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Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You - Section 2 - 1743 - 1826 by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds copy 01

Author: Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds

“Section 2 - 1743 - 1726.” Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, Little, Brown and Company, 2020, pp. 41-76.


Proof in the Poetry

THIS IS THE WAY LIFE WORKS. THINGS GROW AND change, or at least things seem to change. Sometimes the change is in name only; sometimes there’s a fundamental shift. Most times it’s a bit of both. In the mid-1700s, after Cotton Mather’s death and in the midst of his followers’ continuing his legacy, the new America entered what we now call the Enlightenment era.

Enlightenment. What does it mean? Well, according to our old pals Merriam and Webster, enlightenment is defined as “the act or means of enlightening: the state of being enlightened.” (Isn’t it funny how every teacher has always told you not to define a word by using the word in the definition? Hey, next time, just say, “If the folks who wrote the dictionary can do it, so can I!” ) But to be enlightened just means to be informed. To be free from ignorance. So, this new movement, the Enlightenment, was megaphoning the fact that there was a new generation, a new era that knew more. Better thinkers. And in America the leader of this “better thinkers” movement was Mr. One-Hundred-Dollar Bill himself —Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin started a club called the American Philosophical Society in 1743 in Philadelphia. It was modeled after the Royal Society in England, and served as, basically, a club for smart (White) people. Thinkers. Philosophers. And… racists. See, in the Enlightenment era, light was seen as a metaphor for intelligence (think, I see the light) and also whiteness (think, opposite of dark). And this is what Franklin was bringing to America through his club of ingenious fools. And one of those walking contradictions was Thomas Jefferson.

About Jefferson. You know how I said Gomes Eanes de Zurara was the world’s first racist? Well, Thomas Jefferson might’ve been the world’s first White person to say, “I have Black friends.” I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m willing to make the bet. He was raised nonreligious, in a house where Native Americans were houseguests, and Black people, though slaves, were his friends, as far as he could tell. As a young man, he didn’t think of them as less or consider slavery much at all. As a matter of fact, Jefferson didn’t even really see them as slaves. It wasn’t until he was older, when his African “friends” started telling him about the horrors of slavery—including the terror in his own home—that he realized their lives were more different than he’d ever known. And how could they not be? His father owned the second-largest number of enslaved people in Albemarle County, Virginia, and I don’t know about you all, but I don’t own my friends.

As Thomas Jefferson grew up, he studied law to grapple with antiracist thought (yes, the slave owner was studying antiracism). He eventually went on to build his own plantation, in Charlottesville, Virginia, putting money over morals, a lesson learned from his father. Slavery wasn’t about people, it was about profit. Business.

I often wonder if there were times on Jefferson’s plantation when one of his slaves—one of his friends—taught him things he couldn’t learn from the American Philosophical Society. And, if so, if that particular slave was seen as someone, something, different. Like a “Super Black.” And if his “I have Black friends” was ever followed up with, “You’re not like the rest of them.” And if when Jefferson’s friends came over, he had that slave showcase his intelligence or his talent or whatever “special” thing he thought only White people could do. Because up the coast, in Boston, during the time that Jefferson was building his plantation, a young woman named Phillis Wheatley was under a microscope, for being “special.”

Not, like, literally under a microscope. She was too big for that. Not microscopic at all. As a matter of fact, she was being studied not because she was small but rather because she had an intellectual and creative bigness that White people couldn’t believe.

She was a poet. But before she was a poet, she was a young girl, a captive brought over on a ship from Senegambia. She was purchased by the Wheatley family, who wanted a daughter to replace the one they’d lost. Phillis would be that stand-in. And because she was a “daughter,” she was actually never a working slave and was even homeschooled.

By eleven, she’d written her first poem.

By twelve, she could read Greek and Latin classics, English literature, and the Bible. That same year she also published her first poem.

By fifteen, she’d written a poem about wanting to go to Harvard, which was all male and all White.

By nineteen, she began gathering her poems into a collection. A book.

By now, you know there was no way she was going to get published. At least not without jumping through some serious hoops. So, in 1772, John Wheatley, Phillis’s adoptive father, got eighteen of the smartest men in America together in Boston so that they could test her. See if a Black person could really be as intelligent and literate as Phillis. As they were. And, of course, she answered every question correctly and proved herself… human.

Still, no one would publish her. I mean, those eighteen men knew she was brilliant, but none of them were publishers, and even if they were, why would they risk their businesses by publishing a Black girl in the midst of a racist world where poetry was for and by rich White people?

But Wheatley’s achievements still proved a point, that Black people weren’t dumb, and this information became ammo for people who were antislavery. People like Benjamin Rush, a physician from Philadelphia who wrote a pamphlet saying that Black people weren’t born savages but instead were made savages by slavery.

Record scratch.


Okay, let’s just get something straight, because this is an argument you will hear over and over again through life (I hope not, but probably). To say that slavery—or, in today’s time, poverty—makes Black people animals or subhuman is racist. I know, I know. It seems to be coming from a “good” place. Like, when people say, “You’re cute… for a (insert physical attribute that shouldn’t be used as an insult but is definitely used as an insult because it doesn’t fit with the strange and narrow European standard of beauty).” It’s underhanded and still doesn’t recognize you for you. It’s the difference between an assimilationist and an antiracist (word check!) .

So, when it came to Phillis Wheatley, an assimilationist like Benjamin Rush argued that she was intelligent only because she’d never really been a slave, i.e., slavery makes you dumb. News flash: Wheatley was intelligent because she had the opportunity to learn and wasn’t tortured every day of her life. And even people who were tortured every day of their lives and did not have the opportunity to go to school still found ways to think and create. Still found ways to be human in their own way. Although their poetry looked different. Although they did not often have the opportunity to write their poetry.

See how that works, Mr. Rush? Mr. Enlightened? Huh? Yeah. Thanks, but no thanks.

While Rush was working to make this argument, Wheatley was over in London being trotted around like a superstar. The British would go on to publish her work. Not only would they publish her a year after slavery was abolished in England, they would use her (and Rush’s pamphlet) as a way to condemn American slavery. Let me explain why that was a big deal. It’s basically your mother telling you she’s “not mad, but she’s disappointed in you.” Remember, America was made up of a bunch of Europeans, specifically British people. They still owned America. It was their home away from home (hence New England). The British disapproval applied pressure to the American slavery system, which was the American economic system, and in order for America to feel comfortable with continuing slavery, they had to get away from, break free of, Britain once and for all.


Time Out


  1. Africans are savages because Africa is hot, and extreme weather made them that way.
  2. Africans are savages because they were cursed through Ham, in the Bible.
  3. Africans are savages because they were created as an entirely different species.
  4. Africans are savages because there is a natural human hierarchy and they are at the bottom.
  5. Africans are savages because dark equals dumb and evil, and light equals smart and… White.
  6. Africans are savages because slavery made them so.
  7. Africans are savages.

Note: You will see these ideas repeated over and over again throughout this book. But that’s not a good enough reason for you to stop reading. So… don’t even try it.


Time In



Jefferson’s Notes

I KNOW YOU ALREADY KNOW THIS, BUT SOMETIMES IT’S important to put things in context so they really make sense.

Britain had ended slavery (at least in England, but not in the British colonies).

America refused to do so.

Britain looked at America as… dumb.

America said, “Mind your business, Britain.”

Britain said, “You are my business, America.”

America said, “Well, we can change that.”

And in 1776, before anyone could spell W-E W-A-N-T S-L-A-V-E-R-Y, Thomas Jefferson, who at the time was a thirty-three-year-old delegate to the Second Continental

Congress, sat down to pen the Declaration of Independence. At the beginning of the declaration, he paraphrased the Virginia Constitution (every state has one) and wrote, “All men are created equal.”

Bears repeating. All men are created equal.

Say it with me: All men are created equal.

But were slaves seen as “men”? And what about women? And what did it mean that Jefferson, a man who owned nearly two hundred slaves, was writing America’s freedom document? Was he talking about an all-encompassing freedom or just America being free from England? While these questions hung in the air, slaves were taking matters into their own hands. They were running away from plantations all over the South by the tens of thousands. They wanted freedom, and guess who was to blame? Wait, first of all, guess who should’ve been blamed? Slaveholders, obviously. But Thomas Jefferson and other slave owners blamed Britain for inspiring this kind of rebellion. He’d written into the declaration all the ways Britain was abusing America, even stating that the British, though arguing against slavery, were actually trying to enslave (White) America. But remember, Jefferson agreed with slavery only as an economic system. I mean, he’d grown up with “Black friends,” for goodness’ sake. So, he also wrote into the declaration the antiracist sentiment that slavery was a “cruel war against human nature,” but that part, and parts like it, were edited out by the other, more established delegates.

Over the next five years, the Americans and the British fought the Revolutionary War. And while British soldiers stormed the shores of Virginia looking for Jefferson, he was hiding out with his family, writing. Imagine that. The man who wrote the document that further fueled the war was hiding. As my mother says, “Don’t throw a stone, then hide your hand.” Jefferson was definitely hiding his hand. But he’d show it shortly after, because while hiding from capture, he decided to answer a series of questions, in writing, from a French diplomat who was basically collecting information about America (because America was becoming AMERICA!) . And instead of just answering the questions, Jefferson decided to flex his muscle. To tell his truth.

He titled his book of answers Notes on the State of Virginia. In it, he expressed his real thoughts on Black people. Uh-oh. He said they could never assimilate because they were inferior by nature. Uh-oh. Said they felt love more, but pain less. Uh-oh. That they aren’t reflective, and operate only on instincts. Yikes. That the freedom of slaves would result in the extermination of one of the races, i.e., a race war. Uh-oh. And the answer to “the problem” of slaves was that they should be sent back to Africa. So much for his “Black friends,” huh? The ones he’d known to be intelligent blacksmiths, shoemakers, bricklayers, coopers, carpenters, engineers, manufacturers, artisans, musicians, farmers, midwives, physicians, overseers, house managers, cooks, and bi- and trilingual translators—all the workers who made his Virginia plantation and many others almost entirely self-sufficient.

Surprise, surprise.

Oh, the best part: He didn’t intend to publish these notes widely, but a small devious printer did so without his permission.

Surprise, surprise!

When it came to Black people, Jefferson’s whole life was one big contradiction, as if he were struggling with what he knew was true and what was supposed to be true. In 1784, Jefferson moved to Paris. His wife had died, and his old Monticello home suddenly felt pretty lonely. He was exhausted from his grief and years of being hunted by the British. So, he did what he always seemed to do in moments of crisis. He ran. To France. As soon as he made contact with the French foreign minister, he sent word home to his own slaves to speed up tobacco production in hopes that French merchants could pay back British creditors. On one hand, Jefferson was telling his slaves to work harder, and on the other hand he was telling abolitionists that there was nothing he wanted more than an end to slavery. And while he was busy playing the good guy, promoting, defending, and ensuring that the French knew America was becoming AMERICA! (and also having a good ol’ French time), back home there was a convention taking place in Philadelphia to talk about the new

Turns out, Jefferson’s declaration resulted in years of violent struggle with the British but, more important, it exposed a weak American government. So, this constitution was supposed to define it and solidify it. But before it was set in stone, there had to be a series of compromises.

  1. The Great Compromise:
    This one created the House and the Senate. Two senators per state. House of Representatives based on population. The bigger the population, the more representatives each state could have to fight for its interests. This causes issues, specifically between southern states and northern states, because they aren’t sure how to count slaves. Which leads us to
  2. The Three-Fifths Compromise:
    The South wanted to play both sides of the fence. On one hand, they didn’t want to count slaves as people, but instead wanted to count them as property, because the greater the population, the more taxes you have to pay. But, on the other hand, they needed more population, because the greater the population, the more representation they got, and with more representation came more power. And the North was like, “NOOOOPE! Slaves can’t be human,” because the North didn’t have (as many) slaves and therefore couldn’t risk letting the South have more power. So, the compromise was to create a fraction. Every five slaves equaled three humans. So, just to do the math, that’s like saying if there were fifteen slaves in the room, on paper, they counted as only nine people.

This three-fifths-of-a-man equation worked for both the assimilationists and the segregationists, because it fit right into the argument that slaves were both human and subhuman, which they both agreed on. For the assimilationists, the three-fifths rule allowed them to argue that someday slaves might be able to achieve five-fifths. Wholeness. Whiteness. One day. And for segregationists, it proved that slaves were mathematically wretched. Segregationists and assimilationists may have had different intentions, but both of them agreed that Black people were inferior. And that agreement, that shared bond, allowed slavery and racist ideas to be permanently stamped into the founding document of America.

While all this was going on, Jefferson was in France, chillin’. That is, until the French Revolution broke out. At first, he didn’t mind the French unrest. If anything, it made him happy to know America wasn’t the only warring country. But then it spilled over into Haiti. And that was a problem. A big problem.

In August 1791, close to half a million enslaved Africans in Haiti rose up against French rule. It was a revolt like nothing anyone had ever seen. A revolt that the Africans in Haiti won. And because of that victory, Haiti would become the Eastern Hemisphere’s symbol of freedom. Not America. And what made that frightening to every American slaveholder, including Thomas Jefferson, was that they knew the Haitian Revolution would inspire their slaves to also fight back.


Uplift Suasion

Imagine it as a parenthetical, a side note, a just so you know.

Black people—slaves—started to get free. Runaways. And abolitionists urged the newly freed people to go to church regularly, learn to speak “proper” English, learn math, adopt trades, get married, stay away from vices (smoking and drinking), and basically live what they would consider to be respectable lives. Basically, live like White people. If Black
people behaved “admirably,” they could prove all the stereotypes about them were wrong.

This strategy was called uplift suasion. It was racist, because what it said was that Black people couldn’t be accepted as themselves, and that they had to fit into some kind of White mold to deserve their freedom. But in the 1790s, uplift suasion was working. At least, it seemed to be.

It’s important that you keep this in mind, because it would be the cornerstone of assimilationist thought, which basically said:

Make yourself small,

make yourself unthreatening,

make yourself the same,

make yourself safe,

make yourself quiet

to make White people comfortable with your existence.


The Great Contradictor

SCHOLAR. ASSIMILATIONIST. SLAVEHOLDER. MAN OF leisure. Author. Secretary of state. Vice president. But before Thomas Jefferson took on the role of president, his racist ideas took top position in the minds of many White people. Especially as slaves, many of whom were still inspired by the Haitian Revolution, were continuing to attempt insurrection.

Like Gabriel and Nancy Prosser. The Prossers were planning a slave rebellion, recruiting hundreds of slaves to revolt in Virginia. They had it all mapped out. And it was meant to be epic. Hundreds of captives were supposed to march on Richmond, where they would steal four thousand unguarded muskets, arrest the governor, and hold the city until other slaves arrived from surrounding counties to negotiate the end of slavery and the establishment of equal rights. Allies were to be recruited among Virginia’s poor Whites and Native Americans. The lives of friendly Methodists, Quakers, and French people were to be spared. But racist Blacks, they would be killed. The Prossers took into account the fact that antiracists of any color were more necessary, more important to their liberation, than Black assimilationists. And this theory would be proved when the revolt—and their covers—were blown.

The revolt was scheduled for Saturday, August 30, 1800. But two cynical slaves—snitches—begging for their master’s favor, betrayed what would have been the largest slave revolt in the history of North America, with as many as fifty thousand rebels joining in from as far away as Norfolk, Virginia. That was all it took for Governor James Monroe to have a militia waiting. Gabriel Prosser was eventually caught and hanged. Game over.

Well, not completely. More like, game changer.

The attempted (and failed) revolt made slave owners nervous. As it should’ve. So, up from the soil of slavery sprouted new racist ideas to protect White lives. Sending slaves “back” to Africa and the Caribbean—Thomas Jefferson’s idea of colonization—was one of them.

Lots of people got behind the strategy of colonization, including (eventually) a delegate from Virginia, Charles Fenton Mercer, and an antislavery clergyman, Robert Finley. Finley would take the colonization idea and run with it. He started an organization called the American Colonization Society (ACS) and wrote the manifesto for it, outlining how free Blacks would need to be trained to take care of themselves so that they could go back to Africa and take care of their motherland. Build it up. Civilize it. But when all this was actually pitched to freed Black people, they weren’t for it. Not having it. Black people didn’t want to go “back” to a place they’d never known. They’d built America as slaves and wanted to reap the benefits of their labor as free people.

America was now their land.

This debate, the back-and-forth of what to do with slaves and free Blacks, was what Thomas Jefferson was stepping into when he became president in 1801. And his response to all the fuss was that he needed to put a policy in place that he thought might actually start the process of ending slavery, ultimately leading to colonization.

Wait. But he had slaves.

Wait. So, did he want to end slavery, but not free his own?

Wait. Was he proslavery and antislavery?

Contradiction. Could’ve been his middle name. Thomas Contradiction Jefferson. And that held true in 1807, when, as president, he brought about a new Slave Trade Act. The goal was to stop the import of people from Africa and the Caribbean into America, and fine illegal slave traders. (Yes!) Instead, the act turned out to be paper thin and did nothing to stop domestic slavery or the international slave trade. (No!) Kids were still being snatched from their parents, and slave ships were selling slaves “down river” from Virginia to New Orleans, which took just as many days as the trip across the Atlantic. (Nooo!) And Jefferson, the man who signed this Transatlantic Slave Trade Act, started “breeding” slaves. (NO!) He and other like-minded slave owners began forcing their men and women slaves to conceive children so that they, the owners, could keep up with all the farming demands of the Deep South. Slaves were being treated like human factories, birthing farming machines. Tractors with heartbeats. Backhoes that bleed.


But by the end of his presidential term, Jefferson had had enough. Of it all. For real this time. Done deal. He was ready to step away from everything. From all the mess and madness of Washington and return to his home in Virginia, where he could read, write, and think. His Notes on the State of Virginia would’ve been a bestseller if bestsellers were a thing back then, and at this point in his life, he even wanted to be done with the fame it had brought him.

He seemed to be grinding a different gear now. At least, he was trying to.

He’d apologized for slavery—PAUSE.

He’d apologized for slavery.

UNPAUSE. He’d retired and returned to Monticello, so he could… run his plantation—PAUSE.

So he could run his plantation?

UNPAUSE. He’d expressed remorse for slavery but still needed slave labor to pay his debts and pay for his luxuries. And on top of that, though he’d grown tired of the antislavery fight (which was also proslavery for him) he still, still, still continued to champion sending Black people back to Africa.

And if not Africa, Louisiana.

Jefferson had purchased the Louisiana Territory from the French early in his presidency. He’d wanted it to be the safe haven for freed slaves. It was supposed to be a bubble (pronounced cage) for Blacks, where they could be safe, and where White people could be safe from their potential response to, I don’t know, the whole slavery thing. Colonization within the country, which was like Black people being banished to the basement of the house they’d built under the premise that it was better than sleeping in the street. But the Louisiana Territory got shaky when the question of Missouri came into play.

You have to remember that your map isn’t the map they were using. The fifty states didn’t exist yet. So, Louisiana, or as it was known then, the Louisiana Territory, took up the entire middle of the country. It stretched from north to south. It wasn’t the “boot,” as we know it now. Trombones and red beans? No.

The northern part of that swath of Louisiana was cut into what became the Missouri Territory. Its location—the Missouri part—was almost right smack in the middle of the country, meaning there was a geographical conundrum to be dealt with: Would Missouri be considered a slave state or a free state?

Well, the answer is, there was a bill passed to admit Missouri into the Union (the North) as a slave state. A man named James Tallmadge Jr. added an amendment to that bill that would’ve made it illegal for enslaved Africans to enter the new state, and stated that all children born from slaves in the state would be freed at the age of twenty-five. The Tallmadge Amendment sparked an explosive debate that burned for two years. Southerners saw this as a trick to limit the political power of southern agriculture and mess with their money and leverage in the House of Representatives, and therefore their power.

Ultimately, the debate was cooled by another compromise. The Missouri Compromise of 1820. Congress agreed to go on and admit Missouri as a slave state, but they’d also admit Maine as a free state to make sure there was still an equal amount of slave states and free states, so that no region, or way of governing, felt disadvantaged. Balance. And also to prohibit the introduction of slavery in the northern section of Jefferson’s vast Louisiana Territory. His experimental land for colonization. An experiment that seemed unlikely.

But Jefferson would never give up on that idea. Even as he aged. And even though he didn’t really support Finley’s American Colonization Society, he still saw the mission as golden. He looked at it almost as if he’d be sending Black people home from camp, smarter and stronger and ready to build. Like it was benevolent and maybe even forgiving. Thomas Contradiction Jefferson, who grew up with Black friends, hoped it would all come out in the wash and that slavery would ultimately produce “more good than evil.”

At least, that’s one side of the coin. The smooth side. The textured side of Jefferson’s intention was that he basically believed that sending Black people back to where they came from would make America what it was always meant to be in his eyes—a playground for rich White Christians. Despite the fact that Africans were brought to this land. Enslaved. Drained of their abilities and knowledge of growing and tending crops, exploited for their physical might and creativity when it came to building structures and making meals, stripped of their reproductive agency, stripped of their religions and languages, stripped of their dignity. American soil sopping with Black blood, their DNA now literally woven into the fibers of this land.

I wonder if Black people were thinking, Where can we send you all? Back to Europe? Or maybe instead of sending them, they were thinking more about ending them. It wouldn’t be long before that choice was made for Jefferson.

By the spring of 1826, his health had deteriorated to the point that he couldn’t leave home. By summer, he couldn’t even leave his bed, so sick he was unable to attend the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Aside from the children he had had with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings (how can you truly love humans you own?), Jefferson did not free any of the other enslaved people at Monticello, despite his believing that slavery was morally wrong, cementing once and for all the winner in his struggle between the ethical and the economic. One historian estimated that Jefferson had owned more than six hundred slaves over the course of his lifetime. In 1826, he held around two hundred people as property and he was about $100,000 in debt (about $2.5 million today), an amount so staggering that he knew that once he died, everything—and everyone—would be sold.

On July 2, 1826, Jefferson seemed to be fighting to stay alive. The eighty-three-year-old awoke before dawn on July 4 and called out for his house servants. The enslaved Black faces gathered around his bed. They were probably his final sight, and he gave them his final words. He had been a segregationist at times, an assimilationist at other times—usually both in the same act—but he never quite made it to being antiracist. 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 the freedom to live was fair, but not the freedom to live in America. The America built on their backs. 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 that now his life had come full circle. In his earliest childhood memory and in his final lucid moment, Thomas Jefferson lay there dying—death being the ultimate equalizer—in the comfort of slavery. Surrounded by a comfort those slaves never felt.

DMU Timestamp: May 11, 2020 21:16

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