Stamped, a “remix” of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning adapted by Jason Reynolds for a younger audience, has gotten a lot of praise.
It was the Goodreads’ Choice Winner for Nonfiction in 2020. It has a 4.48 rating on Goodreads. It’s on Time‘s “100 Best YA Books of All Time”. It was recommended reading from my public high school.
The reviews are pretty positive as well:
“This should be required reading in all American schools.”
“Everyone should read this book.”
“I hope this book is put into the hands of every teen in this country, so that it can at least somewhat counteract the white-colored ‘history’ they learn in schools. ”
“Put this in the hands of all American teens.”
So naturally I, an American teen, decided to read it, hoping to expand my view of history. That is not what I got.
What Stamped Does Well
Part of the book’s introduction, by Ibram X. Kendi, is well-written and thoughtful. He begins by describing the purpose of the book: “I write about the history of racism to understand racism today.”
Then he moves into a definition of the term anti-racist idea: “any idea that suggests that racial groups are equal.” To be an antiracist, then, is to believe all racial groups are equal and should be treated as such. He also says that by acknowledging racism we can work towards “an antiracist America where our skin color is as irrelevant as the colors of the clothes over our skin.” This is a great message.
And I agree it’s extremely important that while we celebrate the great things about our country’s history, we also recognize the not-so-great things America has done. Including the elephant in the room: slavery and racism. I am glad people value learning more about the complicated history of our country with the goal to truly realize the dream of “liberty and justice for all”.
Absolutely, history should not be “whitewashed” and we should not ignore the truth in the name of patriotism, and I’m glad someone decided to write a book about it. I did learn some new things, such as the story of Phyllis Wheatley, and I began to think about history more critically, since we all know history is written by those in power.
With less bias, less thinly veiled propaganda and less just plain lying by omission, this could be a great and timely read. But here are some of my problems with the book.
What Stamped Does Not Do Well
1) It conflates racism with words whose etymology have literally nothing to do with race
Stamped claims that the Enlightenment was racist, because it’s called the EnLIGHTenment. As if LIGHT is better than DARK (skin).
“See, in the Enlightenment era, light was seen as a metaphor for intelligence (think, I see the light) and also whiteness (think, opposite of dark). And this is what Franklin was bringing to America through his club of ingenious fools.” Ah yes, his club of ingenious fools, who only laid the groundwork for democracy as we know it.
Is “the light at the end of the tunnel” now racist? What about “black and white thinking”? Or “light the way”?
And now for the quote that made me seriously question whether I was reading satire:
“Scholars pointed out everyday phrases… had long associated Blackness and negativity. Two other words could’ve been included—words that still exist today: minority, as if Black people are minor, making White people major…“
This kind of thing makes actual social justice seem like a joke, and it obscures legitimate points the book makes, such as the racialization of the slang “ghetto”.
2) It claims that the “world’s first racist” was in 1415
According to Stamped, the title of “world’s first racist” is bestowed on Gomes Eanes de Zurara, who wrote The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea and defended the African slave trade.
While this is evidence of the emergence of anti-black racism tied to the slave trade, racism is NOT solely a European concept. In-group bias has existed for as long as humans have been around. I don’t think you’d be able to find a serious historian who would actually say that the first racist was in 1415. The book mentions nothing pre-1415.
3) It fundamentally misunderstands the American Revolution and early US History
Here’s Stamped‘s summary of the American Revolution:
“Britain had ended slavery (at least in England, but not in the British colonies). America refused to do so. Britain looked at America as… dumb. America said, “Mind your business, Britain.” Britain said, “You are my business, America.” America said, “Well, we can change that.” And in 1776, before anyone could spell W-E W-A-N-T S-L-A-V-E-R-Y, Thomas Jefferson, who at the time was a thirty-three-year-old delegate to the Second Continental Congress, sat down to pen the Declaration of Independence.”
First of all, the Revolutionary War didn’t begin with the Declaration of Independence. It began in 1775 with Lexington & Concord, and the situation had been escalating long before that. The incendiary Stamp Act and the subsequent beginning of pre-revolutionary unrest in the colonies was in 1765, eleven years before slavery was even outlawed in Britain.
And while America did not abolish slavery during the American Revolution and this is indeed a stain on our history, the war was NOT fought to keep slavery. It was fought for independence from Britain because of heavy taxes enacted after Britain’s defeat in the French & Indian/Seven Years War.
You can discuss the hypocrisy of the Founding Fathers’ philosophy of freedom in the context of slavery without presenting just plain inaccurate history as fact.
The authors also clearly did not research the origins of the Constitution either:
“Turns out, Jefferson’s declaration resulted in years of violent struggle with the British but, more important, it exposed a weak American government. So, this constitution was supposed to define it and solidify it. “
Even ignoring the insinuation that Jefferson was a villain for apparently causing the Revolutionary War by writing the Declaration (?), this sentence does not make any sort of sense.
The Declaration of Independence was signed July 4th, 1776 to declare independence from Great Britain. There was no “American government” at the time, and it was eleven years before the Constitution was written.
America adopted the Articles of Confederation in 1777 as the new national government. However, the Articles were not effective because the federal government had very little power over the states, and in 1787 the Constitution was drafted in Philadelphia as a stronger replacement, going into effect in 1789. So no, the Declaration of Independence did not “expose a weak American government” and I can’t believe an editor did not catch this pretty big mistake.
4) It makes several contradictory claims, such as the confusing insinuation that segregation is bad… except when black people suggest it
“The piece was called “Segregation.” Du Bois sided with his former rival, Marcus Garvey, stating that there is a place, maybe even an importance, to a voluntary nondiscriminatory separation.”
Two chapters later:
“Wallace had taken a public stand for segregation the year before, and received 100,000 letters of support…. This proved, painfully, that everyone—the North and the South—hated Black people.“
Either segregation is good, or segregationists hate Black people. Which is it?
5) It has several leaps in logic and leaves out context
Here’s an excerpt from the book, trying to explain why Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that set the precedent for school integration and laid the foundation for the end of segregation and Jim Crow, was racist.
“It’s actually a pretty racist idea. I mean, what it basically suggests is that Black kids need a fair shot, and a fair shot is in White schools. I mean, why weren’t there any White kids integrating into Black schools? The assumption was that Black kids weren’t as intelligent because they weren’t around White kids, as if the mere presence of White kids would make Black kids better.”
No, the assumption and the fact was that white schools WERE actually better because of Jim Crow laws that labeled black Americans as second-class citizens and denied them access to objectively better schools. Objectively better schools which were only available to white people because of the systemic racism that existed in this legislation. That’s why Brown v. Board was important; it was the first step to making a good education available to everyone.
The plaintiff in the case was a black man who sued the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas because his daughter was barred from the all-white elementary schools. His entire case was based on the fact that the all-black schools his daughter was forced to attend were not as good as the ones available to white children, and that this violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause. Because the schools were not equal.
The book also thinks the Civil Rights Act was a setback for civil rights.
“… the civil rights bill that Kennedy had been working on would be passed. But what did that mean? On paper it would mean that discrimination on the basis of race was illegal. But what it actually meant was that White people, even those in favor of it (in theory), could then argue that everything was now fine….“
“the worst part, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would’ve caused White people to rethink White seniority and superiority…. So, even though the act was supposed to outlaw discrimination, it ended up causing a backlash of more racist ideas.
6) It describes anti-racism as not making generalizations about an entire race, yet frequently generalizes white people
“Who was going to make sure the laws would be followed if the law, lawmakers, and law enforcers were all White and racist?“
“And though it would cause what every bit of progress caused, White rage and resistance.”
Yes, there were many white people who opposed racial justice and joined terrorist groups like the KKK. But there were also white people who participated in the Civil Rights Movement. It’s not as simple as every white person in the history of the US = racist.
7) It has a clear political bent, Marxist undertones and idolizes certain figures to the point of propaganda
Lots of very one-sided, oversimplified politics:
“Richard Nixon ran on the Republican ticket. His innovative campaign would reveal the future of racist ideas.”
“[Reagan] dominated the media (Angela Davis was running against him, for the vice president seat, and couldn’t get any coverage), created false narratives about the state of the country, and won.“
“Ten days later, President Bill Clinton endorsed, basically, a new slavery“
“And this time, in the late eighties, after the election of George H. W. Bush (who of course used Reagan’s racist ideas to win)“
“in casting her vote for Democrat Barack Obama, Davis joined roughly 69.5 million Americans, but more than voting for the man, Davis voted for the grassroots efforts of the campaign organizers, those millions of people demanding change.”
Lots of Marxism:
“Inspired by Karl Marx, Du Bois broke ground on a new idea—antiracist socialism. He used this idea to move further into antiracism…”
“So, Davis started seriously considering joining the Communist Party, which at the time was feared by the American government, who thought the Communists (and communism, which was rooted in ending social classes) would overthrow democracy.“
Speaking of Angela Davis, she’s just about the only black leader in this book who is not an “assimilationist”, and the last section of the book idolizes her as the saint of all things antiracist. We’re all supposed to emulate her. There’s not one negative word about her.
But did you know, for example, she praised the Jonestown cult, congratulated Jim Jones for his progressivism and antiracism just a year before the Jonestown massacre? She said this on a radio dispatch: “…I would like to say to my friend Jim Jones and all my sisters and brothers from Peoples Temple who are in Guyana there: know that there are people here, not only in the San Francisco Bay Area but also across the country, who are supporting you, who are with you.”
(That’s not in this book)
“Angela Davis was charged with murder…she was arrested and brought to the New York Women’s House of Detention. While she was in there…. she began to develop her Black feminist theory…. On June 4, 1972, Angela Davis was free. But not. Not free in her own mind until she could help all the women and men she was leaving behind bars get free. There was no value, to her, in her own exceptionalism. She was an antiracist.”
“Angela Davis had been speaking. They had been fighting the good fight.“
“Among them was Angela Davis… she was certainly the nation’s most famous Black American woman academic… she had been arguably America’s most antiracist voice over the past two decades, unwavering in her search for antiracist explanations when others took the easier and racist way of Black blame.”
“… the Republicans got tougher. So tough that they tried, once more, to get Angela Davis fired…”
“Toni Morrison, the queen of American letters and the editor of Angela Davis’s iconic memoir three decades earlier…”
“Clinton gave a commencement address at Angela Davis’s alma mater, UC San Diego. It was as if suddenly he’d seen the light (the irony!) and pledged to lead “the American people in a great and unprecedented conversation on race.”
“antiracist feminists bolded demanded of America to #SayHerName, to shine light on the women who have also been affected by…racism. Perhaps they, the antiracist daughters of Davis, should be held up as symbols of hope….perhaps we should all do the same.”
“From Zurara to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Sojourner Truth to Audre Lorde… Cotton Mather
to Thomas Jefferson
to William Lloyrd Garrison
to W. E. B. Du Bois
to Angela Davis
to Angela Davis
to Angela Davis….”
… did Angela Davis sponsor this?
8) It’s not sure 9/11 was terrorism?
President Bush condemned the “evil-doers,” the insane “terrorists,” all the while promoting anti-Islamic and anti-Arab sentiments.
Oh yes. Flying filled passenger planes into towers full of innocent people, that’s totally not terrorism. Only racists would think that’s evil! I mean, how dare Bush say anything on the “terrorists” who just “attacked” the country?
You can discuss the prejudice that Muslim and Arabic people living in the US faced during the aftermath of 9/11 without hinting that 9/11 somehow wasn’t an act of terrorism.
9) It uses very charged language that isn’t appropriate for objective analysis and insults the intelligence of the reader
“Despite all the assimilationist vomit coming from the Black elites and the racist vomit coming from White segregationists….”
Yes. Let’s use the term “vomit” in our clear, unbiased analysis of history. Let’s not expect our audience of dumb teenagers to come to their own conclusions about things that are clearly racist.
“The secession, which just means to withdraw from being a member of, not to be confused with succession, meaning a line of people sharing a role one after the other (like a succession of slave owners), not to be confused with success, which means to win (because that didn’t happen), started with South Carolina.”
“This strange game of whatever’s good for the goose not being good for the gander. A gander is a male goose. But for this example, a gander is a whole bunch of Black people“
And finally my favorite quote from this book:
“If you’re like me, you’re asking yourself, Was [Reagan] on drugs? Yes. Yes, he was. The most addictive drug known to America. Racism.”
10) It constantly applies modern-day sensibilities to history and condemns several Civil Rights leaders– even Black ones– as “assimilationist” for not being progressive enough for 2020
Stamped‘s definition of assimilationist: “Assimilationists are people who like you, but only with quotation marks.”
“…abolitionists urged the newly freed people to go to church regularly, learn to speak “proper” English, learn math, adopt trades, get married, stay away from vices (smoking and drinking), and basically live what they would consider to be respectable lives…. this strategy was called uplift suasion. It was racist…“
“[Frederick] Douglass had boldly argued against polygenesis and proved there was no White Egypt, making him the world’s most famous Black male abolitionist and assimilationist…”
“W. E. B. Du Bois had graduated from the best Black school and the best White school, proving the capabilities of Black people. At least in his own mind. Like I said, he was obsessed with keeping up with White people. Running their race.”
“[Malcolm X’s supporters] were now passionately embracing the term Black, which stunned Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Negro’ disciples and their own assimilationist parents and grandparents, who would rather be called ‘n—–‘ than ‘Black.‘”
“…writers like Harper Lee, whose novel To Kill a Mockingbird was basically the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the civil rights movement. Don’t mind if I… don’t. Nope, no White saviors for them.”
“Clarence Thomas was an assimilationist in the worst way. He saw himself as the king of self-reliance. A “pick yourselves up by the bootstraps” kind of guy, even though his work as an activist got him into his fancy schools and landed him this fancy job.”
On the Harlem Renaissance:
“It was a new form of uplift suasion—media suasion—which basically just means using media, in this case, art, to woo Whites. But not everyone was kissing Du Bois’s assimilationist feet.“
Long story short, I found several inaccuracies in this book and think there should be a better standard for good books to teach kids about the history of racism in this country. Though Stamped claims to advocate for a society where content of character matters more than race, it presents biased and incorrect information and racial generalizations.
I plan to read the original book by Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning, to see if it is any better than this one.
Have you read Stamped? Any other “antiracist” books? What did you think?
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