by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi (2020)
For the past several months, technology and various media forms have revealed much to Americans about racism and racist incidents. I think many Americans are bewildered by recent events because they haven’t had (or taken) opportunities to interact with people of other races and cultures or to learn about the effects of 400 years of slavery and post-slavery history on American culture. If American adults are bewildered and don’t fully understand why things are the way they are and how they got that way, imagine how our young people may feel and think! Jason Reynolds is the ideal person to fill this void with his book Stamped.
Dr. Ibram Kendi wrote his award-winning book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America in 2016. He states his purpose to the Reader:
“To know the past is to know the present. To know the present is to know yourself.
I write about the history of racism to understand racism today. I want to understand racism today to understand how it is affecting me today. I want you to understand racism today to understand how it is affecting you and America today.” [p. ix]
Kendi’s book is the first to trace the “complete story of racist ideas.” That drew Reynolds to it and led to a collaboration with Kendi to write a “remix” geared specifically to teen and YA readers (although adult readers are welcome and can enjoy it equally well).
I wrote my February 2020 blog about one of many books Reynolds has written. It’s worth repeating his background here:
“Inspired by rap, he started writing poetry at age 9…but never read a novel from cover to cover until he was 17! Why? Because the books were BORING. He knows he’s not the only young person who ‘hated’ reading.”
He has now written well over a dozen books for young people and won too many awards and honors to mention here. There’s no one better suited to write a not-boring, not-history “remix” of Kendi’s book for young people. The fact that many adult readers express how much they wish they’d had this book when they were young proves its value in filling a void.
The structure of the book is chronological and divided into five time period sections that show the progression of changing rationales for slavery, then for post-slavery repression. The time periods are:
1415-1728; 1743-1826; 1826-1879; 1868-1963; 1963-today.
The people Reynolds discusses fall mainly into three categories:
segregationists, assimilationists, and antiracists.
Some people fall into more than one category over the course of their lifetime. Reynolds gives us his own definitions of each category:
Segregationists: “People who hate you for not being like them.”
Assimilationists: “People who like you…because you’re like them.”
Antiracists: “They love you because you’re like you.” [pp. 3-4]
Obviously these are not hard and fast rules or definitions—we’re dealing with people, after all—but the structure Reynolds has devised to tell the story is most helpful in following the evolution of events.
History tells us that slavery was practiced many centuries before Africans were brought to the Americas. It’s not a new concept. What’s different is that a Portuguese man named Zurara claimed that “what made Portugal different from their European neighbors in terms of slave trading” was that “the Portuguese now saw enslaving [African] people as missionary work. A mission from God to help civilize and Christianize the African ‘savages.’” [p. 6]
Zurara wrote a book espousing his ideas, which spread to other countries. Essentially, the “idea that Africans needed slavery in order to be fed and taught Jesus, and that it was all ordained by God, began to seep in and stick to the European cultural psyche….[T]his idea would eventually reach America.” [p. 9]
Slave trading was also an extremely lucrative business, and Reynolds recounts the various rationales concocted to explain why it was morally acceptable to enslave Africans in subsequent book sections. Religion continued to be a popular rationale, as well as the ridiculous concept that Africans were somehow subhuman and inferior to whites. Power and wealth could convince a lot of people of the rightness of those arguments. After all, if a cotton or tobacco farmer didn’t have to pay his workers, that meant more profit in his pocket.
I found Reynolds’s portrayal of various Americans even more interesting. E.g., Thomas Jefferson was a much more conflicted man than any information I’ve seen led me to believe. He owned many slaves, yet wrote the famous Declaration of Independence declaration that “all men are created equal.” However, he didn’t LIVE that concept.
W.E.B. DuBois changed his beliefs over time based on his life experiences, as did Booker T. Washington and many others. I’m going to leave those fascinating stories for readers to discover. I’m sure I can guarantee that those stories will be different from what we learned in school, IF we were even taught about them.
Reynolds also talks about certain books that were pivotal at various times in influencing the course of American slave and post-slavery history. Most are well known: Frederick Douglass’s The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave; Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery; W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, etc. One book that really surprised me, though, was E. R. Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes!
Finally, Reynolds says:
“I hope it’s clear how the construct of race has always been used to gain and keep power, whether financially or politically. How it has always been used to create dynamics that separate us to keep us quiet. To keep the ball of White and rich privilege rolling. And that it’s not woven into people as much as it’s woven into policy that people adhere to and believe is truth.” [p. 245]
I’m happy that I was able to borrow a copy of this book. I’m an adult, consider myself well-educated, yet learned a lot that’s different from the little we learned in school, as well as MANY things that were never discussed. In my opinion and experience, equality and antiracism are not a zero-sum game. Rather, diversity and respect for others enriches all of us beyond measure.
This book is filled with far more information than I’ve mentioned here. It’s one that I plan to buy and refer to from time to time. I recommend this book for people of any age, but particularly for our teen and young adult readers, then to be followed by open discussion.
Reynolds includes a list of books for further reading in Stamped.
Kendi’s book is available on Amazon:
Reynolds’s book is also available:
Kendi’s latest book How to Be an Antiracist is #1 on the NY Times Bestseller Hardcover Nonfiction list:
Kendi’s website: https://www.ibramxkendi.com/
Reynolds’s website: https://www.jasonwritesbooks.com/