By Mrs. McHugh
“This is not a history book. At least, not like the ones you’re used to reading in school. The ones that feel more like a list of dates (there will be some), a declaration (definitely gotta mention that), a constitution (that too), a court case or two, and, of course, the paragraph that’s read during Black History Month (Harriet! Rosa! Martin!) . . . Instead, what this is, is a book that contains history. A history directly connected to our lives as we live them right this minute. This is a present book. A book about the here and now.”
This declaration by author Jason Reynolds, in chapter one of Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, reveals quite clearly that readers will get something unexpected. Few books promise to give you a definitive history of racism, and even if they tried, you’d probably require a dictionary, thesaurus and PhD to understand it. Not so with this book. It’s a young adult version of the 2016 book Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, author, activist and founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. Kendi asked Reynolds, a fiction writer whose books include All American Boys and Long Way Down, to translate his ideas for today’s teens.
The book starts in 1415, with a chapter titled “The Story of the World’s First Racist.” Going back this far is a good reminder that Black history did not begin with slavery or the Civil Rights Movement. Black history has roots in the ancient empires of Africa including the Mali, Songhai and Great Zimbabwe. The other point this chapter drives home is that racism is deep-seated, and it’s often influenced by profit as much as hate. Racism isn’t just the thoughts or actions of an evil person, but policies that impact trade, government, and social norms. Systemic racism is not new, and its impact on how the world has been shaped cannot be overstated. “The construct of race has always been used to gain and keep power, whether financially or politically,” Reynolds writes. “… it’s woven into people as much as it’s woven into policy that people adhere to and believe is truth.”
The book continues through history, shedding some new light on the causes of the American Revolution (Great Britain banned the slave trade, but the American colonies didn’t want to), the expansion of slavery, the Civil War (the first enslaved men who tried to fight for the North were sent back to the southern plantations they escaped from), Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. It discusses well-known figures – Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., – as well as names that might be new to you – Angela Davis, Jack Johnson, Stokely Carmichael. It breaks down some of the mythology around the people and historical events that history textbooks have simplified over the years (for example, Rosa Parks was not just a tired old seamstress when she didn’t give up her seat on that bus).
Of particular interest to me was more recent American history, including the “War on Drugs” in the 1980s that many studies have shown led to harsher penalties for Blacks than for whites, something still represented in our prison populations today. Another was a public school policy called No Child Left Behind in the 2000s, where schools in poor, mostly Black communities had funding pulled when they failed to meet certain standards – which caused them to fall even farther behind.
The book does an amazing job tying our history together, helping us better understand the causes and effects of racism in our country so we may better understand what’s happening in our communities today. The authors do so in a way that is conversational, engaging, and even inspiring. Their hope is that young readers, equipped with this new knowledge, will not only recognize racism, but become actively antiracist – not just bystanders in the quest for a better world, but leaders of that world.