Goodreads: Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You
Published: March 2020
A timely, crucial, and empowering exploration of racism–and antiracism–in America
This is NOT a history book.
This is a book about the here and now.
A book to help us better understand why we are where we are.
A book about race.
The construct of race has always been used to gain and keep power, to create dynamics that separate and silence. This remarkable reimagining of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning reveals the history of racist ideas in America, and inspires hope for an antiracist future. It takes you on a race journey from then to now, shows you why we feel how we feel, and why the poison of racism lingers. It also proves that while racist ideas have always been easy to fabricate and distribute, they can also be discredited.
Through a gripping, fast-paced, and energizing narrative written by beloved award-winner Jason Reynolds, this book shines a light on the many insidious forms of racist ideas–and on ways readers can identify and stamp out racist thoughts in their daily lives.
Popular middle grade and young adult author Jason Reynolds offers a “remix” of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning for the teen crowd. Essentially, the book is a distillation of Kendi’s, a focus on some of the key moments and figures in the history of racism and antiracism in Europe and the U.S. Although assured that they are not reading a history book, teens, will, in fact, learn a history of ideas, starting with the “world’s first racist” and ending with the election of President Barack Obama and the start of the Black Lives Matter movement. The book is a succinct, accessible overview and it is no surprise that educators and librarians have been eager to pick up and share this stunning new release.
Some readers may fear nonfiction or worry about picking up a book that is meant to be “educational.” Jason Reynolds expertly seeks to engage these readers, promising them that he is not writing them a history book (although he clearly is–maybe just not the kind they expected) and crystallizing ideas into easy-to-understand images and concepts. Readers can power through what is not really a lengthy book, by any means, and still close the pages feeling like they have learned a lot–a lot they certainly never learned in school. Though the book is marketed as young adult, it will appeal to anyone looking for a history book that feels accessible and relevant.
Because the book is really just an overview, some readers may be disappointed by what appear to be possibilities for lengthier discussion. For instance, the book’s treatment of Abraham Lincoln is one I have seen cropping up more regularly in recent history books. This is the announcement that–surprise, surprise!–Lincoln isn’t the hero you think he was. He did not set out to end slavery when he was elected president, it took him a long time to issue his Emancipation Proclamation, and the proclamation was largely powerless since it only applied to states in rebellion, over which the U.S., at the time, had no control. Newer history books try to shock readers with these “revelations.”
However, Lincoln’s complexities and seeming contradictions are no secret. Any decent biography acknowledges all this. The interesting part of the story is possibly not so much that Lincoln was not the ardent abolitionist some people assume, but the political machinations of his day. For instance, Lincoln did run on a platform that was anti-expansionist (against the expansion of slavery into any of the new territories) and not one that was abolitionist (a promise to end slavery everywhere), but why? Despite Lincoln’s personal beliefs that slavery was wrong, he also recognized that, even in the North, abolitionism was seen as a fringe movement. He probably would not have won by promoting abolitionism. So, a more interesting question might be something along the lines of: Is it okay to compromise some of your beliefs in order to achieve some good rather than zero good? Additionally, Reynolds talks about how some people can hold racist, assimilationist, and antiracist views throughout different periods of their life, or even at the same time. How can we understand Lincoln and his political choices more fully through these definitions? Unfortunately, because the book tries to hit so many key points so quickly, readers are not going to get this type of discussion out of it, and will have to do more research on their own.
Another area readers might wonder about in terms of expanded information might be the War on Drugs and how both Democrats and Republicans participate in it. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness argues that “felon” has become synonymous with “Black” and is society’s last/most recent acceptable way to impose racial order by incarcerating unprecedented numbers of black and brown men in a country that “does not see color.” Alexander argues that even Barack Obama failed to act meaningfully to end to the system, and suggests that even he at times fell into the pitfall of accusing Black communities for their incarceration problems. In contrast, Reynolds’ account of Obama’s presidency is largely positive, and he argues that Obama spoke out against “uplift suasion”–the idea that Black people must act a certain way in order to be accepted by white people. These are competing views of Obama’s legacy that the book does not address, again probably because it does not have the space. But also, probably, partially because the book wants to end in a message of hope, not a critique of the nation’s only Black president. It is a book written for teens, however, so I can understand the motivation. People generally expect YA books to have positive endings.
I also, despite the glowing reviews about how Reynolds speaks so to this new generation, found the tone of the book a little distracting. To appeal to teens, the narrative voice takes on the tone of a “friend,” a guy who’s just giving it to you straight. It also seeks to connect to the youth by making comparisons to things like football and Nike sneakers. Some might argue that teens really love these things and the book is just trying to be relatable. However, even as a teen, I always wondered why teachers thought everyone loved football and wished they would stop trying to be hip by making allusions I didn’t care about. This is just my personal preference, however. The football and Nike lovers of the world might really find the book’s tone appealing. And if talking about football convinces more people to read history, why not?
These critiques are, of course, minor. Stamped has rightly received national attention because it teaches history many people probably were previously unaware of. And it does so by making that history easy to understand and easy to read. Most reviewers have given the book glowing reviews without any negative mentions, probably because the content and the effort to teach antiracism outweigh any quibbles over how relatable the average teen finds any specific sport allusion. Because the book is an overview, it will not cover the complexities of every topic it raises. But it does serve as an excellent starting point for individuals to start learning more.