Ibram X. Kendi was born as Ibram Rogers in New York City in 1982. His parents were former student activists who had come of age during the Black Power movement of the 1960s and '70s, when they embraced the radical, pro-Marxist tenets of black liberation theology. After earning undergraduate degrees in Journalism and Black Studies at Florida A&M University in 2004, Kendi found work as a journalist and went on to complete a doctoral program in African American Studies at Temple University during 2005-10. He also worked as an Assistant Professor of History at SUNY Oneonta from 2008-12, and as an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at SUNY Albany from 2012-15. In 2012 Kendi published his first book, The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972. He changed his surname to Kendi in 2013 and has been an Assistant Professor of African American History at the University of Florida since 2015. Kendi also serves as associate editor of the online periodical Black Perspectives.
Kendi's second book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, was published by Nation Books, became a New York Times bestseller, and won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. In this volume, the author lays out what he terms “the entire history of racist ideas, from their origins in fifteenth-century Europe,” where, as he points out, numerous scholarly tracts offered moral rationales for the slave trade by claiming that Africans, by their nature, were so ill-equipped for liberty, that enslavement was in fact a blessing for them. Kendi also touches upon post-Civil War practices in the U.S., where lawmakers—convinced that blacks “were naturally lazy, lawless, and oversexed”—likewise “justified … new racist policies with racist ideas.” And he suggests that by the late 20th century in America, anti-black prejudice was less overt but every bit as pernicious as it had been during earlier epochs—employing euphemisms like “law and order,” “war on drugs,” and “tough on crime” as code words for the continued, if somewhat veiled, oppression of black people.
Among the more prominent villains identified by Kendi in Stamped from the Beginning are Thomas Jefferson and the famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison, for his part, explicitly blamed slavery—and not any innate biological inferiority—for the “degraded” economic and intellectual condition of 19th-century blacks, writing: “Nothing has been left undone to cripple their intellects, darken their minds, debase their moral nature, obliterate all traces of their relationship to mankind.” As such, he favored the implementation of special compensatory measures to help lift blacks out of their wretched state. But because Garrison's view implicitly accepted the premise that some type of “black behavioral inferiority” did in fact exist—albeit because of historical inequities—Kendi paints the abolitionist as an unwitting racist.
Kendi’s book is highly critical of Garrison and other “assimilationists” who, unlike overtly racist segregationists, have sought, over the course of history, to help blacks achieve succes in America's majority-white society. Because assimilationist precepts occasionally argue that the black community ought to engage in some measure of self-examination aimed at addressing such pathologies as its own high rates of violent crime, single motherhood, drug abuse, and academic failure, Kendi dismisses these precepts as expressions of a racist psychology that wrongly blames the victims of injustice for their own sufferings. “To say something is wrong with a group is to say something is inferior about that group,” he writes. “I define anti-Black racist ideas—the subject of this book—as any idea suggesting that Black people, or any group of Black people, are inferior in any way to another racial group.” “When you truly believe that the racial groups are equal, then you also believe that racial disparities are the result of racial discrimination,” he elaborates. Striking a similar tone at a December 2016 speaking engagement in Seattle, Kendi declared: “I don’t need a white-only sign in my face. There is nothing more overt than a racial disparity.”
In Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi's contempt for the purveyors of “assimilationist thinking that has … served up racist beliefs about Black inferiority” is by no means directed only at white targets. For example, he condemns the famous black civil-rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois for his 1897 assertion that “[t]he first and greatest step toward the settlement of the present friction between the races lies in the correction of the immorality, crime, and laziness among the Negroes themselves, which still remains a heritage of slavery.” By Kendi's calculus, any suggestion that blacks should accept some measure of personal responsibility for overcoming their own difficulties is tantamount to racism.
In a similar spirit, Kendi flatly rejects the assimilationist goal of achieving a “post-racial society” as a deplorable, “racist idea,” on grounds that it fails, in his view, to properly blame every conceivable example of black underachievement or behavioral pathology on societal racism.
In Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi writes that he himself—prior to his intellectual awakening—had spent many years blind to the all-encompassing oppression that rests at the heart of black failure in all its manifestations. “Fooled by certain racist ideas,” he explains, “I did not fully realize that the only thing wrong with Black people is that we think something is wrong with Black people.”
Of all the individuals whose political and ideological views are examined in Stamped from the Beginning, the one who is portrayed most explicitly in heroic terms is the lifelong communist revolutionary Angela Davis.
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