*This year instead of posting a list of the books I’ve read this year. I am going to post articles about the books that impacted me the most in 2019. The posts will include some highlights of the author’s main ideas and my personal reflections. Think of it as my Cliff Notes, or Lindsey Notes as the case may be.
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
To read the history of racist ideas in America is, as one might imagine, an unwanted task. Reading this book is to immerse yourself in reality. Kendi did not spare anyone and did not look with rose colored glasses at any event, ideology, or person. If he saw racism in any form, he called it out and used the persons own words and an avalanche of historical documents to paint the picture. It doesn’t matter if it was Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt or Martin Luther King Jr. (yes, you read that right).
Kendi starts out by telling the history of the different theories of race and how race came to be. Theories such as Climate Theory. Stating that black skin was due to living in hotter climate and that with time, if brought to superior cold climates, their skin would lighten and they would become like white people and cured of their inferior black skin.
Or Curse Theory. The evil interpretation of the Bible stating Black people came from the cursed line of Ham in Genesis. Thus equating blackness with being cursed, inferior and outside the favor of God.
He goes on to lay out other theories and how they impacted churches, governments, families and entire nations.
Of course, it is easy to say that today we have left such backward thinking behind. But not so fast. Theories on race produced a “race problem”.
To read the history of how America dealt with “the problem of race” was just devastating. I know this but let me state, if you think racism is someone who says the words, “I hate black people” then you have a lot of work to do. The insidious nature of racism is it’s superpower. It is so insidious and works itself into every nook and cranny of our society and our own hearts, mine included.
This is where this book shines. The reader see’s with horror how racism did not just “go away”. It morphed and worked it’s way into the fabric of our society in ways that we are so blind to. From the beginning to present day, the story of racist ideas is laid out in painstaking detail.Kendi then names and explains helpful categories to understand how America has approached the “problem of race”. In seeing a race as a problem, solutions abounded. Those solutions were just as racist as were the theories of where black skin came from.
American “Solutions” to the “Problem of Race” (ie. different ways Americans are racist).
The belief that black people should be sent back to Africa. Black people, of course, were not consulted on this idea because white people knew what was best for them. It was declared that as black people were brought to America they were civilized, evangelized, and taught the higher (white) way to live. They could now be sent back Africa to bring the good news of this superior (white) way to live to the backward and lower sub-species of Africans who had not been enlightened yet.
This is the theory that racism will end and black people will get the respect they deserve when black people prove they are worthy of respect by being exceptional. After hundreds of years of brutal and dehumanizing slavery; emancipation happened (sort of). The immediate response was, “how are we supposed to respect you as black people if you live like this, talk like this and have no education?” No mention of slavery was made. Just imagine the cognitive dissonance it took to never give a school to a black child and then mock them for being so illiterate and backwards (this reasoning continues today). The literal chains were removed and the metaphorical chains remained… prove to us you deserve your humanity and our respect.
Through the generations, black people were placed on a hamster wheel. Prove to white people you are worthy of equal respect.
I’ve heard a person say this year, “If black Americans want to be respected, they’ve got to learn to speak proper english, pull their pants up over their butts and focus on education.” Or “kids think they want to run this world but talk like a rapper.” This is racism. This is not the belief that people are made in the image of God and have inherent value, end of story. It is comparing “black culture” to “white culture” and finding it lacking. It is anti-Christ to say, “you need to talk like a white person and get an education… prove to me that you are valuable and then I will treat you as such.”
Uplift Suasion says, “my racism and disrespect is your problem to solve.” You need to hustle and be perfect to be equal. Your existence doesn’t make you valuable… it must be earned by my standards. Thereby, black people are responsible for changing the hearts of white people by being exceptional in every way. It should be no surprise that thus far in American history, Uplift Suasion has never worked.
Kendi points out that even the statement “black excellence” is racist as it posits that the “normal” black person is dumb, lazy, law breaking and shifty. But this black person has excelled as a black person. The term “black excellence” (and phrases like it) says “they aren’t like normal black people who talk poorly and lack education.” Ouch.
This is the belief that, sure, blacks are equal but not everyone believes that so we need to give white people time to warm up to the idea. This was seen after the Civil War that freedom and full civil rights needed to come slowly so that whites could warm up to the idea of an equal black man or woman. Just as evil, it was believed the black people needed to warm up to the idea of being equal and we shouldn’t just give them too much power… they won’t know what to do with it.
Kendi goes on to give more historical theories on the solution to “the race problem”. I don’t have space here for them all but each is devastating and evil in it’s own right.
Painful History Ahead
Lastly, Kendi gives a devastating but frank history of racism in the halls of power up to today. You need to read the book to see his masterful tracing of racist ideas and how they affected society. But let me give two short stories.
In 1901 Theodore Rooselvelt invited Booker T. Washington to the White House after his inauguration. Booker T. Washington was called “the most distinguished member of his race in the world” at that time. Notice the “Uplift Suasion” present in that statement… Booker T. Washington is exceptional… not like the “normal dumb black person”. To his credit Roosevelt was clearly unaware of the reaction of racists across the country by inviting a black man to the White House, even if an “exceptional black man”. “The social earthquake was immediate and loud… Roosevelt had crossed the line.” One Newspaper captured the national anger, “When Mr. Roosevelt sits down to dinner with a negro he declares that the negro is the social equal of the man.” This was not acceptable. Senator Tillman made it very clear, “The action of President Roosevelt… will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again.”
Lest we applaud Roosevelt, he sadly learned his lesson. In eight years as President, he never invited a black person to the White House again.
Story after story like this is laid out for the reader.
Nixon (no shining light of morality) confided to Special Counsel Charles Colson in 1973 that some abortions were necessary such as in the case of a “black and white” baby. Colson suggested that rape was also a moral reason for an abortion and Nixon conceded to that. Primary in his mind, though, was bi-racial children who did not deserve to live.
I often get push back when I suggest books like this. Interestingly, the primary one is that these books make people hate America and decreases patriotism. There are many problems with this view but late me state the most powerful one in my mind.
As Christians, we serve a God who is exceedingly and painfully in the business of truth telling. In his own book, the Bible, God does not sugar coat a single thing. Abraham’s story makes you cringe. David’s sins are laid bare. The nations of Israel was repeatedly and consistently sent Prophets who named and charged Israel guilty of committing sins of injustice and unrighteousness. The Apostle Paul, fully grasping that he serves a God who writes history with unflinching honesty, writes out his own story in embarrassing detail. Every flaw and sin is laid bare.
As Christians, we should be people who are not shy to read or write the stories of pain and failure. Our stories and our nations stories. God is not interested in a sugar coated patriotism or loyalty to a nation above all (which is the purpose that sugar coated history serves… Nationalism).
God wants loyalty to Kingdom above all. We live as citizens of the Kingdom first. We look straight in the eye every failure and evil our nation as walked in. Then we can be Kingdom workers who work towards God’s ultimate vision: nations that are redeemed from their sins and works of oppression. God want’s citizens who know that at His return, nations do not cease to exist but fully and finally exist in their intended glory. Bringing their gifts, cultures and languages to the throne of God bringing glory to Him. Redemption and healing requires honesty and repentance. Our goal is not patriotism, our goal is the glory of God. Books like this help us get us there.