Essay | The Echoes of America’s Past in America’s Present

Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning is Essential Reading

If a person asked me to recommend a book about racism in America, my answer would be quick and unequivocal: Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. (See review here.)

Stamped from the beginning Ibram X. Kendi
Photo: Courtesy

Some context for the title: In April of 1860, Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederate States of America, made a speech on the floor of the United States Senate, arguing that a bill before that body to fund black education in Washington, D.C., was based on a false notion of racial equality. Davis went on to make the statement that would be employed a century and half later by a young, dynamic African American scholar:

“The inequality of the white and black races was stamped from the beginning.”

Stamped from the Beginning is a hefty work of more than 500 pages, but it’s not as intimidating as it appears because Kendi has a gift for narrative. The accolades this book won were deserved. Brilliantly connecting the past with the present, Kendi orients the reader foundationally and fundamentally; he takes apart the notions and presumptions that white Americans must unlearn if our country is to finally slay the malignant idea of white supremacy.

Read Dr. Kendi and you will learn to recognize the echoes of America’s peculiar history, from the bustling slave markets of New Orleans to the merciless cotton fields of Mississippi to the Civil War and promise and heartbreak of Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the passage of landmark civil and voting rights legislation to the killing of Dr. King in Memphis, the Rodney King verdict in 1992, and down the decades until the echo reverberates over a Minneapolis street on Memorial Day 2020. 

If you take nothing else from this book, at least consider Dr. Kendi’s idea that “It is in the intelligent self-interest of White Americans to challenge racism, knowing they will not be free of sexism, class bias, homophobia, and ethnocentrism until Black people are free of racism.”


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