'Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You' is not your regular history book

Wednesday, May 13, 2020 - 6:49pm

NOSELL

Kalamazoo Public Library

In April 2016, author, historian and professor Ibram X. Kendi published his National Book Award-winning “Stamped from the Beginning.” In what he subtitles “The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” Kendi’s exhaustive research chronicles the timeline of anti-Black racist ideas and their shifting power throughout American history. 

Kendi, one of America’s leading antiracist voices, was the youngest-ever winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2016. The same year, Jason Reynolds’s “Ghost” was nominated for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature. This prestigious celebration of the best literature in America is where the two men met.

But, it wasn’t until March of this year, nearly four years later, that “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” was released — the remix of Kendi’s original book, reimagined by Reynolds. In an interview with “CBS This Morning,” Reynolds reveals that he initially declined Kendi’s request to write the remix: “I said no because I’m careful about tampering with things that I believe are sacred.” Yet, he finally agreed when he realized “this work was bigger than the both of us, and it’s not about either one of us.” 

Reynolds’s remix is geared toward a younger audience, readers 12 and up. While Kendi is a scholar who holds a position as the Director of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University, where he is a professor of history and international relations, Reynolds is a writer of books and poetry for young adults and middle-grade audiences. On his website, Reynolds declares that he plans to “not write boring books.” He goes on to say that “I know there are a lot of young people who hate reading… but they don’t actually hate books, they hate boredom” — which is one of the initial obstacles he faced with the remix. 

So Reynolds, who has said that young people don’t like to read history books, decided that his remix wasn’t a history book, “but a book about the present: here and now.” 

Like Kendi’s original version, Reynolds structures the book using five historical figures: Puritan minister Cotton Mather from the 17th century, founding father Thomas Jefferson, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, writer and activist W. E. B. Du Bois and radical activist and writer Angela Davis. The division of the book into five sections coincides with the five guides, spanning from the 1400s to modern day. While that encompasses over 600 years of history, Reynolds’s remix caps at 248 pages, half of Kendi’s 500-page original. 

Another important similarity in the remix is the three different definitions used to identify and describe the people explored: segregationists, assimilationists and antiracists. These three categories are repeated frequently throughout the book, helping us to understand the historical figures represented along with their motives and beliefs (which we often discover to be contradictory). 

Reynolds simplifies the definitions to help young readers grasp the complex material, calling segregationists “haters,” assimilationists as “the people who like you, but only with quotation marks” and antiracists as “the people who love you because you’re like you.” Later, when discussing figures like Abraham Lincoln, it was helpful to have these definitions as we approached his contradictory views — like that he wanted slavery gone, but didn’t think Black people should necessarily have equal rights: an assimilationist. An assimilationist I found I knew very little about.  

The terms used to describe difficult concepts pushed me to keep reading and to keep learning. I approached this book with little in mind of America’s racist past, but Reynolds’s conversational tone and clearly executed analysis provided a valuable introduction to this history and leaves me motivated to tackle more thorough academic works. 

When reading this book, I plainly saw the three tenets Reynolds uses when it comes to reaching young people: humility, intimacy and gratitude. He is incredibly honest in this book. While it is simplified for younger readers, his tone is never used to make us feel small for being unaware of this information. In my personal experience with American history, I found I was taught many misconceptions about past leaders, their ideas and treatment of others. When Kendi was asked how he rewrites the history of leaders so revered, he responded: “First you ask the question — what does it mean that a slaveholder heralded the American philosophy of freedom?” 

This question is the initiation of a conversation I never had inside or outside a classroom setting. One of the reasons for Reynolds’s remix is that many young people have similar experiences. From the perspective of a white person, these absences only encourage our ignorance and the embodiment of racist ideas. Kendi and Reynolds write the hard conversation. They write the truth. To Reynolds, “If we love this country as much as we claim we do, then we must be honest about it.”

What the writers do differently from others is they go back to the origin of racist ideas. Reynolds explains them to a younger audience using several techniques that emphasize how these ideas formed and how they are perpetrated today. He employs white space, font and size changes, line staggering and numbered lists to amplify certain ideas and maintain the reader’s interest. Earlier in the book, I turned the page to see the word “privilege” scrawled in all caps and bolded. I paused. I noticed Reynolds’s specific instructions to inhale with him, then exhale and breathe “privilege” out. It made the concept impossible to ignore.

Later, Reynolds includes a chapter titled “Time Out” with a quick recap of the racist ideas we had just discussed, of which at this point concerned the varied false reasons why Africans were considered savages. He made a numbered list to clarify the ideas, a reiteration of the concepts we needed to understand in order to continue moving forward. 

The next chapter was titled “Time In,” another significant reiteration. It was only one sentence: “AFRICANS ARE NOT SAVAGES.”

There is no obscurity in Reynolds’s remix. His intent was to make this significant history digestible to a younger audience, and I believe he achieved his intended effect. His inviting voice, conversational tone and stylistic techniques make this book accessible to younger readers; nonetheless, I don’t think that it is only a middle-grade audience that could benefit from reading it. Again, while I approached this book with circumstances different from other young adults, there was a level of honesty and several areas of American history I had neither heard nor learned previously. 

As Reynolds has said before, our present is a product of history. What this book expresses to young readers, and why I find it to be important, is that our lives are all affected by the past. To be true activists, to be antiracists, we must understand the entire history that brought us here. With this remix, Reynolds offers a solid introduction for learners of all ages and experiences.