THIS IS NOT A HISTORY BOOK.
THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT THE HERE AND NOW.
A BOOK ABOUT RACE.
So the publisher announces on the back of Jason Reynolds‘ and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped. Jacqueline Woodson blurbs: “Stamped is the book I wish I had as a young person and am so grateful my own children have now.” Renée Watson concurs: “This is the history book I needed as a teen.”
As a white man, I cannot say that I needed it as a young person. I can say that when I turned it over and thumbed its pages, it seemed like the book I needed (or wanted) right then. I had heard more than a few commentators on my weekly podcasts lament the strawman of “traditional history” that we are all supposedly taught. I chafed at these remarks because it seems only natural–a phenomenon repeated always and everywhere–that we discover the world is more complex than we had thought. It’s called growing up. But here was a book that purported to get it right, to set the record straight on the most intractable issue in our history, the R-word: race. Stamped is a book, not a curriculum. Yet it has an ambitious air about it: Its publisher provides a 20-page educator guide on the web site. This book is changing, and will continue to change, the way race is taught in America. I read it in one sitting, or at least in one day.
Even in the best history classrooms, learners graduate with a simplified understanding of events. By definition. Their brains are not fully formed; their experience is limited (more limited than most of us adults’). Reynolds, adapting Kendi’s adult book of a similar name, acknowledges this by adopting a colloquial style and writing a readable book, equal parts entertaining, moving, and enraging. He simplifies the story.
In the introduction, Kendi simplifies his own work that he developed in Stamped from the Beginning (which I have not read). He condenses his framework on racism to a few tight sentences: “The assimilationists believe that Black people as a group can be changed for the better, and segregationists do not. …The antiracists say there is nothing wrong or right about Black people and everything wrong with racism. …The anti-racists try to transform racism. The assimilationists try to transform Black people. The segregationists try to get away from Black people.” [xiii] These are words and ideas that young people can understand, and his model is an extremely useful tool for all of us, as long as we remember that it is a model, not necessarily reality itself. There is a danger in reducing complex people to categories that define them as good, bad, or just ok.
The authors counter this essentialist critique directly, stating outright that people are not usually one thing but more often a mix, not usually consistent but more likely to change over time. (I can’t find the quote that I’m convinced I remember reading!) Moreover, their non-history history abounds with figures who exemplify change and contradiction. No less an icon than Barack Obama changed positions from anti-racist to assimilationist, in their view. They show him splashing on the scene in 2004, countering Bill Cosby’s “personal responsibility” message–before showing him hammering Cosby-like tropes during his presidency. As Reynolds writes, “Obama fell in line with the likes of Lincoln, DuBois, Washington, Douglass, and many others, who had flashes–true moments–of antiracist thought, but always seemed to assimilate under pressure.”  He was in good company, in other words. And like so many other icons of racial progress in America (see above), he is not beyond critique. This is powerful stuff for young readers, though some may struggle against the disillusionment.
W. E. B. DuBois went in the other direction. After decades of Talented Tenth and moral suasion thinking (with periodic flashes of antiracism), DuBois finally saw the folly in asking black people to live up to white ideals. Instead, writes Reynolds, “He just wanted Black people to be self-sufficient. To be Black. And for that to be enough.”  Though his earlier advocacy had been assimilationist, the authors aver, “Ultimately, he was arguing what he’d been arguing in various different ways, and what Fredrick Douglass [mostly assimilationist], Sojourner Truth [antiracist], Booker T. Washington [assimilationist], Ida B. Wells Barnett [antiracist], Marcus Garvey [antiracist], and many others before him had argued ad nauseum: that Black people were human.” The emphasis on black humanity, good and bad, echoed Kendi’s words from the foreword: “There are lazy, hardworking, wise, unwise, harmless, and harmful individuals of every race, but no racial group is better or worse than another racial group in any way.” [xv] Here he makes antiracism sound easy. Much of the rest of the book emphasizes how difficult it is to achieve in practice. (See: Douglass, Lincoln, and Obama).
Thomas Jefferson, the man who penned “All men are created equal,” couldn’t live it, that’s for sure. Reynolds portrays him over the course of several chapters as a farrago of internal contradictions. His final words, describing Jefferson on his deathbed, rise to the level of poetry, not for the first or last time in the book. They are both affecting and effective:
He knew slavery was wrong, but not wrong enough to free his own slaves. He knew as a child that Black people were people, but never fully treated them as such. Saw them as “friends” but never saw them. …He knew that all men are created equal. He wrote it. But couldn’t rewrite his own racist ideas. And the irony in that is now his life had come full circle. In his earliest childhood memory and in his final lucid moment, Jefferson lay there dying–death being the ultimate equalizer–in the comfort of slavery. Surrounded by a comfort those slaves never felt. 
One of the strong points of the book for me, and one potentially appealing to young readers, is the author’s discussion of race in popular culture. I grew up with Tarzan, Planet of the Apes, and Rocky but lacked the critical ability to perceive their racist underpinnings. Did they assert their pernicious influence on my still-forming mind? Hard to say. I grew up at a time–the 1970s–when blacks were allegedly perceived (once again) to be newly empowered and a threat to white American culture/society. Tarzan evokes white colonialist fears more than domestic American ones, so it seems less directly relevant. Planet of the Apes both enthralled and terrified me. Was this a racist terror, at heart? I suspect not. From my suburban upbringing, I had no experience of so-called “ghetto” blacks (other than the comic strip Quincy, which made 1970’s Harlem feel charming), so talking apes were unlikely to evoke them, even subconsciously. But I do remember Apollo Creed in Rocky. By then I think I even had the critical ability to think, vaguely, “Can they do that? Make a black man so obviously the villain?”
These three cultural touchpoints may be less familiar to Reynolds’ and Kendi’s readers (or not, what with You Tube and digital reproductions of old film and TV). Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Birth of a Nation, however, are likely to be black boxes. So Reynolds gives the Cliff’s Notes of the Cliff’s Notes version.
“Here’s the basic plot,” Reynolds writes before reducing Birth of a Nation, a three-hour, 12-reel film, to four bullet-points (three if you don’t count “The end”). Only the ugly climactic events of the final 20 minutes, are included.  There is more than enough cringe-worthy racism to decry in the other eleven reels, but they would only complicate the story (that Reynolds is trying to tell). Does his simplification bring out a larger truth, or is truth sacrificed when built on misrepresentation or over-simplification? It is a question I couldn’t avoid asking myself.
Summarizing Uncle Tom, Reynolds uses a full ten bullet items but hardly captures the breadth of an admittedly long book. He elides the first, Kentucky section of the book entirely and covers the final, Simon Legree section in two bullet points. His main interest is with Tom and Little Eva in New Orleans because that is where the author’s assimilationist message comes through mostly clearly. “The moral of the story:” Reynolds explains pithily after “listing” Tom’s martyrdom (#10), “We all must be slaves…to God. And since docile Black people made the best slaves (to man), they made the best Christians. And since domineering Whites made the worst slaves, they made the worst Christians. So, slavery, though a brutal attack on Black humanity, was really just proof that White people were bad believers in Jesus.”  Well, maybe. Reynolds’ (and perhaps Kendi’s) analysis is astute, but a dismissive tone creeps in that feels counterproductive. “I know,” Reynolds writes, “But, hey, it didn’t have to make too much sense.” Really? He has just spent a page and a half showing that, in fact, Stowe made very clear assimilationist sense. As a reader, I ended up feeling more defensive of Stowe than enlightened or empowered by their critique. I’ve read her book. As a critical-thinking, middle-aged adult.
Telling young readers what to think about a book they haven’t read seems unfair to me, especially when it’s done so cavalierly. Reynolds and Kendi instigate so much critical thought it is a shame that they shut some down by hammering their message too insistently. They have achieved their own impressive insight after years of living and reading and thinking, yet, in their eagerness to provide the book they wish they had had at that age, they may be packaging it up too-neatly for their readers. Questions will add mileage to their wise answers.
Reynolds opens the afterword with a question, a good one: “How do you feel?” He might have used the rest of the paragraph or the entire page to acknowledge feelings he imagines readers would have. He might have explained that no one feeling is the right one in reaction the book. He might have nudged readers toward possible next steps to take in response to their feelings. Instead he writes, without pausing, “I mean, I hope after reading this not history history book, you’re left with some answers.” No questions?
Reynolds does ask his readers another question on the book’s final page: “…the question of whether you, reader, want to be a segregationist (a hater), an assimilationist (a coward), or an antiracist (someone who truly loves).”  But that sounds and feels an awful lot like an essentialist rhetorical question.
This is a powerful book. It is easy to imagine it will be one many readers, black and white, need at the time they pick it up. Yet it is possible to imagine other readers, too, perhaps fewer in number but, still, both black and white, whose reactions will be more ambivalent. Years later these readers may well pick up a different book that provides a new synthesis on racial issues, a book they might say they wished they had had when they were that age.
Time’s arrow; time’s cycle.
Reynolds, Jason and Kendi, Ibram X. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You. New York: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2020.