One of the most urgent issues our country faces right now is racism.
One of the things we can do about racism is to understand what has caused it. Ibram X. Kendi has done his part and then some.
Kendi is the award-winning author of “Stamped from the Beginning,” a depressing, but extraordinary tour de force.
Perhaps the subtitle, “The Definitive History of Racism,” reaches a bit too far, but that’s merely a nit pick.
Kendi’s book, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction (2016), is now in softcover. As his vehicle, the author uses four historical figures - Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois — and Angela Davis.
The publication of this book’s paperback release could not be more timely. On the road to a more perfect union, we have headed backwards in the past few months.
Inspired by the “heartbreaks of Trayvon Martin” and others, Kendi more than convincingly argues that racism got started when the smart people of earlier times, such as Cotton Mather and Jefferson, subdivided African Americans into a lower rank of peoples.
We’re horrified such thoughts today, but these so-called learned men and many, many others believed that blacks were a different and lower species. Used for political gain, self-interest, or to justify discrimination, this terrible line of thinking went on and on throughout every generation and into the twentieth century.
The great Scottish David Hume refused to believe that Francis Williams, who displayed brilliance, possessed an intelligent mind. Others refused to be impressed with Phillis Wheatley, a black poetess who charmed everyday citizens in London in 1773.
One after another, authors wrote books that echoed and enhanced these racist thoughts. Kendi points out that Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia,” was the most read book until the middle of the 19th century. He wrote that blacks were inferior to whites in many, many ways.
Kendi also writes about what he terms “uplift suasion.” It sounds like a positive thing, but it was anything but in terms of racist ideas.
Uplift suasion was based on the idea that White people could be persuaded away from their racist ideas if they saw Black people improving their behavior.
This however, put African Americans in a “Catch 22” if you will. For those who did rise with good deeds, they faced white backlash or the belief that most other blacks were inferior. Do something not so good, and whites said — See there, they’re inferior.
We are in the midst of the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction. Kendi covers this sad chapter too. The “Bargain of 1877” (ironically, ironed out at a hotel in Washington owned by an African American), was the death rattle for the gains blacks had made.
Whites, however, were pleased.
The Nation wrote,
“the negro to disappear from the field of national politics. Henceforth, the nation, as a nation, will have nothing more to do with him.”
The really sad part of this history is not only how widespread racist thoughts and racism were across the country, but how long it went on. The Age of Enlightenment took place in Europe in the eighteenth century. In the United States, the Progressive Area occurred from 1890 to 1920. The progressive education movement continued well into the 20th century. Yet at the same time, many, many people continued to believe that African Americans were inferior.
Newspapers, books, articles, speakers and even some clergymen continued to reflect the continued belief of blacks as inferior. The film “Birth of a Nation” was a dagger into the hope of progress. Its wide-spread popularity brought a sad, low point to our nation by vividly convincing many Americans in both the north and the south that “the “black beast had to be beaten down.”
President Wilson felt justified in his racist polices. On and on it went. The Black Migration sent millions on an exodus from the south to the north, only to discover that the north had their own forms of prejudice.
You might think I am writing this review as a person who thinks racist thoughts never enter his mind.
Quite the contrary. A big reason I bought and read this book is so I could try and improve on my own racist thoughts.
Progress has been made in terms of racism, but there's still a lot of work to do.
If you don’t know how it got started and kept going, read this book.