Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi

Stamped, a young-reader version of Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, is an engaging but one-sided picture of racism in America’s past.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. Little, Brown, 2020, 294 pages, including notes and index.

Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12

Recommended for: Teen, ages 15-up

Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America was published in 2017 and won a National Book Award for nonfiction that year. Author Ibram Kendi’s theme, in that book and in his #1 current bestseller, How to Be An Antiracist, is that the United States is so deeply steeped in racism that virtually no political figure, policy, or person is unaffected by it. To prove his point he dives into the historical record for relevant quotes and events. Stamped (the book we’re reviewing today) is the same story “remixed” for younger readers. Kendi provides the material and Jason Reynolds, an extremely popular and much-awarded children’s author, writes the narrative.

“This is not a history book,” Reynolds says on the first page, and repeats that claim throughout. What he means (and what I presume Kendi means, even after titling the original book a Definitive History) is that the past is very much present and we haven’t really gotten beyond any of it. Racist ideas (and presumably, racism itself) may look a little different now but are not essentially different from 1618, that fateful year when the first African slaves were purchased in Virginia. In the preface, Kendi defines a racist idea as “any idea that suggests something is wrong or right, superior or inferior, better or worse about a racial group.” The “World’s First Racist” is identified in Chapter One as Gomes Eanes de Zurara, biographer of Prince Henry the Navigator, who wrote the first defense of African slave trading in the 15th century.  He defended it on religious as well as mercenary grounds, as an opportunity to Christianize the “savages.”

Right away, the reader should recognize that Zurara was not the first man to regard a particular race or nationality as inferior and worthy of enslaving. And that slavery was not unknown in Africa itself. But that’s not the point: the First Racist wrote the first consistent rationale of African chattel slavery, and thus established the groundwork for the next 500+ years in the Western hemisphere. From there, the Puritans get pasted for buying into the inferiority myth (looking at you, Richard Baxter and Cotton Mather), then the founding fathers. Jefferson gets some credit for his contradictions, as does Abraham Lincoln for his complexity, but both are ultimately complicit. From there the narrative speeds on through the Civil War (one page) and Reconstruction (six pages), early black intellectuals like W.E.B. DuBois, the divergent visions of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X., and the failures of every white president. (Barak Obama was a shining outlier but he didn’t quite deliver and that wasn’t his fault.) The historical figure who seems to represent the absolute ideal of antiracism is Angela Davis.

Stamped is illuminating because it tells the story from a perspective most of us don’t share. Is it accurate? Mostly accurate in what it includes, though the rhetoric get a bit hyperbolic at times. For example, “[Rev. Jeremiah Wright] officiated at the Obama’s wedding and spoke honestly [in sermons at Chicago’s Trinity Church] about his feeling for a country that had worked overtime to kill him and his people.” Okay, maybe the author doesn’t mean literally kill, but Rev. Wright, now retired, is quite well off and able to speak his mind with no governmental hindrance whatsoever.

Where Stamped can be truly misleading is what it leaves out.  The only mention of the Bible is the crackpot theory of an obscure 16th century travel writer about Noah’s son Ham. Yet the Bible is the original source of the “antiracist” idea that humans of all colors are uniquely created in the image of God, and thus of equal worth. The section on Phyllis Wheatley omits her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” which begins, “’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land . . .” Granted, the poem would be infuriating to anyone outside a Christian context, and perfectly reasonable to anyone within it. Though not explicitly stating that the American Revolution was fought solely for the purpose of preserving slavery (a major claim of the 1619 Project), the narrative leaves that impression. And gives little hint of the revolutionary principles for which the war was actually fought.

There are other perspectives. Martin Luther King smote the conscience of the nation by calling it to its highest ideals, but according to Stamped, there were no higher ideals. The story of America is racism to start to finish, and by the book’s end, the question is “whether you, reader, want to be a segregationist (a hater), an assimilationist (a coward), or an antiracist (someone who truly loves).” But without a basis for true love and the forgiveness of Christ, what’s to keep antiracism from devolving to hostility, if not outright hatred, for anyone who doesn’t get with the program?

Stamped is worth consideration as a readable and fairly concise exposition of current antiracist thought. Also because it will soon become required reading in most American schools. BUT do not consume the argument without reading another history for balance. Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope is an excellent choice for pulling the whole picture back into focus.

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Janie

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

2 Comments

  1. Cody on June 27, 2020 at 5:23 pm

    I feel like people like the authors of this book think of anyone who disagrees with them, even mildly, as the Enemy. So although I’m constantly being told that I need to listen to them, I feel little motivation to continue to do so because it’s a pain listening to people who won’t even consider what you say unless you parrot them. (I don’t mean that to sound like a criticism Redeemed Reader for looking at books which try to portray the African American experience and the experience of other minorities in the USA. I applaud that.) I feel like I can predict everything they say at this point anyway.

    A pity really. I’d also like to see minorities in the US have happier lives.

    • Janie on June 29, 2020 at 6:51 am

      Cody – I think we need to hear their perspective, just as we would need to hear anyone who disagrees or has another point of view. And the fact that so much of the history is tragic complicates things, to say the least. But I agree that all other points of view are being denied a voice, as if shutting up the other side will be payback for keeping the oppressed side down for so long.
      That’s no way to move forward though (making me wonder if some activists even want to move forward). Kendi and others seem to want to make EVERYTHING about racism, and everything is simply not about racism. I’m not sure about Jason Reynolds. We like his fiction because it’s about human problems, not just Black problems. His characters are individuals able to make choices, not oppressed and powerless victims. Until we learn to see each other as individuals able to make choices, there will be no progress, and that truly is a pity.

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