Stamped from the Beginning Review

By | Monday, March 11, 2024 Leave a Comment
There is a subset of Americans who think racism was solved in America when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. That seems kind of absurd on the face of it, but not nearly as absurd as that subset of people who think racism was solved in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln signed the the Emancipation Proclamation. Or as absurd as the people who think slavery was a good thing actually. I would like to think all of those people are in a minority, and that most people do indeed recognize that racism is still around. I think a lot of people don't know how to recognize it if it's not presented as a hood-wearing Klansman, but they at least know it's not something that got solved with a couple of laws.

What I think a huge number of people don't realize, though, is just how baked in to the very foundation of the United States racism really is. Beyond just that slavery was a thing and George Washington himself kept over one hundred enslaved people at his Mount Vernon home. Yes, the land had plenty of natural resources that early settlers were able to exploit and help to kickstart the US as a rich nation, but that opportunity was magnified a hundred-fold because of the labor of those who were enslaved. Could the country have done as well as it had -- could it have harvested enough raw materials to sell huge volumes to other countries -- if slavery were not a thing? Could the railroads have been built fast enough to allow for pretty rapid urban expansion across the entire continent if not for slavery? Could the cities and industrial centers even been built without getting enslaved people to do much of the work? Absolutely not.

The thing is, though, they don't teach that in social studies. Like, at all. Discussion of slavery pretty much starts and stops with people picking cotton. There's more talk about Eli Whitney inventing the cotton gin than all the people who fed all the cotton gins across the entire country. According to social studies textbooks, at worst, slavery was a weird blip in history and racism isn't even mentioned as being absolutely central to the idea. And, if you got a 'standard' public education like I did, you heard something vague about Jim Crow laws -- which were never explained well; I was an "A" student and I didn't understand them at all until well after college -- and then all of sudden, racism seems to be a big thing when Rosa Parks was apparently too old and tired to get up from her seat on the bus. (I was gobsmacked when I learned, literally decades later, that she was only 42 at the time and had been a civil rights activist for over a decade by then. The way it had always been told to me, she was in her 70s and could barely stand on the best of days, and kept her seat more out of exhaustion than anything else.) I learned more and better, though, because I kept reading and kept trying to find out more about everything; but my understanding is that is fairly uncommon. Most people get their degree and are done trying to learn. They spent so long being brow-beaten with the idea that learning equals rote memorization that they actively dislike the very idea of learning and spend much of the rest of their life avoiding it. So they don't adopt a model like me, where I've actively spent the past 25-30 years trying to unlearn all the gross mischaracterizations and outright lies I was taught growing up.

All of which brings me to last year's Stamped from the Beginning: A Graphic History of Racist Ideas in America by Joel Christian Gill, adapted from the 2016 book by Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. I have to admit that I have not read Kendi's original to make direct comparisons, but this certainly falls well within Gill's known ouvre. Many of his works that I've read were biographies of Black men and women from US history, and while not strictly just a biography per se, this has many biographical elements to it, focusing on five individuals whose influence on the country was not only great, but helped define how the country deals with race and racism. While you may be familiar with some of the names in the book, you're most likely not familiar with their ideas on race, except perhaps the most superficial notions of good or bad. I've persoanally learned quite a bit from the book, and the level of detail and nuance that's gone into is insightful to say the least.

I'll add, too, that Gill's skill as a storyteller is excellent. I've pointed this out before in some of my reviews of his previous work, but he continues to improve and utilizes here some fascinating techniques that I haven't seen used precisely in this way before, particularly when it comes to the lettering. I also detected a subtle change in his illustration style as well; his figures are more distinct and stand out from one another much more than I'd seen in his earlier works. Which is particularly interesting because the structure of the book is such that he could probably get away with even less distinction if he wanted to without appreciably impacting the narrative. I do enjoy seeing creators improve their craft over time!

As I said, I haven't read Kendi's original, so I can't make direct comparisons. I don't know what Gill may have left out or added in, and I don't know if this graphic version is necessarily an easier or harder read that the prose version. But I can say that Gill's adaptation reads very smoothly and very well and, while the subject matter prevented it from being a light read, it wasn't nearly as weighted down or dreary as the title might suggest. (Probably also helped by Gill's cartoony illustration style.) I highly recommend everyone checking this out; there are very people who I think wouldn't benefit from reading it. I can virtually guarantee you will learn some things out of it and, depending on your childhood, perhaps even enough to get you pissed at every one of your social studies teachers from back in the day. Stamped from the Beginning: A Graphic History of Racist Ideas in America was published by Ten Speed Graphic last year and should be available through any retail bookstore. The paperback sells for $24.99 US and the hardcover for $29.99 US.
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