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Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You - Section 5 - 1963 - Today by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds

Author: Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds

“Section 5 - 1963 - Today.” Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, Little, Brown and Company, 2020, pp. 168 - 244.


When Death Comes


These were the names of four girls killed in a church bombing.

It’s September 16, 1963. The Herald Tribune. Angela Davis was a college student, a junior at Brandeis University, when she read these names in the newspaper—four girls killed in Birmingham, Alabama.

Angela Davis was from Birmingham. She knew these names. Her mother, Sallye, had taught Carol Denise in the first grade. The Robertson and Davis families had been close friends for as long as she could remember. The Wesleys lived around the block in the hilly Birmingham neighborhood where Angela grew up. Angela’s mother wasn’t deterred by the bombings. It was a frightening and painful moment, but the Davises were active, and by “active,” I mean activists.

Sallye Davis had been a leader in the Southern Negro Youth Congress, an antiracist organization that protested racial and economic disparities. On Dynamite Hill, where Angela Davis grew up, Sallye and her husband trained their daughter to be an antiracist. And so most of her childhood was spent wrestling with the poverty and racism around her. Why didn’t her classmates have certain things? Why were they hungry? Why weren’t they able to eat in school? She even decided early on that she would never—despite the pressure—desire to be White.

She fought and spoke out all the way up until she got to college at Brandeis—a predominately White institution—where she didn’t agree with the kind of activism going on. An activism laid out by White people who couldn’t see that they weren’t the standard. But she found her outlets. She found a place to put her activist energy.

James Baldwin, one of Davis’s favorite authors, came to Brandeis in 1962, just before the release of his activist manifesto, The Fire Next Time. Baldwin crafted a collection of essays that encapsulated the Black experience with racism. The book contains a letter to his nephew, warning him of the oppression coming his way, and another letter addressing the centennial celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, in which he charges both Black and White Americans to attack the nasty legacy of racism. It’s a macro- and microexamination of the American race machine, and ultimately a master class in antiracism.

Malcolm X also came, and though Davis didn’t agree with his religious leanings, she really fell in line with his political ideas. She was fascinated by the way he explained the racism Black people had internalized, an inferiority complex forced on them by White supremacy.

But during Davis’s junior year, while studying abroad in France, she was emotionally transported home when she read the four names in the Tribune. Cynthia Wesley. Carole Robertson. Carol Denise McNair. Addie Mae Collins. Back to Dynamite Hill.

Davis didn’t see this moment as a special event, a one-off incident, no. She had grown up fully aware of American racism and its deadly potential. All she could do was swallow it and use it as fuel to keep fighting. President

John F. Kennedy, on the other hand, had to figure out how to fix it. Well, there was no fixing it, but at least he had to do something to snuff out what could become a complete explosion on Dynamite Hill. He launched an investigation, which, by the way, caused his approval ratings to drop. Can you believe that? Four children were killed. Bombed. And because the president tried to get to the bottom of it, his southern constituents and supporters were actually upset. Kennedy tried to rebound. Tried to boost his ratings back up in Dallas two months later. He never made it back to the White House.

Two days after Kennedy’s burial, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was now president, proclaimed that the civil rights bill that Kennedy had been working on would be passed.

But what did that mean?

On paper it would mean that discrimination on the basis of race was illegal. But what it actually meant was that White people, even those in favor of it (in theory), could then argue that everything was now fine. That Black people should stop crying and fighting and “get over” everything, because now things were equal. It meant they’d argue what they’d been arguing, that Black people’s circumstances are caused solely by themselves, and if they just worked harder and got educations, they’d succeed. It meant they’d completely ignore the hundreds of years of head starts White people had in America. And the worst part, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would’ve caused White people to rethink White seniority and superiority, and instead of dealing with it, they’d turn it on its head, flip it around, do the old okey-doke and claim that they were now the victims. That they were being treated unfairly. Unjustly. So, even though the act was supposed to outlaw discrimination, it ended up causing a backlash of more racist ideas.

Nonetheless, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the first important civil rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Hours after President Johnson signed it into law, on July 2, 1964, he hit the TV screen to play up the whole American ideal of freedom. His appearance on television may as well have been a sitcom. A show, fully cast with the best actors, complete with smiling faces and a laugh track. And Black Americans, at least those who’d seen the show before, looked on, entertained, but fully aware it was all scripted.

And… cut!

Malcolm X, full of distrust for America, spoke out not against the bill but about the likelihood of its actually ever being enforced. Who was going to make sure the laws would be followed if the law, lawmakers, and law enforcers were all White and racist? Angela Davis felt the same way. And Angela and Malcolm weren’t wrong. This was a political play. President Johnson knew that since he’d made it about Kennedy, this bill wouldn’t hurt his position as president or his potential to get reelected. At least, that’s what he thought. But George Wallace, the governor of Alabama and ultimate racist, threw a major wrench into Johnson’s reelection plans. Wallace had taken a public stand for segregation the year before, and received 100,000 letters of support, mostly from northerners.

Wait. What? Yep. Northerners. Sending in letters in support of Wallace’s stance for segregation. This proved, painfully, that everyone—the North and the South—hated Black people.

Barry Goldwater, a senator from Arizona, was also running. Goldwater was ushering in a new kind of conservatism. His platform was that government assistance, which White people had been receiving for a long time, was bad for human beings. That it turned people into animals. Of course, this racist epiphany hit Goldwater once Black people started receiving government assistance, too. Funny how that happens. Yet not funny at all. It’s like someone telling you they hate your shoes, and then a week later, once they’ve put you down and made you feel insecure, they start wearing them. This strange game of whatever’s good for the goose not being good for the gander. A gander is a male goose. But for this example, a gander is a whole bunch of Black people.

But Goldwater, despite the support he had from well-to-do Whites, didn’t worry Johnson, either. Johnson was concerned about the Black political movements, like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, who weren’t satisfied with what Johnson was doing for them. The northern activists had been dealing with and protesting police brutality and exploitation. The southern activists had survived, and were continuing to survive, the Klan. And what did Johnson offer them? What leverage did he grant the SNCC and MFDP? Two seats at the Democratic National Convention, which was basically nothing. No power. And without power, all the protesting in the world meant nothing. The shift went from fighting for civil rights to fighting for freedom. The difference between the two is simple. One implies a fight for fairness. The other, a right to live.

Malcolm X’s empowerment philosophy of Black national and international unity, self-determination, self-defense, and cultural pride started to sound like music to the ears of the SNCC youth. At the end of 1964, Malcolm X returned from an extended trip to Africa to a growing band of SNCC admirers and a growing band of enemies. Unfortunately, a few months later—February 21, 1965—at a Harlem rally, Malcolm would be gunned down by those enemies.

When James Baldwin heard the news in London, he was devastated.

When Dr. Martin Luther King heard the news in Selma, Alabama, he was calm. Reflective. Acknowledged that, though they didn’t always agree on methods—much like Du Bois and Washington, and Du Bois and Garvey—they wanted the same thing.

Malcolm X’s death rocked the Black antiracist followers, especially the ones populating urban environments. He’d instilled a sense of pride, a sense of intellectual prowess, a sense of self into many. He’d made street guys feel that they had a place in the movement. He gave athletes like Muhammad Ali a higher purpose than boxing. He’d debated and deconstructed racism with a fearlessness many people had never seen, and his ideas evolved into a more inclusive Constitution just before the end of his life.

The media, however… well, the media did what the media had been doing for decades… centuries. They spun his entire life into a boogeyman tale, devoid of context. “Malcolm X’s life was strangely and pitifully wasted,” read a New York Times editorial.

But antiracists honored him and would have something to hold on to forever to reference his ideas. Alex Haley had been working with Malcolm on his autobiography, and the book would be published after his death. His ideological transformation, from assimilationist to anti-White separatist to antiracist, inspired millions. He argued that though White people weren’t born racist, America was built to make them that way. And that if they wanted to fight against it, they had to address it with the other racist White people around them. He critiqued Black assimilationists. Called them puppets, especially the “leaders” who had exploited their own people to climb the White ladder. Malcolm X stamped that he was for truth—not hate—truth and truth alone, no matter where it was coming from. His autobiography would become antiracist scripture. It would become one of the most important books in American history.

President Johnson, still dealing with the hate (from White people) and the distrust (from Black people) around the Civil Rights Act, decides to go even further than that bill. Decides to double down. Dig his heels into the antiracist mud. After the Civil Rights Act came the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And though it would cause what every bit of progress caused, White rage and resistance, the Voting Rights Act would become the most effective piece of antiracist legislation ever passed by the Congress of the United States of America.


Black Power

DIDN’T TAKE LONG FOR THE MUTATED RACISM TO SHOW up, but it also didn’t take long for the mutated rebellion to meet that racism and look it square in the eye. Actually, it was met with a little more than a mean look. See, five days after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law, a social bomb exploded in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles when a police incident set off six days of violence. This became the deadliest and most destructive urban rebellion in history. Enough. Enough! There was no more picketing. No more marching. The squawking mockingbird had stopped its pecking and had transformed into a panther, brandishing teeth.

As Watts burned, Angela Davis boarded a boat headed for Germany to get her graduate degree in philosophy. Shortly after she arrived, in September 1965, an international group of scholars gathered in Copenhagen for the Race and Colour Conference. Davis didn’t attend. But if she had, she would have heard lectures on the racist role of language symbolism. Scholars pointed out everyday phrases such as black sheep, blackballing, blackmail, and blacklisting, among others, that had long associated Blackness and negativity. Two other words could’ve been included—words that still exist today: minority, as if Black people are minor, making White people major; and ghetto, a term first used to describe an undesirable area of a city in which Jewish people were forced to live. But in the racist context of America, ghetto and minority became synonyms for Black. And all three of those words seemed to be knives.

That is, until people like Stokely Carmichael showed up.

Carmichael was born in Trinidad in 1941 and moved to the Bronx in 1952, the same year his idol, Malcolm X, was paroled from prison. In 1964, Carmichael graduated from Howard University. By then, Malcolm’s disciples, including Carmichael, were saying that the word Negro was to describe Black assimilationists, and Black was for the antiracist, removing the ugliness and evil that had been attached to it. They were now passionately embracing the term Black, which stunned Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Negro” disciples and their own assimilationist parents and grandparents, who would rather be called “nigger” than “Black.”

Carmichael was the kind of guy who’d rather be called dead than afraid. He was the new chairman of the SNCC. And a year after the uprising in Watts, he and the SNCC found themselves at a rally in Greenwood, Mississippi, called the March Against Fear. It was at this rally that Carmichael would exclaim a culture-shifting phrase. “What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!”

Black Power. And when Black people—especially the disenfranchised but also antiracist ones—caught wind of this phrase and married it to Malcolm X’s autobiography (Black Power basically sums up the book), Black Power became a red fire burning in the Black community and burning down the White one. Well, maybe not burning it down, but definitely heating its butt.

What Stokely Carmichael meant by Black Power:


What (racist) White people (and media) heard:


And once again, the mere notion of antiracist ideas got purposely jumbled into hateful extremism. There were even Black civil rights leaders, such as Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, who were against the Black Power mantra. Wilkins thought it was “reverse Mississippi,” and “reverse Hitler.” He would’ve been one of the Black people Malcolm X referred to as a Negro.

Despite all the assimilationist vomit coming from the Black elites and the racist vomit coming from White segregationists, Carmichael and his Black Power mantra pushed on. He traveled around the country, speaking, building the movement. But another movement was sprouting up at the same time.

Oakland, California. Two frustrated young men started their own two-man movement. They called themselves the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

I’m sure you’ve seen the photos. These days they’re on T-shirts and posters, randomly plastered around places as if the Black Panthers were Disney. They weren’t. The black hats and leather jackets, the sunglasses and guns all were real. Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale weren’t characters. They were men, fed up. So they composed a ten-point platform of things they were fighting for in the newly founded Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

The Ten-Point Platform (paraphrased):

  1. Power to determine the destiny of our Black community.
  2. Full employment.
  3. An end to the robbery of the Black community by the government.
  4. Decent housing.
  5. Real education.
  6. For all Black men to be exempt from military service.
  7. An immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people.
  8. Freedom for all Black prisoners.
  9. For all Black people on trial to be tried by a jury of their peers.
  10. Peace, and Black representation in the United Nations.

In the next few years, the Black Panther Party spread in chapters across the country, attracting thousands of committed and charismatic young community members. They policed the police, provided free breakfast for children, and organized medical services and political education programs, among a series of other initiatives.

And with the Black Panther Party growling, and the Black Power movement howling, Angela Davis was in Germany reading about it all. Finally, when she couldn’t take being outside the action any longer, she packed up and moved back to America.

It was the summer of 1967, and Angela Davis was bound for California. The University of California, San Diego, to be exact. And as soon as she got there, she settled in and ramped up the Black Power movement, immediately starting a Black Student Union (BSU) on campus. Wherever there were Black students, they were building BSUs or taking over student governments, requesting and demanding an antiracist and relevant education at historically Black and historically White colleges.

All sorts of different minds engaged with Black Power. Separatists, pan-Africanists, and everything in between. Black Power even appealed to the face of the civil rights movement. That’s right, even Dr. King, in 1967, was turning away from assimilationist thought in the same way W. E. B. Du Bois had later in his life. Dr. King had now realized that desegregation was good only for elite Black people, while everyone else was harmed by it. It left millions drowning in poverty. So King switched gears and started planning the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Poor People’s Campaign. His goal was to bring poor people to Washington, DC, in order to force the government to pass an “economic bill of rights” committing to full employment, guaranteed income, and affordable housing, a bill that sounded a lot like the economic proposals in the Black Panther Party’s tenpoint platform.

Of course King was criticized. By his own people.

Of course White rage and fear sparked up. Too many protests. Civil rights. Poor people. Vietnam War. Too. Many. Protests.

Of course there was a moment in the media, a pop culture phenomenon like The Birth of a Nation or Tarzan, to send a message to White people to take up arms and be afraid, and also to send a shock through the confident backbone of Black America, to remind them of their place. This time, in 1968, the movie was called Planet of the Apes.

Here’s the basic plot:

  1. White astronauts land on a planet after a two-thousand-year journey.
  2. Apes enslave them.
  3. Turns out, they’re not on a faraway planet at all. They’re on Earth.
  4. (Noooooooooooooooooo!)

While Tarzan put the racist conquering of Africa and Africans on the screen, Planet of the Apes stoked the racist fear fire by showing the dark world rising against the White conqueror. And just like with Tarzan, Planet of the Apes went boom. Became a megahit, complete with sequels and comics and merchandise. And just like that, the conversation coming from the American government shifted to protect their “planet.” Black Power was met by a new slogan, one spat out like a racist slur. Law and order.

A week later, on April 4, Angela Davis was at the new office of the SNCC in Los Angeles. The newly organized SNCC chapter was her new activist home as she shuffled back and forth between Los Angeles and her doctoral studies at UC San Diego. That afternoon, she heard a scream. Following the scream came the news. Dr. King, after giving a speech that referenced a “human rights revolution,” had been shot dead.

King’s death transformed countless doubly conscious activists into singly conscious antiracists, and Black Power suddenly grew into the largest American antiracist movement ever. There was a shift happening.

James Brown made a song that insisted everyone “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Black people started to move away from colorism, and some reversed. The darker, the better. The kinkier the hair, the better. The more African the clothing, the better.

From 1967 to 1970, Black students and their hundreds of thousands of non-Black allies compelled nearly a thousand colleges and universities spanning almost every US state to introduce Black Studies departments, programs, and courses. The demand for Black Studies filtered down into K–12 schools, too, where textbooks still often presented African Americans as subhuman, happy slaves. Early Black Studies intellectuals went to work on new antiracist textbooks. Black Studies, and Black Power ideas in general, also began to inspire antiracist transformations among non-Blacks. White hippies, who had been anti–Vietnam War, had now begun pledging to (try to) strip the influence of racism from White Americans. Puerto Rican antiracists and the emerging Brown Power movement, which also challenged the color hierarchy. And while the movement continued to grow, Angela Davis was dipping her toe in different waters.

See, the Black Power movement wasn’t perfect, of course. And though it had a righteous cause, it was still sexist. Men ran it all. Women were pushed to the back, like they’d been in every racial liberation movement in history. So, Davis started seriously considering joining the Communist Party, which at the time was feared by the American government, who thought the Communists (and communism, which was rooted in ending social classes) would overthrow democracy. Davis, a subscriber to the Communist ideals of revolution, felt the Communist Party hadn’t paid enough attention to race. But there was a collective of Communists of color that did. The Che-Lumumba Club. They were all it took to push her over the edge and join the Party. Her first role was working on the campaign for the first Black woman to run for the US presidency, the Communist Party candidate Charlene Mitchell.

In the 1968 presidential election, Mitchell squared off against Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey. Richard Nixon ran on the Republican ticket. His innovative campaign would reveal the future of racist ideas.


Murder Was the Case

RICHARD NIXON AND HIS TEAM LOOKED AT THE WAY George Wallace had run his campaign (Vote for Hate!) and felt like it was a good idea to follow in his footsteps. Nixon believed the segregationist approach was a good one because it would lock down all the true-blue segregationists. Like, the varsity squad of racists. Along with those, Nixon figured he could also attract the White people who were afraid of… everything Black. Black neighborhoods. Black schools. Black… people. And the brilliant game plan (ugh) Nixon used to drive an even bigger wedge and get racists on his side was to simply demean Black people in every speech, while also praising White people. But the magic trick in it all—the “how did you hide that rabbit in that hat?” part—was that he did all this without ever actually saying “Black people” and “White people.”

It goes back to things like the word ghetto.

And today, maybe you’ve heard urban.

Or how about undesirables?

Oh, and my favorite (not), dangerous elements.

Which would eventually become thugs.

My mother would call this “gettin’ over,” but for the sake of this not history history book, let’s go with what the historians have named it: the “southern strategy.” And, in fact, it was—and remained over the next five decades—the national strategy Republicans used to unite northern and southern racists, war hawks, and fiscal and social conservatives. The strategy was right on time. With the southern strategy in full tilt, and with the messaging being all about law and order—which meant doing anything to shut down protests, or at least to paint them as bloodbaths—Richard Nixon won the presidency.

In the fall of 1969, with Charlene Mitchell’s campaign behind her, Angela Davis settled into a teaching position at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). But the FBI had other plans. J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, had launched a war to destroy the Black Power movement that year. And all they needed to cut Davis down was to know that she was part of the Communist Party. Ronald Reagan, the governor of California at the time, had her fired from UCLA. When she tried to plead her case, it set off a media storm. Hate mail started filling up her mailbox. She received threatening phone calls, and police officers started harassing her. And even though the California Superior Court would overturn her firing and allow her to go back to work, Reagan searched for new ways to get rid of her.

And he would succeed. The next time, he fired her for speaking out in defense of three Black inmates in Soledad State Prison who she felt were detained only because they were Black Power activists. Here’s what happened. George Jackson was transferred to Soledad from San Quentin after disciplinary infractions. He had already served some years, after being accused of robbing a gas station of seventy dollars. His sentence for that crime—one year to life in prison. In 1970, a year after arriving in Soledad, Jackson and fellow Black inmates John Clutchette and Fleeta Drumgo were accused of murdering a prison guard in a racially charged prison fight. Whatever chance he had at freedom was now locked up with him behind bars.

Angela Davis had become friends with George Jackson’s younger brother, Jonathan, who was committed to freeing his brother. They had been rallying. Angela Davis had been speaking. They had been fighting the good fight. But it wasn’t enough for Jonathan Jackson, brother of George. He decided to take the freeing of his brother into his own hands.

This is real.

Pay attention.

It’s gonna go quickly.

August 7, 1970.

Jonathan Jackson walked into a courtroom in California’s Marin County.

He was holding three guns.

He took the judge, the prosecutor, and three jurors hostage.

He freed three inmates who were on trial.

He led the hostages to a van parked outside.

Police opened fire.

The shoot-out took the lives of the judge, two inmates, and also Jonathan Jackson.

He was seventeen years old

A week later, Angela Davis was charged with murder.

Record scratch. Repeat.

A week later, Angela Davis was charged with murder. Because police said one of the guns Jonathan Jackson used was actually hers. If found guilty, she’d be sentenced to death.

Angela went on the run. She was caught months later on the other side of the country. New York. October 13, 1970. She was arrested and brought to the New York Women’s House of Detention. While she was in there, around so many other Black and Brown incarcerated women, she began to develop her Black feminist theory.

On the other side of the prison walls, organizations were fighting and rallying for her freedom. And this rallying cry continued after December 1970, when Davis was sent back to California, where she spent most of her jail time in solitary confinement, awaiting trial. She read the letters—thousands of letters—from activists and supporters. She also studied her case. Studied it and studied it and studied it. A year and a half later, her trial finally began.

She represented herself. And won.

On June 4, 1972, Angela Davis was free. But not. Not free in her own mind until she could help all the women and men she was leaving behind bars get free. There was no value, to her, in her own exceptionalism. She was an antiracist. She knew better than to beat her chest when there was a much bigger challenge to be beaten. Much stronger chains to break.

Three years later, Angela Davis returned to teaching. Nixon had resigned from office after a scandal he wasn’t punished for (no surprise) and Gerald Ford was president. Just telling you that because you’d probably be wondering what happened to Nixon. Turns out, he was… a liar and couldn’t, as my mother would say, get over. Anyway, Davis had taken a job at the Claremont Colleges Black Studies Center in Southern California, and she realized quickly that not much had changed since she’d been gone. Segregationists were still arguing some kind of natural-born problem with Black people. And assimilationists were still trying to figure out why integration had failed. And the one thing that Black male assimilationist scholars kept arguing about was that Black masculinity was what was frightening to White men. That it was sexual jealousy that spawned systemic oppression, which is ridiculous, because it buys into the racist idea that Black men are sexually superior (making them superhuman, making them not human) and also continues the narrative that Black women just don’t matter. Black women didn’t have a place in the conversation, though they’d been the steadying stick from the moment the conversation began. All this is in line with decades—centuries!—of racist propaganda. Centuries of White men, and White women, and Black men, all working to erase or discredit who they thought posed the greatest threat to freedom, even if it’s only—in the case of Black men—the freedom to pretend to be freer than they actually are.

And what about the LGBT community? Were they not to be included in this conversation? Fortunately there was… media. But not another Tarzan or Planet of the Apes. Not another Uncle Tom’s Cabin, either. This time, just like with novelist Zora Neale Hurston, who had in the past written southern dialect into the mouths of strong women characters (Their Eyes Were Watching God), Black women were screaming with Black feminist, antiracist work.

Audre Lorde produced essays, stories, and poems from the perspective of being Black and lesbian. She pushed back against the idea that she, as a Black person, woman, and lesbian, was expected to educate White people, men, and/or heterosexuals in order for them to recognize her humanity.

Ntozake Shange used her creative, antiracist energy to produce a play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, portraying the lives of Black women and their experiences of abuse, joy, heartbreak, strength, weakness, love, and longing for love. Some people were afraid it would strengthen stereotypes of Black women. Some were afraid it would strengthen stereotypes of Black men. Both fears are code for the fear of an antiracist truth.

Alice Walker wrote The Color Purple, a novel that presents a Black woman dealing with abusive Black men, abusive southern poverty, and abusive racist Whites. The tired argument about the Black male stereotype arose again. But… so what?

And Michele Wallace wrote a book called Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. Wallace believed sexism was an even greater concern than racism. She was loved, but she was hated just as much.

And while the idea of Black masculinity was being challenged by Black women, White masculinity was being threatened, constantly, by Black men. So, once again, White America created a symbol of hope. Of “man.” I mean, MAN. Of macho. Of victor. And plastered it on the big screen. Again. This time his name was Rocky.

I’m sure you’ve seen at least one of the movies, even if it’s one of the new ones. And if you haven’t, you know the fight song. The song playing while Rocky runs up a set of museum steps, training, tired, but triumphant. Yeah.

Rocky, played by Sylvester Stallone, was a poor, kind, slow-talking, slow-punching, humble, hardworking, steel-jawed Italian American boxer in Philadelphia, facing off against the unkind, fast-talking, fast-punching, cocky African American world heavyweight champion. I mean, really Rocky’s opponent, Apollo Creed (the new movies are about his son),
with his amazing thunderstorm of punches, symbolized the empowerment movements, the rising Black middle class, and the real-life heavyweight champion of the world in 1976, the pride of Black Power masculinity, Muhammad Ali. Rocky symbolized the pride of White supremacist masculinity’s refusal to be knocked out from the thunderstorm of civil rights and Black Power protests and policies.

Weeks before Americans ran out to see Rocky, though, they ran out to buy Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Haley, who was known for working with Malcolm X on his autobiography, had now basically written the slave story of all slave stories. It was a seven-hundred-page book, then made into a miniseries that became the most watched show in television history. It blew up a bunch of racist ideas about how slaves were lazy brutes, mammies, and sambos, and how slave owners were benevolent and kind… landlords. But as much as antiracist Black Americans loved their Roots, racist White Americans loved—on and off screen—their Rocky, with his unrelenting fight for the law and order of racism. And then, in 1976, their Rocky ran for president.


What War on Drugs?

NOT LIKE ROCKY, ROCKY. LIKE, NOT THE CHARACTER or the guy who played the character, Sylvester Stallone (though that would’ve been funny—or not). But it was, in fact, an actor. One who had already done damage to Black people. The one who’d been gunning for Angela Davis. Who kept her from working. That’s right, Ronald Reagan was running for president.

He’d lose the nomination to Gerald Ford in 1976 but would come right back in 1980 with a vengeance. He’d use an updated version of law and order politics and the southern strategy to address his constituents and talk about his enemies without ever having to say White or Black. He dominated the media (Angela Davis was running against him, for the vice president seat, and couldn’t get any coverage), created false narratives about the state of the country, and won.

And lots of things unfolded. New, shaky propaganda that many people took seriously, about genetics coding us to be who we are. As if there were a gene for racism. New antiracist feminist thought coming from writers like bell hooks and, of course, Angela Davis. But nothing could prepare anyone for what was coming.

Two years into Reagan’s presidency, he issued one of the most devastating executive orders of the twentieth century. The War on Drugs. Its role, maximum punishment for drugs like marijuana. This war was really one on Black people. At the time, drug crime was declining. As a matter of fact, only 2 percent of Americans viewed drugs as America’s most pressing problem. Few believed that marijuana was even that dangerous, especially compared with the much more addictive heroin. But President Reagan wants to go to war? Against drugs?

If you’re like me, you’re asking yourself, Was he on drugs? Yes. Yes, he was. The most addictive drug known to America. Racism. It causes wealth, an inflated sense of self, and hallucinations. In this case, it would unfairly incarcerate millions of Black Americans. And in 1986, during his second term, Reagan doubled down on the War on Drugs by passing the Anti–Drug Abuse Act. This bill gave a minimum five-year sentence for a drug dealer or drug user caught with five grams of crack, the amount typically handled by Blacks and poor people, while the mostly White and rich users and dealers of powder cocaine—who operated in neighborhoods with fewer police—had to be caught with five hundred grams to receive the same five-year minimum sentence.

Let that sink in.

Same drug. Different form.

One gets five years in prison

The other gets five years in prison for five hundred grams (the size of a brick).

The results should be obvious. Mass incarceration of Black people, even though White people and Black people were selling and using drugs at similar rates. Not to mention police officers policed Black neighborhoods more, and the more police, the more arrests. It’s not rocket science. It’s racism. And it would, once again, tear the Black community apart. More Black men were going to prison, and when (if) they came home, it was without the right to vote. No political voice. Also, no jobs. Not just because of felony charges, butbecause Reagan’s economic policies caused unemployment to skyrocket. So violent crimes rose because people were hungry. And, according to Reagan and racists, it was all Black people’s fault. Not the racist policies that jammed Black people up.

And the media, as always, drove the stereotypes without discussing the racist framework that created much of them. Once again, Black people were lazy and violent, the men were absent from the home because they were irresponsible and careless, and the Black family was withering due to all this, but especially, according to Reagan, because of welfare. There was no evidence to support any of this, but hey, who needs evidence when you have power, right?

The worst part is that everyone believed it. Even Black people. And to offset that image, or at least attempt to, another television show was created portraying the perfect Black family.

The Cosby Show.

A doctor and a lawyer with five children, in the upscale section of Brooklyn Heights. Upper middle class. Healthy marriage. Good parents. The father, Heathcliff Huxtable, played by Bill Cosby, even has his office in his home so that he never has to risk not being there for his children. There’s the older, responsible daughter; the rebellious second daughter; the goofy but endearing son; the awkward and nerdy third daughter; and the cute, lovable baby girl. And their collective role as a family of extraordinary Negroes was to convince White people that Black families were more than what they were being portrayed to be. Which of course was racist in and of itself, because it basically said that if a Black family didn’t operate like the Huxtables, they weren’t worthy of respect.

And, of course, the Cosbys did nothing to slow Reagan’s war. If anything, the show helped create a more polarizing view, because in 1989, a Pulitzer Prize–winning, Harvard medical degree–holding Washington Post columnist named Charles Krauthammer invented the term crack baby. It was a term used to blanket a generation of Black children born from drug-addicted parents, saying they were now destined for inferiority. That they were subhuman. That the drugs had changed their genetics. There was no science to prove any of this. But who needs science when you have racism? And that term, that label, crack baby, grew long arms and wrapped them around Black children all over the inner cities of America, whether it was true or not. Krauthammer and racists had basically figured out how to create a generation of criminals in their minds.

But Black people, as always, fought back. And this time, in the late eighties, after the election of George H. W. Bush (who of course used Reagan’s racist ideas to win), they would beat racism back with… a beat.


The Soundtrack of Sorrow and Subversion


My mic sounds nice. (Check one.)

My mic sounds nice. (Check two.)

Hip-hop had arrived. It had been about a decade since it was born in the South Bronx. BET and MTV started airing hip-hop shows. The Source magazine hit newsstands that year, beginning its reign as the world’s longest-running rap periodical. But it was the music itself that was driving change and empowerment.

Here are a few songs from that year (check them out!):

Slick Rick: “Children’s Story”

Ice-T: “Colors”

N.W.A.: “Straight Outta Compton”

Boogie Down Productions: “Stop the Violence”

Queen Latifah: “Wrath of My Madness”

Public Enemy: “Don’t Believe the Hype”

It would be Public Enemy that really set the tone the following year. In 1989, they wrote a song that was placed in Spike Lee’s Black rebellion movie Do the Right Thing. The song was a forceful mantra. An updated version of Stokely Carmichael’s “Black Power!” and James Brown’s “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud.” For the new generation of hiphop heads and rebellious Black teenagers angry about racist mistreatment, it was Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”

And with all the Black feminist thought, including the work of Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who focused on the intersection between race and sex, women rappers like MC Lyte and Salt-N-Pepa took their place on the hip-hop stage. Actually, they fared better than women in Hollywood because at least their art was in mass circulation. Aside from Julie Dash’s pioneering Daughters of the Dust, Black men were the only ones producing major Black films in 1991. These included illustrious films like Mario Van Peebles’s New Jack City; John Singleton’s debut antiracist tragedy, Boyz N the Hood; and Spike Lee’s acclaimed interracial relationship satire, Jungle Fever.

Black men produced more films in 1991 than during all of the 1980s. But a White man, George Holliday, shot the most influential racial film of the year on March 3 from the balcony of his Los Angeles apartment. He was filming a twenty-five-year-old Black man, Rodney King, being brutally beaten by four Los Angeles police officers.

The public—the Black public—broke open. The levees holding back the waters of righteous indignation crumbled under the sight of those officers’ batons.

How much more can we take?

How much more?

President Bush danced around the issue. Appointed a Black Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas, to replace Thurgood Marshall, as if that were supposed to pacify an angry and hurt Black community. And to make matters worse, Clarence Thomas was an assimilationist in the worst way. He saw himself as the king of self-reliance. A “pick yourselves up by the bootstraps” kind of guy, even though his work as an activist got him into his fancy schools and landed him this fancy job. And to add the racist cherry on top, Clarence Thomas had been accused by a woman named Anita Hill of sexual harassment when she served as his assistant at an earlier job. Nothing was done. No one believed her. In fact, she was persecuted.

So, in 1991, Angela Davis was reeling. Her year had started with the brutal beating of Rodney King (the cops were on trial at this point) and ended with the verbal lashing of Anita Hill (Thomas was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice anyway). As if the reminder that being Black and being a woman weren’t enough of a double whammy, the year also ended for Davis in an unfamiliar place. She had taken a new professorship at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and stepped away from the Communist Party after spending twenty-three years as the most recognizable Communist in America. The Party refused to acknowledge the issues that Davis had fought so hard to bring to light. Racism. Sexism. Elitism. All things the Communist Party ultimately took part in perpetuating. So she left. But she didn’t jump from Communist to Democrat. Or rather, a New Democrat, as the
party was going through a bit of an overhaul. A remix. A revamp. Fiscally liberal, but tough on welfare and crime. And the man leading this new Democratic Party was a dazzling, well-spoken, and calculating Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton.

It was 1992. And by the time the cops who had beaten Rodney King were found not guilty, Clinton had already run away with the Democratic nomination. But who could think about that when America had just told millions of people who had watched the Rodney King beating that those officers had done nothing wrong? So, Black people hit the L.A. streets in rebellion. It would take twenty thousand troops to stop them. Bill Clinton blamed both political parties for failing Black America while also blaming Black America and calling the people in the midst of the uprising—people in immense pain—lawless vandals.

About a month later, Clinton took his campaign to the national conference of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. Though Jackson was widely unpopular among the racist Whites whom Clinton was trying to attract to the New Democrats, when Jackson invited the hip-hop artist Sister Souljah to address the conference, the Clinton team saw its political opportunity. The twenty-eight-year-old Bronx native had just released 360 Degrees of Power, an antiracist album so provocative that it made Spike Lee’s films and Ice Cube’s albums seem like The Cosby Show.

And Clinton’s response to Sister Souljah was that she was being racist. It was a political stunt, but it thrilled racist voters, and catapulted Clinton to a lead he’d never lose.

By the end of 1993, rappers were under attack. They were being criticized from all sides, not just from Bill Clinton. Sixty-six-year-old civil rights veteran C. Delores Tucker and her National Political Congress of Black Women took the media portrayals debate to a new racist level in their strong campaign to ban “gangsta rap.” To her, rap music was setting Black people back. She felt like it was making Black people more violent, more materialistic, more sexual. To Tucker, the music was making its urban Black listeners inferior, though she never said anything about its suburban White listeners.

While Tucker focused on shutting down gangsta rap, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology historian Evelyn Hammonds mobilized to defend against the defamation of Black womanhood. More than two thousand Black female scholars from all across the country made their way to MIT’s campus on January 13, 1994, for “Black Women in the Academy: Defending Our Name, 1894–1994.” Among them was Angela Davis. She was the conference’s closing speaker. She was certainly the nation’s most famous Black American woman academic. But, more important, over the course of her career, she had consistently defended Black women, including those Black women who even some Black women did not want to defend. She had been arguably America’s most antiracist voice over the past two decades, unwavering in her search for antiracist explanations when others took the easier and racist way of Black blame.

In her speech, she proposed a “new abolitionism,” pushing for a rethinking of prisons and how they function. Ten days later, President Bill Clinton endorsed, basically, a new slavery. A “three strikes and you’re out” law. It was called the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, giving hard time to certain three-time offenders, which ended up causing the largest increase of the prison population in US history, mostly on nonviolent drug offenses. Mostly Black men. Of course, this once more put fuel in the “Black people are naturally criminals” vehicle, a vehicle that had been driving fast for a long time, running over everything in its path. But there was (another) academic debate brewing on whether Black people were natural or nurtured fools. And this particular debate had serious political repercussions for Clinton’s tough-on-Blacks New Democrats, and the newest force in American politics, which pledged to be even tougher.


A Million Strong

INTELLIGENCE. WHAT IS IT? THIS ISN’T A TRICK QUESTION. Or maybe it is. Either way, it was what academics were talking about as Bill Clinton’s crime laws drove the unintelligent-Black narrative. What scholars were arguing is that intelligence is so relative, it’s impossible to actually measure fairly and without bias. Uh-oh. This notion virtually shook the foundations of the racist ideas that Black people were less intelligent than White people. Or that women were less intelligent than men. Or that poor people were less intelligent than rich. It shook the idea that White schools were better, and even poked at the reason White students were perhaps going to wealthy White universities—not because of intelligence but because of racism. In the form of flawed and biased standardized testing.

Enter Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray. Harvard guys. They wouldn’t stand for this kind of talk. No, no, no. So they wrote a book refuting it all. It was called The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. The book argued that standardized testing was real and valid and, most important, fair. Which then meant that Black people, who were disproportionately doing poorly on these tests, were intellectually inferior due to genetics or environment. (I wish there was something new to add. But, as you can see, the entire history was a recycling of the same racist ideas. Not the most original people, those racists.)

The year is 1994. And Herrnstein and Murray’s book was published during the final stretch of the midterm elections. New Republicans issued their extremely tough “Contract with America” to take the welfare and crime issue back from Clinton’s New Democrats. (Funny how all the new things feel so… old.) Charles Murray jumped on board and started to rally voters and campaign for the Republicans by encouraging and rationalizing the anti-welfare bill, called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.

Personal responsibility… hmmm.

This was another one of those get-overs.

The mandate was simple enough: Black people, especially poor Black people, needed to take “personal responsibility” for their economic situation and for racial disparities and stop blaming racism for their problems and depending on the government to fix them. It convinced a new generation of Americans that irresponsible Black people, not racism, caused the racial inequities. It sold the lie that racism has had no effect. So Black people should stop crying about it.

It became a game of one-ups. The Democrats were tough on crime and welfare. The Republicans got tougher. Then the Democrats got tougher. Then the Republicans got tougher. So tough that they tried, once more, to get Angela Davis fired after University of California, Santa Cruz’s faculty awarded her the prestigious President’s Chair professorship in January 1995. She was still a threat. But how could she be a threat while at the same time Republicans were claiming racism was over? What would she be threatening? What would she still be fighting? Why would she need to be fired?

Not to mention, 1995 was a year that made clear that racism was far from over.

I mean, 1995 was when the O. J. Simpson thing happened. The trial. I know you know about it. If not, he was accused of killing his wife and her friend, both White. The trial split the country in half, with Black people rooting for O. J.’s acquittal and White people rooting for his imprisonment. It was like watching the worst reality show of all time.

The year 1995 was when the term super predator was created by Princeton University scholar John J. Dilulio to describe Black fourteen- to seventeen-year-olds. Murder rates were up among that age range, but so was unemployment. Of course, Dilulio left that part out.

The year 1995 was also when the biggest political mobilization in Black American history took place. The Million Man March. It had been proposed by Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam. Though the march was powerful in its groundswell, it was flawed in its sexism, which Angela Davis spoke out against the day before the march.

The year 1995 was when activists would come together to defend the world’s most famous Black male political prisoner, Mumia Abu-Jamal. He had been convicted of killing a White police officer in Philadelphia in 1982, though he claims innocence. A book of his commentaries was published that year, Live from Death Row. His execution was to be August 17, 1995, but because of the protests, Mumia was granted an indefinite stay of execution.

And where was Bill Clinton when all this was going on? Not at the Million Man March, that’s for sure. He was in Texas, pleading to evangelicals for racial healing. Instead of listening to the people dealing with it, he went to beg people not dealing with it to ask God to fix it. And, of course, it slipped into pray God fixes Black people. Even though a year later, affirmative action was banned in California, making the playing field, especially as it pertained to higher education, more lopsided. The percentage of African Americans at University of California campuses began to decline, and the push for the end of affirmative action would spread, all under Bill Clinton’s watch.

A year later, in June 1997, Clinton gave a commencement address at Angela Davis’s alma mater, UC San Diego. It was as if suddenly he’d seen the light (the irony!) and pledged to lead “the American people in a great and unprecedented conversation on race.”

Racial reformers applauded him.

And Black women had something to say. A nudge. You know, to get the conversation started.

And when I say Black women, what I mean is… one million of them.

On October 25, 1997, in Philadelphia, a million Black women gathered to have their voices heard. Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Sister Souljah, Winnie Mandela, Attallah and Ilyasah Shabazz (daughters of Malcolm X), and Dorothy Height all spoke. But so did White men. Not at the march, but in the media. And what they argued in response to Clinton’s statements was that the way to fix racism was to stop focusing on it.


But that’s what they said. And that sentiment set the tone for what would become “color blindness.”


Take a breath. How many of you know the “I have a Black friend” person, who then follows that statement with this one: “But I don’t see color.”


This color-blind rhetoric seemed to have its intended effect. Segregationists and assimilationists started favoring the color-blind product nearly a century after the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of “separate but equal.” And it had the same effect. Lip service. The millennium was coming, and people still couldn’t fathom equality, because of color. But they used a new “multicultural” paint to brush over a racist stain. And a single coat wouldn’t do.


A Bill Too Many

WANT TO KNOW SOMETHING INCREDIBLE? AND STRANGE? And both surprising yet not surprising at all?

Scientific evidence that the races are 99.9 percent the same was brought forth on June 26, 2000. The year 2000 was when people were given scientific evidence that human beings were the same, despite the color of their skin. Isn’t that wild?

Bill Clinton delivered the news as if it were news.

But Craig Venter, one of the scientists responsible, was more frank than Clinton in how he spoke about it. “The concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis,” Venter said. His research team at Celera Genomics had determined “the genetic code” of five individuals, who were identified as either “Hispanic, Asian, Caucasian, or African American,” and the scientists could not tell one race from another.

But there was 0.1 percent still out there. And that 0.1 percent difference between humans must be racial. Whether it is or isn’t, it was going to be exploited by racist scientists who did everything they could to provide evidence that the races were biologically different. First curse theory and polygenesis, and now genes—racists were relentless.

But they didn’t get much traction. Months later, the United States Report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination pointed out what was now the broken US race record: There had been “substantial successes,” but there were “significant obstacles” remaining. It was September 2000, and Texas governor George W. Bush was pledging to restore “honor and dignity” to the White House, while Vice President Al Gore was trying to distance himself from Bill Clinton’s impeachment scandal. The report’s findings of discrimination and disparities across the American board did not become campaign talking points, as they reflected poorly on both the Clinton administration and the Republicans’ color-blind America. Science says the races are biologically equal. So, if they’re not equal in society, the only reason why can be racism.

And it played out again in the law a few months later, when tens of thousands of Black voters in Governor Jeb Bush’s Florida were barred from voting or had their votes destroyed, allowing George W. Bush to win his brother’s state by fewer than five hundred votes. This racist act would end up leading George W. Bush to the presidency.

But once in office, he also couldn’t stop the antiracist momentum. The reparations conversation had kicked into high gear, and nearly twelve thousand women and men ventured to beautiful Durban, South Africa, for the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held from August 31 to September 7, 2001. Delegates passed around a report on the prison industrial complex and women of color that had been coauthored by Angela Davis. They also identified the Internet as the latest mechanism for spreading racist ideas, citing the roughly sixty thousand White supremacist sites and the racist statements so often made in comments sections following online stories about Black people. The United States had the largest delegation, and antiracist Americans established fruitful connections with activists from around the world, many of whom wanted to ensure that the conference kicked off a global antiracist movement. As participants started venturing back to Senegal, the United States, Japan, Brazil, and France around September 7, 2001, they carried their antiracist momentum around the world.

And then it all came crashing down. Literally. September 11, 2001. After about three thousand Americans heartbreakingly lost their lives in attacks on the World Trade Center, on the Pentagon, on United Airlines Flight 93 that went down in Pennsylvania, President Bush condemned the “evil-doers,” the insane “terrorists,” all the while promoting antiIslamic and anti-Arab sentiments. Color-blind racists exploited the raw feelings in the post-9/11 moment, playing up a united, patriotic America, where anyone who wasn’t waving a flag was in fact an enemy to the country.

But there was no united front. Not in the broad scheme of things. Affirmative action was still being challenged, and no one wanted to grapple with the fact that the issue with education could be better dealt with if the racial preferences of standardized testing were eradicated. But the use of standardized testing grew in K–12 schooling when the Bush administration’s bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act took effect in 2003. The premise was simple. Set high goals and test often to see if those goals are being met. And then fund the schools based on those results. And though it was called No Child Left Behind, it actually encouraged mechanisms that decreased funding to schools when students were not making improvements, thus leaving the neediest students behind. It once again put the blame on Black children. And Black teachers. And public schools. Not on racist policies.

And the worst part is that Black assimilationists bought in once more. People like Bill Cosby, who blamed Black parents. “The lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal. These people are not parenting,” Cosby said in Washington, DC, after being honored at an NAACP gala in May 2004. “They are buying things for kids. Fivehundred-dollar sneakers for what? And they won’t spend two hundred dollars for Hooked on Phonics. I am talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange suit.”

And while Bill Cosby took his racist ideas on the road for a speaking tour, a rising star of the Democratic Party, Barack Obama, subverted Cosby’s message during his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston on July 27, 2004. “Go into any inner-city neighborhood, and folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to teach, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white. They know those things.” A booming applause interrupted Obama as his takedown of Cosby’s critique settled in. Obama presented himself as a racial and socioeconomic unicorn. Humble beginnings and a lofty ascent. Both native and immigrant ancestry. Also, both African and European ancestry. He checked every box. And though at the time he was campaigning for John Kerry (who would lose the election to George W. Bush), it was clear a star was born.


A Miracle and Still a Maybe

TWO WEEKS AFTER HIS EXHILARATING KEYNOTE ADDRESS, Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, was republished. It rushed up the charts and snatched rave reviews in the final months of 2004. Toni Morrison, the queen of American letters and the editor of Angela Davis’s iconic memoir three decades earlier, deemed Dreams from My Father “quite extraordinary.” Obama had written the memoir in the racially packed year of 1995 as he prepared to begin his political career in the Illinois Senate.

In the book, he claimed to be exempt from being an “extraordinary Negro,” but racist Americans of all colors would in 2004 begin hailing Barack Obama, with all his public intelligence, morality, speaking ability, and political success, as such. The “extraordinary Negro” hallmark had come a mighty long way from Phillis Wheatley to Barack Obama, who became the nation’s only African American in the US Senate in 2005. With Phillis Wheatley, racists despised the capable Black mind, but with Obama, they were turning their backs on history so that they could see him as a symbol of a post-racial America. An excuse to say the ugliness is over.

But it was a devastating natural and racial disaster that summer that would burst the bubble of post-racial make-believe, and if anything, forced a tense debate about racism. During the final days of August 2005, Hurricane Katrina took more than 1,800 lives, forced millions to migrate, flooded the beautiful Gulf Coast, and caused billions in property damage. Hurricane Katrina blew the color-blind roof off America and allowed all to see—if they dared to look—the dreadful progression of racism.

For years, scientists and journalists had warned that if southern Louisiana took “a direct hit from a major hurricane,” the levees could fail and the region—a poor Black community—would be flooded and destroyed. No one did anything.

And once it happened, the response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was delayed. It was rumored that the Bush administration directed FEMA to delay its response in order to amplify the destructive reward for those who would benefit. Whether or not this is true, they were delayed. And people were drowning. It took three days to deploy rescue troops to the Gulf Coast region, more time than it took to get troops on the ground to quell the 1992 Rodney King rebellion. And then came the media. This time spinning tales of looting and gruesome, sensationalized stories of children in the Superdome (where people were being sheltered) having their throats cut.

In the era of color-blind racism, no matter how gruesome the racial crime, no matter how much evidence was stacked against them, racists were standing before the judge and pleading “not guilty.” But how many criminals actually confess when they don’t have to? From “civilizers” to standardized testers, assimilationists have rarely confessed to racism. Enslavers and Jim Crow segregationists went to their graves claiming innocence. And just as many presidents before him have, including Reagan, Lincoln, and Jefferson, George W. Bush will likely do the same.

On February 10, 2007, Barack Obama stood in front of the Old State Capitol building in Springfield, Illinois, and formally announced his presidential candidacy. He stood on the same spot where Abraham Lincoln had delivered his historic “House Divided” speech in 1858. Obama brimmed with words of American unity, hope, and change. No one saw him coming. As a matter of fact, everyone said Hillary Clinton was the inevitable choice, until Obama came through Iowa and snatched it from under her nose. By February 5, 2008, Super Tuesday (the Tuesday in the presidential election season when the greatest number of states hold primary elections), Americans had been swept up in the Obama “Yes We Can” crusade of hope and change, themes he embodied and spoke about so eloquently in his speeches that people started to hunger for him. But in mid-February, his perceptive and brilliant wife, Michelle Obama, told a Milwaukee rally, “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country, and not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change.” That’s all racists needed to pounce and call her unpatriotic. To try to tear the Obamas down and discredit them. Racist commentators became obsessed with Michelle Obama’s body, her near-six-foot, chiseled, and curvy frame simultaneously semi-masculine and hyper-feminine. They searched for problems in her Black marriage and family, calling them extraordinary when they did not find any.

Then they found a scapegoat in one of Black America’s most revered liberation theologians, the recently retired pastor of Chicago’s large Trinity United Church of Christ—Jeremiah Wright. He’d officiated at the Obamas’ wedding and spoke honestly about his feelings for a country that had worked overtime to kill him and his people. But the media used Wright’s critiques of America to slander Obama.

Obama tried to brush it off. Tried to downplay his relationship with Pastor Wright, but nothing was working. So, instead, he delivered the speech of his life. It was called “A More Perfect Union.” It was a speech on race, and it teetered back and forth between painful assimilationist thought and bold antiracism.

And it worked. It pushed him on, past the barrage of obstacles to come, including the one fueled by Donald Trump that challenged whether or not Obama was an American.

And on November 4, 2008, a sixty-four-year-old recently retired professor, Angela Davis, cast a vote for a major political party for the first time in her voting life. She had retired from academia but not from her very public activism of four decades. She was still traveling the country trying to rouse an abolitionist movement against prisons. In casting her vote for Democrat Barack Obama, Davis joined roughly 69.5 million Americans. But more than voting for the man, Davis voted for the grassroots efforts of the campaign organizers, those millions of people demanding change.

When the networks started announcing that Obama had been elected the forty-fourth president of the United States, happiness exploded from coast to coast. It burst from the United States and spread around the antiracist world. Davis was in the delirium of Oakland. People whom she did not know came up and hugged her as she walked the streets. She saw people singing to the heavens, and she saw people dancing in the streets. And the people Angela Davis saw and all the others around the world who were celebrating were not enraptured from the election of an individual; they were enraptured by the pride of the victory for Black people, by the success of millions of grassroots organizers, and because they had shown all those disbelievers, who had said that electing a Black president was impossible, to be wrong. Most of all, they were enraptured by the antiracist potential of a Black president.

But, like my mother says, there’s not much payout for potential, is there? President Obama was a symbol. Yes, one of hope. One of progress. But also one of assimilationism. So much so that he was used to explain racism away. Used to absolve it. Obama fell in line with the likes of Lincoln, Du Bois, Washington, Douglass, and many others, who had flashes—true moments—of antiracist thought, but always seemed to assimilate under pressure. He rose to fame for calling out Bill Cosby for blaming Black people, then dived headfirst into assimilation shortly thereafter, critiquing Black people in the exact same ways. And just as with the Black leaders before him, the assimilation didn’t work. Segregationists climbed out of every hateful hole and out from under every racist rock. They hated him, worked tirelessly to destroy and discredit him, and used him as a way to demean Black people. To ramp up racist absurdity and stereotypes, once again calling back to their favorite bigoted playlist, playing all the classic racist tunes—Black savage, Black dummy, Black do-nothing, Black be-nothing. Anything to smear President Obama and Black people in the media. Racist politicians and media personalities worked to figure out ways to tamp down the ego that they assumed came with a Black president.

And came with being Black in the time of a Black president.

And came with… being Black.

People started to die. People continued to die. Children’s lives, ended at the hands of police officers and vigilantes who placed no value on Black humanity. Police officers and vigilantes who walk free. But, just like in other parts of America’s racist history, antiracists push forth from the margins to fight back. Black President or not.

Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi founded #BlackLivesMatter as a direct response to racist backlash in the form of police brutality. From the minds and hearts of these three Black women—two of whom are queer—this declaration of love intuitively signified that in order to truly be antiracists, we must also oppose all the sexism, homophobia, colorism, ethnocentrism, nativism, cultural prejudice, and class bias teeming and teaming with racism to harm so many Black lives. The antiracist declaration of the era quickly leaped from social media onto shouting signs and shouting mouths at antiracist protests across the country in 2014. These protesters rejected the racist declaration of six centuries: that Black lives don’t matter. #BlackLivesMatter quickly transformed from an antiracist love declaration into an antiracist movement filled with young people operating in local BLM groups across the nation, often led by young Black women. Collectively, these activists were pressing against discrimination in all forms, in all areas of society, and from a myriad of vantage points. And in reaction to those who acted as if Black male lives mattered the most, antiracist feminists boldly demanded of America to #SayHerName, to shine light on the women who have also been affected by the hands and feet of racism. Perhaps they, the antiracist daughters of Davis, should be held up as symbols of hope, for taking potential and turning it into power. More important, perhaps we should all do the same.


HOW DO YOU FEEL? I MEAN, I HOPE AFTER READING THIS not history history book, you’re left with some answers. I hope it’s clear how the construct of race has always been used to gain and keep power, whether financially or politically. How it has always been used to create dynamics that separate us to keep us quiet. To keep the ball of White and rich privilege rolling. And that it’s not woven into people as much as it’s woven into policy that people adhere to and believe is truth.Laws that have kept Black people from freedom, from voting, from education, from insurance, from housing, from government assistance, from health care, from shopping, from walking, from driving, from… breathing.

Laws that treat Black human beings like nothing. No, like animals.

Let’s go with that. Animals. If we call a particular person a dog long enough, someone who is not like that person and who has more power than that person will believe it. Especially if we give the powerful person a leash and justify putting it around the oppressed person’s neck. If we justify feeding them dog food. If we muzzle them when they bark, claiming that their barks, as well as their whines, are violent. If we clip their tail. Their ears. Punish them when they chew up the house, when they gnaw at the wooden door. And if we can convince the person with power that a child is a dog—if we present (fraudulent) pedigree papers—why would they even question humans (as dogs) being considered pets, being owned, trained, used, bred, and sold?

This is how racism works.

I mean, all it takes is the right kind of media to spark it. To spin it. At least, that’s what history has shown us. Tell a certain story a certain way. Make a movie that paints you as the hero. Get enough people on your side to tell you you’re right, and you’re right. Even if you’re wrong. And once you’ve been told you’re right long enough, and once your being right has led you to a profitable and privileged life, you’d do anything to not be proved wrong. Even pretend human beings aren’t human beings.

From Zurara to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Sojourner Truth to Audre Lorde. Ida B. Wells-Barnett to Zora Neale Hurston. Frederick Douglass to Marcus Garvey. Jack Johnson to Muhammad Ali. Tarzan to Planet of the Apes. Ma Rainey to Public Enemy. Langston Hughes to James Baldwin

Cotton Mather

to Thomas Jefferson

to William Lloyd Garrison

to W. E. B. Du Bois

to Angela Davis

to Angela Davis

to Angela Davis,

leads back to the question of whether you, reader, want to be a segregationist (a hater), an assimilationist (a coward), or an antiracist (someone who truly loves).

Choice is yours.

Don’t freak out.

Just breathe in. Inhale. Hold it. Now exhale slowly:



THERE ARE SO MANY PEOPLE I NEED TO THANK, INCLUDING our editor, Lisa Yoskowitz at Little, Brown, and my agent, Elena Giovinazzo, both of whom believed I was capable of doing this. I’d like to thank my mother, who believes I’m capable of doing anything. And, of course, I’d like to thank Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. Your brilliance and diligence are to be praised. Thank you for being an example and for trusting me with such a special project. More important, thank you for this massive and groundbreaking contribution to our complex history. Your book is a new cornerstone in the American race conversation. Your voice is a new tuning fork.

But there is no one I’d like to thank more than all the young people. Those who have read this book (and are now reading it) and those who may never break the spine. All of you deserve thanks. All of you deserve acknowledgment. All of you deserve to know that you are in fact the antidote to anti-Blackness, xenophobia, homophobia, classism, sexism, and the other cancers that you have not caused but surely have the potential to cure.
You know how I know this? Because I’m one of the fortunate people who get to spend time with you. I’ve been in your schools, have walked the hallways with you. I’ve sat at your lunch tables and cracked jokes with you. I’ve popped into your libraries and community centers, from the suburbs to public-housing complexes. I’ve been to the alternative schools and the detention centers. From inner city to Iowa. And what I’ve learned is that you’re far more open and empathetic than the generations before you. So much so, that your sensitivity is used as an insult, a slight against you. Your desire for a fair world is seen as a weakness. What I’ve learned is that your anger is global, because the world now sits in the palm of your hand. You have the ability to teleport, to scroll upon a war zone or a murder. To witness protest and revolution from cultures not your own but who share your frustration. Your refusal. Your fear.

But I have to warn you:

Scrolling will never be enough.

Reposting will never be enough.

Hashtagging will never be enough.

Because hatred has a way of convincing us that half love is whole. What I mean by that is we—all of us—have to fight against performance and lean into participation. We have to be participants. Active. We have to be more than audience members sitting comfortably in the stands of morality, shouting, “WRONG!” That’s too easy. Instead, we must be players on the field, on the court, in our classrooms and communities, trying to do right. Because it takes a whole hand—both hands—to grab hold of hatred. Not just a texting thumb and a scrolling index finger.

But I have to warn you, again:

We can’t attack a thing we don’t know.

That’s dangerous. And… foolish. It would be like trying to chop down a tree from the top of it. If we understand how the tree works, how the trunk and roots are where the power lies, and how gravity is on our side, we can attack it, each of us with small axes, and change the face of the forest.

So let’s learn all there is to know about the tree of racism. The root. The fruit. The sap and trunk. The nests built over time, the changing leaves. That way, your generation can finally, actively chop it down.

Thank you, young people. I wish I could name you all.

But I’d much rather you name yourselves.


I would like to acknowledge all the people I know and do not know who assisted and supported me in composing Stamped from the Beginning, which this book is based on. From my ever-loving family members and friends to my ever-supportive colleagues across academia and at American University, and to the countless thinkers, dead and alive, inside and outside academia, whose works on race have shaped my thinking and this history—I thank you. Without a doubt, this book is as much by you as it is by me.

I aimed to write a history book that could be devoured by as many people as possible—without shortchanging the serious complexities—because racist ideas and their history have affected all of us. But Jason Reynolds took his remix of Stamped from the Beginning to another level of accessibility and luster. I can’t thank him enough for his willingness to produce this sophisticated remix that will impact generations of young and not so young people.

I would like to acknowledge my agent, Ayesha Pande, who from the beginning was one of the major champions of Stamped from the Beginning and Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You. Ayesha, I do not take for granted that you believed in these books. And I must thank Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and our remarkable editor, Lisa Yoskowitz, who from the beginning clearly recognized the importance and potential impact of Stamped. To Katy O’Donnell at Bold Type Books, thank you again for working with me on Stamped from the Beginning. To Michelle Campbell, Jackie Engel, Jen Graham, Karina Granda, Siena Koncsol, Christie Michel, Michael Pietsch, Emilie Polster, Victoria Stapleton, Megan Tingley—to all the people involved in the production and marketing of this book, I cannot thank you enough.

I would like to give a special acknowledgment to my parents, Carol and Larry Rogers, and to my brothers, Akil and Macharia. Love is truly a verb, and I thank you for your love.

I saved one person, who was as excited as I was that Jason and I were working together on this book, for last—my wife, Sadiqa. Thank you, Sadiqa, and thank you, everyone, for everything.


DMU Timestamp: August 14, 2020 20:51