U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Continuing Mission of Black Intellectuals: Stamped From the Beginning and African American History

Something that caught my eye when reading Ibram Kendi’s excellent Stamped From the Beginning was his admonition early in the book about for whom he was writing. Kendi insisted that he was not pleading for understanding of racism in American history with those unwilling to learn. “But if there is anything I have learned during my research,” Kendi wrote,” it’s that the principal producers and defenders of racist ideas will not join us.”[1] This passage immediately reminded me of another opening statement, from another book addressing racism and American history. “It would be only fair to the reader to say frankly in advance that the attitude of any person toward this story will be distinctly influenced by his theories of the Negro race,” argued W.E.B. Du Bois in his note “to the reader” at the start of Black Reconstruction In America. He continued, “If, however, he regards the Negro as a distinctly inferior creation…then he will need something more than the sort of facts that I have set down.”[2] In both books, there is no desire to prove to anyone the humanity of black people. Both books are better for that.

Stamped From the Beginning, as laid out by Holly Genovese in her post last week to kick off our S-USIH salon series, argues for the interplay of racist ideas with racialist laws and ideology in American society. Racist laws gave rise to racist ideas and, eventually, raw racism and ignorance in American society. What I think is most compelling about Kendi’s book, however, is his interpretation of three broad ideological traditions in American history: segregationist, assimiliationist, and anti-racist. Reading most of Kendi’s book, it would be easy to say that the anti-racist forces in American history have often had an uphill battle to fight. African American historians, like both Du Bois and Kendi, have played an important role in providing both the factual backing and rhetorical heart of so much anti-racist discourse in American society.

It is fitting that the final two sections of Stamped from the Beginning revolve around the writings and thoughts of W.E.B. Du Bois and Angela Davis. Two African American scholars who were brilliant thinkers in their respective periods, both Du Bois and Davis fought for equality from the left and using the academy as a base of operations. One of the best elements of Stamped from the Beginning, however, is how Kendi relates the central figures in each section to other intellectuals and activists during their era. Such is the case with both Du Bois and Davis. The Du Bois section is fascinating because Kendi demonstrates how Du Bois changed his thinking on race over time. Where, at one point early in his career, Du Bois “reinforced as much racism as he struck down” in his early works, Kendi shows how Du Bois’ thinking on race evolved from a semblance of assimilationist and anti-racist ideology to full-blown anti-racism.[3]

Kendi does a fantastic job of tying the various intellectuals of each section to the broader trends in thinking about race in every era. But the sections on Du Bois and Davis especially highlight how African American intellectuals have always been on the front line of resisting racist ideology in American history. Kendi himself, of course, is part of this tradition. Stamped from the Beginning will stand out as one of many works written in the early twenty-first century dedicated not to defending the humanity of African Americans, but to critiquing a society that causes anyone to question said humanity in the first place.

[1] Ibram X. Kendi. Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. New York: Nation Books, 2016. P. 11.

[2] W.E.B. Du Bois. Black Reconstruction in America: New York: Free Press, 1992 [1935]. P. xviii.

[3] Kendi, 283.

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