Review: Stamped from the Beginning

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This is a huge book that documents trends in philosophy and theology that provided rationalizations for slavery. I wasn’t able to finish the entire book, but I was impressed by what I did read. There was a need for a theoretical defense of slavery in order to maintain public acceptance of it. These racist ideas informed people’s perspective, so that the dark skin of the African was subjected to a sort of stamp of inferiority.

Kendi identifies three categories in the debates over racism over the last few centuries. The segregationists see black people as inferior and therefore seek to keep them out of mainstream society. Kendi tells us that the segregationist, when confronted with a contemporary incident of police brutality towards a black individual, would say that the black individual had caused the brutality. The anti-racist, on the other hand, which is another categorization in the race debate, would say that the police brutality is a symptom of a racist system. Kendi seems to see this group as the group with the correct approach to the problem of racism. The most controversial category, I think, that Kendi identifies are the assimilationists. These people think blame rests on both black people and the social system in which they live. So, they would acknowledge the presence of racism in accounting for, say, poverty, but also maintain that black people are partly responsible for their plight. The assimilationist therefore tries to help black people behave in the “proper” way so that can enjoy the same privileges as whites. It seems that Kendi sees this group as also racist, along with the segregationists. Kendi defines racism with the following simple formulation: “My definition of a racist idea is a simple one: it is any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.” The assimilationist, according to Kendi, is also racist insofar as they have a negative assessment of black people. Of course, Kendi’s definition entails that any criticism of a racial group is racist. So, when Bill Cosby criticized black fathers for not staying with their families, he was making racist statements.

It is really fascinating to learn about the debates people were having about slavery and which to the modern sensibility seem so absurd. Kendi shows how racist ideas have roots even in Aristotle, who saw the world as divided into Greeks, the superior race, and barbarians, which was everyone who was not Greek. The latter, Aristotle thought, are born to obey. There was a lot of controversy over the issue of whether the human race was descended from one original couple or from multiple couples. The former view was known as monogenesis, while the latter was known as polygenesis. These debates were relevant to slavery because they molded the way people viewed Africans. Saint Augustine believed in monogenesis, and for him this meant that all people were entitled to equal treatment. Others viewed Africans as inferior from other groups of people, and were able to justify slavery by claiming that slavery was actually a better situation than what the Africans had to endure while living in Africa.

Another interesting theory is the curse theory, which stems from the story of Noah and Ham in the Bible. After the flood, Noah gets drunk and ends up lying in his tent naked. Ham walks into the tent, sees his naked father, and then tells someone else about it. Noah’s other two sons are more respectful and cover their father with a blanket. When Noah finds out what Ham has done, he curses Ham’s son, Canaan, saying that Canaan will be the lowest of slaves. This story became the theological foundation of slavery, as people claimed that Africans were descendants of Canaan.

Another interesting theory was climate theory, which Kendi classifies as assimilationist. Climate theorists thought that it was the hot African sun that had caused black people to have dark skin color. If black people were to move to a cooler climate, these people thought, they could become white. This idea does not assign an intrinsic inferiority to black people, since it suggests that they can change. Still, it assigns inferiority, since for these theorists skin color was not neutral at all with respect to the value of the person.

 

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