Today, we are pleased to offer an interview with Dr. Ibram Kendi on his National Book Award winner, Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas. Kendi is an Assistant Professor of African-American History at the University of Florida, and Associate Editor of the African-American Intellectual History Society blog. You can find his blog posts here.
JUNTO: Your first book focused on student activism, racial protest and reform in the 1960s and 1970s. Stamped From the Beginning begins with an analysis of racist ideas in seventeenth-century New England. What inspired you to take a long duree approach?
KENDI: My first book, The Black Campus Movement, chronicled when Black students and their allies organized, demanded, and protested for the diversification of higher education in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They considered scientific racism to be rampant in the existing academic disciplines. And so, they demanded something completely new, which they called Black Studies.
But by the 1960s, the academic disciplines were no longer dominated by eugenicist scholarship: those “segregationist” ideas that classified Black people as biologically unequal. The humanities and social sciences were dominated by scholars who considered the races to be biologically equal, but these scholars looked upon Black people as culturally and behaviorally inferior, and advocated reforms that civilized and developed them. In classifying the ideas of these “assimilationist” scholars as racist, Black students quietly redefined racist ideas in the 1960s.
But their redefinition of racist ideas to include assimilationist and segregationist ideas did not prevail after the 1960s. The defining characteristic of racist ideas continued to be notions that Black people were biologically, genetically, and naturally inferior. The marker of racist ideas continued to be segregationist ideas. And these segregationist ideas, only really held sway in the racial discourse from maybe the 1830s to the 1940s. This short time period thereby became the standard history of racist ideas. But when you classify assimilationist ideas as racist—and when you chronicle the debate between segregationist and assimilationist ideas—as I did in Stamped from the Beginning—then the history of racist ideas stretches back to colonial America and extends to the present.
I defined a racist idea as any idea that suggests a racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way. What inspired my long duree approach? Racist ideas have been stamped from the beginning of our nation, and I wanted to show that once and for all. I wanted readers to be able to understand precisely who and where the racist ideas that are still plaguing Black lives and our nation today came from, and why these ideas were constantly produced and reproduced over the course of history.
JUNTO: Most of what people understand as “race” or “racism” tends to come from modern concepts of race. Can you tell us a bit about how racist ideas evolved in early America?
KENDI: During America’s first century, racist theological ideas were absolutely critical to sanctioning the growth of American slavery and making it acceptable to the powerful Christian churches. These ideas were featured in the sermons of early America’s greatest preacher and intellectual, Boston divine Cotton Mather (1663–1728).
Stamped from the Beginning is organized into five sections and each section covers a major time period. And in each section and time period, a major character anchors the narrative, serving as a window into the larger debates on race. Mather was the first character of the first section covering most of colonial America. Mather was the namesake and grandson of two of New England’s intellectual trailblazers, John Cotton and Richard Mather, Puritan preachers who helped carry two-hundred-year-old racist ideas from Europe across the Atlantic Ocean. Racist ideas preceded American slavery because the need to justify African slavery preceded colonial America.
Cotton Mather situated himself in the middle of the colonial era debate over whether enslaved Blacks could be Christianized. Mather and other preachers encouraged planters to proselytize to their captives, while many planters resisted, claiming Black people were too barbaric to become Christian (Planters really feared that by becoming Christian their slaves could sue for their freedom under British common law that stated a Christian could not be enslaved).
To convince skeptical slaveholders and win enslaved converts, racist theologians like Mather preached racial inequality in body and racial equality in soul, while insisting that the dark souls of enslaved Africans would become White when they became Christians. Mather’s writings and sermons were widely read in the colonies and in Europe, where the progenitors of the scientific revolution—and then the Enlightenment—were racializing and whitening Europeans, freedom, civilization, rationality, and beauty. Enlightenment theorists, whose writings made their way to colonial America, were also demonizing the unenlightened and dark and enslaved African.
During the American Revolution and thereafter, years that saw the stunning growth of American slavery, secular intellectuals alike joined slavery’s justifying fray, particularly as science started to separate from theology. These justifiers included one of the most powerful secular intellectuals of the new United States—Stamped from the Beginning’s second major character, Thomas Jefferson.
Actually, the early United States fielded a racist debate between Christian and secular ideas, a debate that had made its way from the Enlightened circles of Western Europe. Theologians typically made the case for monogenesis: that African people descended from a White Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Europe. Secular intellectuals typically made the case for polygenesis: that African people were not descended from Adam and Eve, they had their own creation in Africa and were a separate and inferior species of being from Europeans.
JUNTO: One particularly fascinating part of your book, was your analysis of European scholarly pamphlets defending the slave trade. In particular, you discuss how many argued that Africans were “cursed.” Many of our readers will be familiar with the scriptural debates around Curse of Ham, and the idea of “hereditary heathenism” but your discussion developed a bit further, into Europeans seeing Africans as “biologically cursed?” Can you explain what that means, and how the terms differ?
KENDI: Proceeding and overlapping and always complicating the debate between monogenesis and polygenesis was the first and possibly the longest debate between racists. Since the origins of racist ideas in fifteenth century Portugal, climate theorists and curse theorists had been trying to explain the cause of inferior Blackness.
Climate theorists believed Black people descended from the White Adam and Eve before venturing down into Africa and being blackened by the hot sun into a temporary inferiority. Climate theorists claimed Black people were capable of becoming White and civilized if they moved back up north to a cooler climate. Philadelphia doctor Benjamin Rush, Boston politician and intellectual Samuel Bowdoin, and Princeton University theologian Samuel Stanhope Smith were among the most prominent climate theorists in early America.
Less prominent among the intellectual class, but prominent among the slaveholding class and their loyal preachers in early America was curse theory. They made the case that God had cursed the supposed Black descendants of the disobedient Ham into permanent inferiority and slavery.
I think that the idea of “hereditary heathenism” and the notion of Blacks being “biologically cursed” effectively means the same thing. But I thought the term “curse theory” was a simpler and more accessible term to explain this line of thinking for nonacademic readers.
JUNTO: You focus in part on a racism of “well-meaning,” which you attribute to a number of figures from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Frederick Douglass. Can you explain what you mean by that?
KENDI: The racism of the well-meaning is the story of assimilationists. Meaning well, they have spent the course of American history trying to civilize and develop Black people. They have considered the race problem to not only be racial discrimination, but the cultural and/or behavioral pathologies of Black people. They thought these pathologies were created or exacerbated by Black peoples’ history of oppression, thereby providing them with another motivation to challenge oppression. Abolitionists like Douglass and Stowe and William Lloyd Garrison believed that slavery was not just dehumanizing but actually did dehumanize Black people. They believed slaveholders did not just treat Black people like they were brutes; slavery literally imbruted Black people. As such, they thought they were doing what was best for Black people when they were trying to civilize them. They meant well, but Black people—even in the midst of slavery—were already civil and developed. It was assimilationists’ subjective standards and misleading statistics that rendered Black people inferior—not reality.
JUNTO: What was your biggest challenge in researching or writing this book?
KENDI: Without question, the biggest challenge was simplifying the complex history of racism in America. I decided to write a scholarly history that could be devoured by as many people as possible—without shortchanging the serious complexities—because racist ideas and their history have affected all of us. This was extremely challenging for me. But I was committed to writing for the public. While scholars have become more accepting of scholars who produce books on the masses of Americans—and not merely elites—I am hoping we will become more accepting of those scholars who write scholarly books for the masses of Americans.
JUNTO: So…what’s next?
KENDI: I have been working on a history of black power in New York. And I’m also conceiving of a book on antiracism.