Dr. Ibram X. Kendi brought his expertise as a historian and his comprehensive overview of racism (Stamped From the Beginning) to combine with Jason Reynold's expertise as a middle-grade and YA author in order to produce a book which is incredibly easy to read and understand when it comes to the writing style and presentation, but is at the same time incredibly difficult to read when it comes to the subject matter. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You is an easy to read difficult book in much the way that the authors self-describe it as a not history history book. While the subject of racism is never an easy one to confront, it is also incredibly important not to shy away from it. After having read Stamped, I have no hesitation in saying that this is a book that everyone should read. However much you think you know about racism and about American history, you will learn something--and feel something--as a result of reading this book.
In broad terms, Stamped is organized chronologically. It is divided into sections which each cover a period of history, beginning with the 'world's first racist' back in 1415 and leading up to the present day. Rather than having footnotes or citations on each page or at the end of every chapter, all of the source material is presented at the end of the book. The subject matter is clearly very well-researched, and it is presented in an almost-conversational tone which makes reading the book feel as though the reader is engaging in a conversation with the authors, or sitting down to be told a story.
A major element of the book is the idea that, in the context of racism, there are three types of people (and people can be both one and another over the course of their lives): segregationists (who "hate you because you're not like them"), assimilationists (who "'like' you because you're like them"), and antiracists (who "love you because you're like you). Segregationism and assimilationism are both forms of racism; the only way to truly not be racist is to be antiracist.
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You is second on the American Library Association's "Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020," and it rose to that rank within the first year of its publication. Why was this "remix" of Stamped From the Beginning so frequently challenged when the original book never made it on any year's "Top 10 Most Challenged Books" list? While it is certainly only speculation, I do have a theory: It has to do with the length/approachability of the original versus the remix, and of the climate in which each book was published.
The original book was over twice the length of this "remix," and was presented as "The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America." The original was published in 2016, meaning it came at a time when America was just beginning to transition from the presidency of Barack Obama into that of Donald Trump. The remix was published in 2020, at the end of the Trump presidency, and came out in the midst of a renewed national awareness of and conversation around systemic racism and a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. There was a national conversation around race, and here was a book all about the history of racial issues in America, deliberately reworked to be more approachable and easier to read, in particular for a young audience. My theory? Racists had an easy time ignoring a "Definitive History" book that was largely read by adults who were interested enough in the subject of racism in America to sit down with an award-winning 600+ page book on the subject. However, pare down, rework, and present that same book as a "not history history book" that's easily read and understood by teenagers and young adults? Well, now that book can be read in classrooms and recommended to YA audiences in libraries--so, now it's a threat to racists who do not want their children to think too critically about the subject matter involved. Plus, it's more accessible to be read (and subsequently attacked) by those same (racist) adults who do not want their children to 'be exposed' to it.
Why is this book being challenged?
"But Elizabeth," I hear an imaginary reader of this blog post say, "aren't you assuming quite a lot to say that the challenges of this book received by the ALA come from racists? Couldn't there be other reasons people found Stamped objectionable and wanted to remove it from schools or libraries around the country?" I'm glad you asked, hypothetical reader. Let's take a look together at the reasons cited for the challenges received for this book, shall we?
Let's start with the matter of "author's public statements." A brief perusal of the news around the authors from last year indicates that the most 'controversial' statement made by either of them came from Ibram Kendi in September 2020, when he made a statement on Twitter (in response to claims that Amy Coney Barrett cannot be racist because she has two Black children) that many "White colonizers" have adopted Black children and "civilized" them "in the 'superior' ways of White people, while using them as props in their lifelong pictures of denial." He summed up this statement by saying, "It is a belief too many White people have: if they have or adopt a child of color, then they can't be racist." Now, if you took any offense from this statement, I would argue that the best solution for you would be to read Stamped in order to reach a better understanding of the issue of assimilationism, and just how problematic it is. I certainly would not think that an appropriate reaction would be to try to prevent people from accessing Stamped; that indicates, to me, an instinct to avoid any facts that provoke critical thought with respect to one's own ideas. The problem with Kendi's statement? He is directly attacking the narrative that racism is over--'It's a thing of the past! It's not a big deal! I can't be racist because I have a Black friend/relative!'--which is only really a problem for those who are trying to sell that narrative as truth. This is a hard sell, with so many obvious truths marking that narrative as clearly false; limiting (or, better yet, entirely preventing) access to an easily-digested and approachable book that lays out a lot of those obvious truths would only make sense to those who want to deny racism as an issue (or at least deny it as a systemic problem).
What about the claims of "selective storytelling incidents" in Stamped? Or the stated concern that it "does not encompass racism against all people"? I challenge you to take a look at the customer reviews for this book on Amazon.com. In particular, look at the one-star reviews. You'll see a pattern, there: people who object most to the book are clearly uncomfortable thinking self-critically about their own racist tendencies. They are claiming that the book is "anti-white." As one person puts it, "This book is an absolute atrocity. The authors take out the self-accountability innate in humans and changes a narrative to victimhood. Their exposure of racism is really just justifying their racism." This idea that in talking frankly about the history of racism in America, the two Black authors of this book are actually engaging in anti-white racism is a common thread criticisms of Stamped. It's also a completely ridiculous idea that reeks of the kind of thought behind similar sentiments like "All Lives Matter" in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. There is a willful ignorance in the one-star reviews to Stamped--claims are made that the book cites no sources (there is actually an impressive list of sources at the back of the book), or that it is somehow not comprehensive enough (as though any level of comprehensive would be sufficient for them). I dare you to read those reviews and not think that the reviewers are, in fact, simply uncomfortable with exploring or questioning their own racism and the racist history of their country.
If you are deeply interested in the history of racism, particularly of racism in America, and want to really dive into all of the details and focus on key figures involved, I recommend reading Stamped From the Beginning. If you are interested in the history of racism, but would prefer a more accessible overview that approaches the subject in chronological order from the first racist on down to the present, I recommend reading Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You. If you want to help children better understand the issue and context of racism (again, especially in America), I've got good news for you! Just three days ago, on May 11, Stamped (for Kids) was released! That's right, there's now three levels of accessibility for the incredibly important information conveyed by Stamped. You can read more about Stamped (for Kids) here.
There is an excellent list of suggested further reading provided in the back of this book. The number of books on that list which I have read is far too small, and I will be working to rectify that. I'll be beginning with the two books on the list which are included in the "Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020": All American Boys and The Hate U Give.
In short: Everyone should read Stamped (whichever version you can), and take the time to really ask themself, as the Kendi and Reynolds ask the reader their Afterword, "How do you feel?" Everyone should consider that final question which, again, the authors present in their Afterword:
[All] leads back to the question of whether you, reader, want to be a segregationist (a hater), an assimilationist (a coward), or an antiracist (someone who truly loves).
I choose antiracism--I choose love. How about you?
A Challenged Books Challenge
This is the second installment in the series of 10 book reviews I will be doing as part of my challenge to read and review all of the ALA's Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020. Read more about this challenge, including the other books involved, here. The first installment (my review of George) can be found here.
The next book I will be reviewing is All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. Look for that review here on my blog on May 28. My plan is to have a fresh review from this series up every other Friday throughout the summer.
Elizabeth Wilcox. Writer, Avid Role-Player, Amateur Mixologist. Survivor.