What can I say about this book? At 512 pages, it was heavy in my hands while I read it. But more heavy than that was the weight of 600 years (at least) of racist thought concentrated into sections and chapters and pages. In American history Kendi takes us from Washington and Franklin all the way to Obama, and as an American, I just feel shame and embarrassment. But that does not get us anywhere, does it?
Overall Experience: The brilliance of the book is hard to encapsulate without writing my own book. It is divided into sections with a key historical figure at the core of each section. Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, Angela Davis. It is an eclectic group to be sure. Kendi uses these figures as the anchor as he then expands and concentrates his narrative through time and history.
Big Take-Away: How can I isolate just a few things I read that blew my mind? I’ll give it my best shot.
- As Kendi notes in his epilogue, historical figures and people today know that their treatment of Blacks is inappropriate. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson knew that enslaving Black people was wrong. People know that today’s criminal justice system is pegged against Blacks. They just don’t care. There is not a major reason for them to change anything. It is not a matter of education. Importantly, it is also not a matter of a really talented Black person going up to a racist and showing what they can do. W. E.B. Du Bois spent much of early life trying to impress racist ideas out of white folk. It did not work.
- Black people are not “inferior”. This seems obvious, but the way this sentiment gets expressed varies. For example, an ignorant person may say, “Well ya know, Blacks have been so degraded by slavery it’s no wonder they are so much like animals.” Well that is racist talk. Acknowledging that slavery and discrimination is bad is not earth shattering news. It’s very easy to see under the blanket and know that what you are really saying, in the end, is “this group sucks, but I’ll tell you why.”
- There is as much work to do within the Black community as beyond it. The class battles between what Kendi calls Black elitists and the Black poor are immense. The idea that every Black person is a representative of the entire group creates many problems for Blacks who feel that everyone should act as they act. Some Blacks denigrated rap and hip hop as much as whites did because “this makes us all look bad.” Why? Does a white person acting badly make all white people look bad? White folk would certainly say no!
- Sexism is a constant problem in fighting racism. Everyone gets in each others’ way. And racism is a constant problem in fighting sexism. Some of the things Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton said about Blacks would make your jaw drop. The suffragist march on Washington DC was segregated, after all.
I could go on and on. So much of what this book incorporates can be corroborated (if you want to or feel the need) by so many other books. Chernow’s bio of Washington reveals the extent to which he mistreated Blacks even while knowing that if his actions were publicized it would be embarrassing because his actions were BAD. Kendi cites Michelle Alexander’s incredible The New Jim Crow, which is an eye opening read. Studies of Lincoln reveal all of the very racist actions and words that “great emancipator” said and did.
I wish every baby born in America could be given this book to read. I wish every immigrant could be given this book on the border or at the airport where they’re coming in. It is an incredible story, a desperately sad story. It is up to us to write a good ending.