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Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York: 2016), 583pp.Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York: 2016), 583pp.

Ibram Kendi (born 1982) is the youngest person ever to win a National Book Award for nonfiction for his devastating study of racist ideas in American history. The title of his book comes from a speech given by the Mississippi senator and future president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis on the floor of the US Senate on April 12, 1860. Objecting to a bill that would fund black education, Davis argued that "this government was not founded by negroes nor for negroes," but "by white men for white men." The "inequality of the black and white races," said Davis, "was stamped from the beginning."

Such unapologetic rationalizations for racism have a long history. Kendi begins with Aristotle, who divided all of humanity into two classes: "the masters and the slaves; or, if one prefers it, the Greeks and the Barbarians, those who have the right to command; and those who are born to obey." The people that the Greeks enslaved, said Aristotle, were "by nature incapable of reasoning and live a life of pure sensation, like certain tribes on the borders of the civilized world, or like people who are diseased through the onset of illnesses like epilepsy or madness."

Kendi organizes his history around five main characters who serve as "windows" or "tour guides," and then three "distinct arguments." The five historical figures are the Puritan pastor Cotton Mather, the Enlightenment representative Thomas Jefferson, the foremost abolitionist of his time William Lloyd Garrison, the preeminent black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, and then the contemporary political activist Angela Davis. These "consistently prominent or provocative racial theorists" then allow Kendi to organize his sprawling history around a threefold typology of segregationists, assimilationists, and then antiracists (the subject of his new book How to Be an Antiracist, 2019).

First published in 2016, it's a bitter irony that Stamped from the Beginning has proved to be a book ahead of its time, and even more relevant today in our own Black Lives Matter moment. Although Kendi argues forcefully for the antiracist position as the only viable option, he's also careful in his prologue to say that he does not see a "singular historical force arriving at a post racial America. I did not see a singular historical force becoming more covert and implicit over time. I did not see a singular historical force taking steps forward and backward on race. I saw two distinct historical forces. I saw a dual and dueling history of racial progress and the simultaneous progression of racism." The racial progress of Obama and the racist progress of Trump embody what he calls our country's never-ending "dueling duality." 

Dan Clendenin:

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