one another. But Kendi wouldn’t say that, I think.

    However, in discussing the conceptual shifts, Kendi does such an outstanding job of making abstract ideas concrete and accessible. If someone is looking for a way to write intellectual history for as broad a readership as possible, this seems like a good model to me.

    Another thing that popped out at me: Kendi’s treatment of Cotton Mather offers a jarring counter-narrative to the ways in which he is generally discussed among intellectual historians, but I think I will just pop my popcorn and watch that conversation unfold here, if it does unfold here.

    Finally, in reading the first five chapters, I am reminded — once again — that I have yet to teach Bacon’s Rebellion to my own satisfaction. I read Kendi’s take on the intersections of race, class and social status there, then went back and read Nancy Isenberg’s take on the same issues (from White Trash), and they both point out a (tenuous) solidarity between the fringe folk feeling ill-served by the Royal Governor and the indentured servants and Black slaves who join the cause of rebellion. Kendi does a more thorough job of explaining how that solidarity was deliberately shattered in the way punishment for the rebels was handled differently depending on “race.” But neither delves very deeply into the racism that held that coalition of rebels together in the first place: the call to make war on native settlements upon which the land-hungry outlanders were encroaching and from which they believed they deserved protection.

    It’s a complicated story — to me, anyway — one of the most complicated episodes I try to cover in explaining how racism has been used as a wedge issue to pit those lower down on the social hierarchy against each other for the benefit of the wealthy ruling class. But I feel like I never tell the story well enough from all sides. I think Kendi will help, and it will help to re-read Isenberg alongside him. But of all the things I feel obligated to “cover” in the survey, I think I do the worst job with Bacon’s rebellion. It may be that later chapters of Kendi will help make more sense of that retrospectively for me.

    Anyway, Stamped from the Beginning is a thoughtful, challenging, amazingly deep and broad history of ideas, and I am pleased for the opportunity to discuss it with fellow readers here. Thanks so much!

  3. The question I’m asking myself as I read through this book is this: why is it important to argue, as Kendri does at the outset, that racist ideas were not caused by ignorance and hatred but by the need to justify racist “policies” (9). I’m not saying it isn’t, I’d just to hear that significance articulated. It seems to me that, if not initially at least soon thereafter, “race-based slavery and racist theories sort of spiraled into and out of one another,” as L.D. put it above. I’m intrigued, in other words, by how Kendri perceives causality.

    I’m inspired by Kevin’s use (also above) of the Mather chapter(s) as a foundational essay for the US survey. I was considering chapters 18-20 to assign for a couple of days on reconstruction.

  4. Holly, thanks for getting the ball rolling on this conversation!

    I am hoping to get a post up next week with my thoughts about the book–apologies are due to our readers and fellow bloggers for my lack of blog participation in recent weeks–but I have a few quick thoughts.

    One, to relate to your question about when the book is being written: this is an important point to raise. I think back to our roundtable about Harold Cruse and *Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.* That book’s publishing date is important to keep in mind (as I stated in a recent piece published by Dissent) because 1967 was a decisive turning point in the history of thinking about race in America. It was a time of clear transition from Civil Rights to…well, we’re still dealing with that today.

    And that brings me to Kendi’s book. The recent explosion of books by historians on African American intellectual history, especially it’s more radical iterations, in the last ten years or so isn’t a coincidence. Many historians writing these works are trying to understand the ever-complicated world of race in modern American society. With appeals to “color-blindness” marking much of the modern intellectual history of race in America, it makes sense that Kendi would approach his project with the intention of arguing for varieties of racism arising to justify racist programs.

    I also think, in closing, that Kendi’s book (and others–I’m thinking about the many books being published by the editors of the Black Perspectives blog, as an example) reads with a particular sense of urgency. We need to understand these ideas *now* because, in both the short and the long run, American society is going to continue to struggle with anti-black racism. The Obama years certainly showed that, and 2017 appears to continue the trend.

    • Also–before I forget–it’s worth noting I finished *White Rage* by Carol Anderson this weekend. I can’t think of a book out right now (with the possible exception of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ newest) that would better serve to be in conversation with Kendi’s than *White Rage.*

      • Robert, funny (and great) that you should mention White Rage — I ordered that when I ordered Kendi’s book, and it is next on my to-read list. After that, Kerri Leigh Merrit’s Masterless Men, which I’ve ordered in paperback and which should be arriving around Dec. 14.

        I am also currently reading Christine Stansell’s The Feminist Promise. Between that and Kendi, I can feel a seismic shift in how I’m going to be teaching the survey.

  5. It’s been a while since I read the book and interviewed Kendi. I had multiple problems with his arguments. Holly, your sentence “Kendi argues that racist ideas have not inspired racism and racist policy, but were spurred by racist policies themselves. Racist ideas historically developed to justify everything from slavery to segregation to mass incarceration” is my main problem with the book. I disagree strongly with this materialist approach history and ideas in general. I also think he misinterprets some of the historical figures, even black subjects, he covers and reads back into them current concerns instead of viewing them in their context, an example is how he handles David Walker. I think the best place for this book is the general public who does knows hardly nothing about the history of racism. I am not sure he is making a significant contributions to historical scholarship even though the book has political legs. I write this with great reservation because I have met him and he graciously allowed me to interview him. I tried my best, as I do with all authors, to let them speak for themselves and not challenge them in the course of the interview. It will be interesting to see if any one else this week finds problems with his overall approach and argument. I will be reading with interest. For those interested in hearing the interview here it is: http://newbooksnetwork.com/ibram-x-kendi-stamped-from-the-beginning-the-definitive-history-of-racist-ideas-in-america-nation-books-2016/

    • Based upon your criticisms, I reccomend checking out Bruce Dain’s wonderful monograph entitled, A Hideous Monster of the Mind: American Race Theory in the Early Republic. His study is much more limited in subject and chronology than Kendi’s book. Dain focuses on rational Enlightment thought and neglects the influence of earlier Christian thought. Dain also did admirable work on recovering the thought of nearly forgotten African-American thinkers. I think reading Dain alongside Kendi will reward the careful reader.

    • Thanks for your perspective Lilian! I was wondering if you could expand on your more general opposition to the materialist approach to the history of ideas? I would to hear more of your thoughts on this subject.

      I do wonder though why you consider this book appropriate for the “general public” in lieu of misinterpretations etc?

      • Holly, not to put too fine a point on my critiques. Materialist conceptions of history of ideas privilege economic explanations for racism, sexism and every other kind of social subordination. Ideas are mere tools or weapons to justify economic/material interest. Not to deny that structures are important or that economic interest is a powerful motivator.

        Kendi holds that policy (e.g. slavery) created racism and that changing policy can eradicate racism. Abolition did not end racism; just like the Civil Rights, movement didn’t end it either (not that they were not effective in providing necessary relief from the most grievous abuses). Under Kendi’s approach, what is required is to double-down on state policy and enforcement to eliminate racism.

        Which policy will be effective and degree of resistance encountered is indeterminable. Claims to freedom of association, religion, and economics make the question of what is to be done a pressing one. Attitudes, ways of thinking, worldviews, and ideologies are more powerful in shaping society than any structure or policy. For example, changes in how society viewed same-sex relationships (because coming out campaigns made many people realized that their sister, son, or neighbor were gay and really nice people) changed before the Supreme Court decision played catch up. And yes, there are always cultural lagers. I prefer a culturalist view that holds that culture is more important giving literature, art, music, theater, film, religion and associations a greater role in social change. What are structures but solidified ideas? Therefore, this becomes a chicken or the egg argument, and I prefer to place ways of thinking before action and material effects. This may not be in vogue in this moment of political upheaval.

        I think the Kendi’s book is clear and well written without a lot of jargon, unnecessary address to the choir or overburden with details. This makes it a good book for a popular audience who will gain more from it than not and why this book won the National Book Award. The intended audience will not be thinking in terms of the finer historiographical arguments and that’s fine.

  6. Thanks for starting this conversation Holly! So far what I found most useful about applying Kendi’s book to teaching race is his distinction between assimilationist and segregationist ideas. This, for example, is very helpful in explaining Thomas Jefferson’s different views regarding Natives and black folks. It also allows me to introduce these concepts and then ask students what kind of racism this is?

  7. I am in the middle of the Enlightenment section now, and it seems to me that another fruitful question/avenue of reflection is how Kendi’s historiography of racist ideas is in conversation with/against pivotal moments in the historiography of American slavery. His discussion of Benjamin Rush, for example (97-98), is a reminder of Kendi’s wholesale rejection of the “damage thesis” of Elkins, as being both racist and incorrect.

    Kendi writes, “Rush was the first activist to commercialize the persuasive, though racist, abolitionist theory that slavery made Black people inferior. Whether benevolent or not, any idea that suggests that Black people as a group are inferior, that something is wrong with Black people, is a racist idea. Slavery was killing, torturing, raping, and exploiting people, tearing apart families, snatching precious time, and locking captives in socioeconomic desolation. The confines of enslavement were producing Black people who were intellectually, psychologically, culturally and behaviorally different, not inferior.”

    The usage there of “different” reveals a couple of things — first, the enduring importance of Boasian/Benedictine (?!) comparative anthropology. The word “different” flattens constructed hierarchies. But it’s just as important in these post-Elkins/Moynihan years that Kendi doesn’t use a word with the valence of “damaged” — perhaps, in our contemporary parlance, something like “traumatized.”

    This historiographic note, which I think is the root chord for Kendi’s book, may not harmonize with recent histories of American slavery by, say, Walter Johnson and Ed Baptist — but these interpretations don’t have to harmonize with one another. It’s probably more salutary, if not more necessary, to listen to and sit with the dissonance.

    • Oh, thanks for this L.D. I was thinking about Johnson, Baptist, and their ilk while reading this. I did think Kendi’s interpretation could “harmonize” with their arguments, particularly regarding capitalism and slavery, though Kendi might say racism developed to justify the commodification of the body (re: Baptist) which gets tricky. I was wondering if you could say more about the historiographic relationship between Kendi’s work and these historians of slavery?

  8. This is a really terrific discussion, and thank you to Holly for organizing this salon!

    Like Eran, I found Kendi’s distinction between assimilationist and segregationist ideas to be incredibly useful, and I think it also helped me understand Kendi’s argument about the temporal priority of racist practices over racist ideas (which appears to have ruffled some idealist feathers above!).

    I don’t think that Kendi is making quite the materialist argument that Anthony, L.D., and Lilian have identified, although I also haven’t read that far into the book. But it seems to me that Kendi’s definition of a racist idea–in either the assimilationist or the segregationist variety–has less to do with difference than with inferiority. Dogmatic notions of black inferiority emerge not simply to justify discriminatory behavior, but also in a sense to discipline it into a self-conscious practice, to standardize or codify it, to eliminate anomalies or exceptions. Discriminatory behaviors might be unevenly practiced and people might engage in them for a variety of reasons, but racist ideas about black inferiority focus those behaviors on a single point of (putative) difference: the belief that Black people are inferior becomes the central reason people start giving for their discriminatory behavior.

    Or at least that’s how I’m reading his argument re: ideas and practices.

  9. A few thoughts in response to this thread.

    1. The pedagogical usefulness of this Kendri’s terrific book: the three classes of ideas pertaining to race – segregationist, assimilationist, and antiracist; the ways ideas are related to familiar stations in along US History survey journey; the clear demonstration of ties between economic predation and racist ideology. All these are teachable to the sorts of students I have. The jargon-free character of the prose, as Lilian points out, makes it usable at the undergraduate level.

    2. The materialist argument does not really interfere much with the utility mentioned above.

    3. I like the way Andy has theorized how ideas are coded to give order to consciousness, but Kendri does not engage in the matter at this depth. He does indeed make the claim repeatedly that the source of racist ideas are policies of material self-interest and that the ideas serve a justifying or “dressing up” function in regard to those policies. I’m only halfway through the book, but it is still unclear to me why this is a significant point – perhaps it speaks more strongly to advocating for public policies that provide for material needs, first and foremost. Kendri’s discussion of reparation-related policies suggests this. The freedmen weren’t really “free,” he argues, because they did not have the material resources that would have allowed them to act freely.

    4. In terms of causation, I’m more persuaded by Kendri’s description of various vicious cycles, where policies are justified by racist ideas which generate race hatreds which then lead to more racially discriminatory policies, more strident ideas, and so on.

    5. It may be, as Lilian suggests, an unproductive chicken-egg argument to press the question of the source of racist ideas too strongly. But it strikes me that Kendri’s repeated claims about the cause of racist ideas in material self interest leave the source of *antiracist* ideas unexplained. Another way to say this would be to ask why racist policies require justification at all — unless there is some context of understanding prior to (or parallel to) the material self-interest that put the racist policies into effect to begin with.

  10. Sorry to be so late to this conversation, but I just wanted to ask Lillian something about this passage in her first comment:

    “For example, changes in how society viewed same-sex relationships (because coming out campaigns made many people realized that their sister, son, or neighbor were gay and really nice people) changed before the Supreme Court decision played catch up.”

    While the above dynamic is certainly true, there is a strong analysis on the left that the individualist logic of neoliberalism was essential in making gay rights happen; i.e. the more libertarian ideology typifies the Republican Party’s talking points, the more difficult it becomes to be say, a Randian and a Burke-ian (according to the old fashioned understanding of him) at the same time. Something has got to give, and something did: and that’s what makes, say, Milo Whatshisface possible.

    So the question is, do you not find this line of thinking — which does bringing it back into a materialist place insofar as the war of the rich against everyone else is the driving force here — not convincing at all?, or only a little convincing, etc, and why?

    • Robin Marie, I find it a little convincing, but not much. Individualism is not an idea just useful for economic or neoliberal projects but also has a strong cultural component in self-fashioning, identity, desire, and sympathy; ideas spread through all kinds of culture expression. That’s is what makes individualism so useful for the neoliberal project, e.g. advertising that draw on these individually centered sensibilities tying them to economic interest. No way to disentangle a progressive recognition of difference without neoliberal co-optation. Be all you can be.

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