Sunday, December 27, 2020

Review: Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi

 Rating: 3/5

It was fine.

It bills itself as "The Definitive History of Racist Ideas," and in all fairness it was a history of racist ideas. It started with recounting how Ancient Greeks thought the climate of Africa was sub-optimal for fostering culture and intellectual development, and ended with Black Lives Matter. 

I suppose I was expecting more argument, more examination of themes to help anchor stories together. Instead, it was largely a narrative. Person A was an assimilationist who did Y. Person B, who was a segregationist, responded with Z. Person C, believing in upliftsuasion, tried to do X. Movie D came out, which critics praised as W, although writer E said V. There was so much mentioned, and yet many things were mentioned so briefly that it seemed more of a name drop or a checklist than an actual presentation of an idea, its roots, its legacy. Paul Robeson was mentioned twice, for example, but if I didn't already know something about him, I wouldn't have learned anything about him except that he existed. And he's a pretty cool figure.

The structural format of telling the history of racist ideas through examination of five particular people felt a little limited to me. Some of these figures, like William Lloyd Garrison took a back seat to their own chapters. Some of the links were so tenuous. "Jefferson might have read this newspaper article, although we don't know what he thought about it or if he did for sure." The chapter on Du Bois was, I thought, the most effective at exploring the change in thinking through the work of the featured philosopher. The chapter on Angela Davis was more disappointing. Having recently read Race, Women & Class and Are Prisons Obsolete it was nice to get a little context of her life, although there wasn't all that much that was new to me. I was hoping to get a deeper understanding of how her thoughts evolved over her life, or who she considers to be intellectually influential to her and how. Actual description of her philosophy was quite thin - you're far better off actually reading something by her. To get just a narrative of her life you might indeed be better off reading her wikipedia page - for some reason, the author kept interrupting the story of her arrest, for example, with tangentially related cultural moments, like about the first actress who sported an afro.

 I wondered what a better framing may have been - perhaps picking eight or ten aspects of racism and exploring the change in philosophical thought through these facets? It could be something like worker's right, notions of beauty, health & medicine, education, voter rights, criminal justice.... All these aspects came up through the stories the author explored, and yet they weren't really linked together.

The definition of "anti-racist" was a little unclear to me. Is there a difference between anti-racist and simply not racist? My intuition is that there is - that it is not simply enough to not hold racist beliefs, but one must actively attempt to right societal and historical wrongs. But if so, I didn't feel this distinction was made either explicitly or through example in the text.

I wondered a little who the audience for this book is - and I think it is an excellent read for a person that doesn't think Barack Obama, America's first Black president, is racist against Black people, but is open to understanding that statement.

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