Racism, an intricate component of the American saga since colonial times, is arguably the most contradictory element of the ideals upon which the country was founded, and a provocative rebuttal brought up whenever the United States seeks to point fingers at the human rights violations of its neighbors, in its self-appointed role as global policeman. Now, in a new millennium and well into our second century as a republic, this scar across the conscience of our nation is ever prominent as we embark upon the start of a new, polarizing Presidential administration.
Well before the controversy of this latest election, University of Florida historian Ibram X. Kendi set out to chronicle the record of U. S. racial friction in a book provocatively titled “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” A logical beginning might start with the European settlement of what was called “the New World,” but Kendi goes even further back, to 15th century Portugal, one of the principle exploiters and oppressors of the Western Hemisphere and peoples of color.
This tome has already received the National Book Award for Nonfiction, a substantial accolade for a subject conceivably too broad for a single volume, even one weighting in at 592 pages. Recently, Professor Kendi was in town to explain the motivation behind his undertaking this ambitious subject, first at the Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood on Dec. 4, and then at Lemeirt Park’s Eso Won Book Store on Dec. 5.
The first venue found Kendi holding a dialogue with UCLA History Professor Brenda E. Stevenson, a name familiar to the readership of Our Weekly (see “The Demonization of Blacks,” 8-22-13), and the author of “The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender and the Origins of the L.A. Riots.”
Kendi bases his scholarship upon the proposition that the principle shapers of Anglo racial concepts might be divided into three separate categories: segregationists, assimilationists, and anti-racists. The interplay between these three separate (and sometimes overlapping) groups meant that the definition of “racism” has shifted with the passage of time. For the sake of clarification, Kendi offers up his own classification thusly as:
“…any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.”
Among the characters cited as contributing to our collective concept of race are familiar names like President Thomas Jefferson and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Less familiar is Cotton Mather, a prominent 17th century minister and theologian, perhaps best known for his role as an instigator and provocateur in the Salem witchcraft trials.
Kendi argues that discrimination and prejudice evolved not from the convenient roots of hatred and ignorance, but primarily from the desire for economic advantage and self interest. Curiously, he lays the blame at least partially at the feet of leading liberal figure heads like Susan B. Anthony (who demonstrated backlash against granting Black men the right to vote, circa 1870), W.E.B. DuBois (whose promotion of a “talented ten” to lead the Black race promoted a class division among the African Diaspora), Abraham Lincoln (who opposed slavery while maintaining the basic inferiority of the darker races), and Chief Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren (whose championing 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education overturning “separate but equal” inferred that Black education was innately inferior).
Assimilationists as a whole are implicated, since by pushing those traditionally ostracized to “fit in,” they perpetuate the notion that minorities are inherently inferior. To reinforce this rationale he points the accusing finger at himself, claiming that act of researching this subject uncovered his own personal prejudices. Most tellingly, Harlem Renaissance novelist Zora Neale Hurston and radical and scholar Angela Y. Davis are the only individuals who emerge from the pages of “Stamped from the Beginning” unblemished.
Right or wrong, Ibram Kendi raises intriguing issues in the never ending discourse on race, and his forthcoming sequel will surely provide fodder for this on going discussion. “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” lists for $32.99, and may be purchased at Eso Won Books, 4327 Degnan Blvd. For more information on Ibram Kendi and his writing, visit http://www.ibram.org/.