Stamped From the Beginning

Ibram X. Kendi

Nation Books



Segregationist geneticists powered forward on their wild goose chase, trying to figure out something that did not exist: how the races differed genetically…“There is no such thing as a set of genes that belong exclusively to one [racial] group and not another,” University of Pennsylvania bioethics scholar Dorothy Roberts explained in her 2011 book Fatal Invention, in which she exposes the unscientific basis of biological races, race-specific genes, and race-specific drugs for race-specific diseases. “Race is not a biological category that is politically charged,” she added. “It is a political category that has been disguised as a biological one.”

      from Stamped From the Beginning


How we got here

Why do we believe what we believe? Why do we think the way we do?—Those who answered, “Because it’s true,” or “That’s the way it’s always been,” flunked the quiz. You may be referred to Remedial Humanity.

No, ideas have their own history. There are reasons why we believe what we believe. This superb National Book Award winner is the history of one idea: that any race is superior or inferior to any other race. (The whole gnarly, highly problematic concept of “race” deserves a book itself, and there are a number out there. Try Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century.)

As a lover of history, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of racism in the US, but this book opened my eyes to aspects that I never knew or knew only partially. It’s a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the current civil unrest and how we got here.

Kendi upsets a number of time-honored tropes, arguing that it was not ignorance and hate that produced racist ideas which in turn resulted in discrimination, but the reverse: early racial discrimination produced the racist ideas that resulted in the ignorance and hate. “Racial inferiority” was never the problem; the problem was discrimination based on this faulty concept.

The first enslaved African peoples were sold in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, but the idea of racial inferiority has a much older pedigree. Kendi traces the roots of how racism throughout the centuries has been justified and reinforced, through the Bible (e.g., Genesis 9:18-29), through economics, and politics, pseudo-science, economics, northern European attitudes on color, and, well, economics. There has always been an economic motive behind slavery as well as later forms of racial discrimination.

You’d think that a book on racism would be a real downer—and, okay, it kind of is—but it also has stirring drama, inspiring biographies, stories of amazing courage, plus the fascinating account of how an idea has evolved over the centuries to the present.

To liberate ourselves from the past, we need first to learn it. This is not to denigrate our national saga, but to expand on it, to reveal it as more complex and complicated, and richer, than how it was probably taught to us in high school. We become a better people by learning who we are and the way we’ve come, appreciating the diversity of the American experience so we can better continue the ongoing American experiment that has been underway since 1776.

And since 1619.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (August 15, 2020.) Reprinted with permission.