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Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You - Section 1 - 1415 - 1728 by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds copy 01

Author: Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds

“Section 1 - 1415 - 1728.” Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, Little, Brown and Company, 2020, pp. 1–40.



To know the past is to know the present. To know the present is to know yourself.

I write about the history of racism to understand racism today. I want to understand racism today to understand how it is affecting me today. I want you to understand racism today to understand how it is affecting you and America today.

The book you’re holding is a remix of my book, Stamped from the Beginning, a narrative history of racist and antiracist ideas. A racist idea is any idea that suggests something is wrong or right, superior or inferior, better or worse about a racial group. An antiracist idea is any idea that suggests that racial groups are equals. Racist and antiracist ideas have lived in human minds for nearly six hundred years. Born in western Europe in the mid-1400s, racist ideas traveled to colonial America and have lived in the United States from its beginning. I chronicled their entire life in Stamped from the Beginning.

The novelist Jason Reynolds adapted Stamped from the Beginning into this book for you. I wish I learned this history at your age. But there were no books telling the complete story of racist ideas. Some books told parts of the story. I hardly wanted to read them, though. Most were so boring, written in ways I could not relate to. But not Jason’s books. Not this book. Jason is one of the most gifted writers and thinkers of our time. I don’t know of anyone who would have been better at connecting the past to the present for you. Jason is a great writer in the purest sense. A great writer snatches the human eye in the way that a thumping beat snatches the human ear, makes your head bob up and down. It is hard to stop when the beat is on. A great writer makes my head bob from side to side. It is hard to stop when the book is open.

I don’t think I’m a great writer like Jason, but I do think I’m a courageous writer. I wrote Stamped from the Beginning with my cell phone on, with my television on, with my anger on, with my joy on—always thinking on and on. I watched the televised and untelevised life of the shooting star of #Black Lives Matter during America’s stormiest nights. I watched the televised and untelevised killings of unarmed Black human beings at the hands of cops and wannabe cops. I somehow managed to write Stamped from the Beginning between the heartbreaking deaths of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin and seventeen-year-old Darnesha Harris and twelve-year-old Tamir Rice and sixteen-year-old Kimani Gray and eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, heartbreaks that are a product of America’s history of racist ideas as much as a history of racist ideas is a product of these heartbreaks.

Meaning, if not for racist ideas, George Zimmerman would not have thought the hooded Florida teen who liked LeBron James, hip-hop, and South Park had to be a robber. Zimmerman’s racist ideas in 2012 transformed an easygoing Trayvon Martin walking home from a 7-Eleven holding watermelon juice and Skittles into a menace to society holding danger. Racist ideas cause people to look at an innocent Black face and see a criminal. If not for racist ideas, Trayvon would still be alive. His dreams of becoming a pilot would still be alive.

Young Black males were twenty-one times more likely to be killed by police than their White counterparts between 2010 and 2012, according to federal statistics. The under-recorded, under-analyzed racial disparities between female victims of lethal police force may be even greater. Black people are five times more likely to be incarcerated than Whites.

I’m no math whiz, but if Black people make up 13 percent of the US population, then Black people should make up somewhere close to 13 percent of the Americans killed by the police, and somewhere close to 13 percent of the Americans sitting in prisons. But today, the United States remains nowhere close to racial equality. African Americans make up 40 percent of the incarcerated population. These are racial inequities, older than the life of the United States.

Even before Thomas Jefferson and the other founders declared independence in 1776, Americans were arguing over racial inequities, over why they exist and persist, and over why White Americans as a group were prospering more than Black Americans as a group. Historically, there have been three groups involved in this heated argument. Both segregationists and assimilationists, as I call these racist positions in Stamped from the Beginning, think Black people are to blame for racial inequity. Both the segregationists and the assimilationists think there is something wrong with Black people and that’s why Black people are on the lower and dying end of racial inequity. The assimilationists believe Black people as a group can be changed for the better, and the segregationists do not. The segregationists and the assimilationists are challenged by antiracists. The antiracists say there is nothing wrong or right about Black people and everything wrong with racism. The antiracists say racism is the problem in need of changing, not Black people. The antiracists try to transform racism. The assimilationists try to transform Black people. The segregationists try to get away from Black people. These are the three distinct racial positions you will hear throughout Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You—the segregationists, the assimilationists, and the antiracists, and how they each have rationalized racial inequity.

In writing Stamped from the Beginning, I did not want to just write about racist ideas. I wanted to discover the source of racist ideas. When I was in school and first really learning about racism, I was taught the popular origin story. I was taught that ignorant and hateful people had produced racist ideas, and that these racist people had instituted racist policies. But when I learned the motives behind the production of racist ideas, it became obvious that this folktale, though sensible, was not true. I found that the need of powerful people to defend racist policies that benefited them led them to produce racist ideas, and when unsuspecting people consumed these racist ideas, they became ignorant and hateful.

Think of it this way. There are only two potential explanations for racial inequity, for why White people were free and Black people were enslaved in the United States. Either racist policies forced Black people into enslavement, or animalistic Black people were fit for slavery. Now, if you make a lot of money enslaving people, then to defend your business you want people to believe that Black people are fit for slavery. You will produce and circulate this racist idea to stop abolitionists from challenging slavery, from abolishing what is making you rich. You see the racist policies of slavery arrive first and then racist ideas follow to justify slavery. And these racist ideas make people ignorant about racism and hateful of racial groups.

When I began writing Stamped from the Beginning, I must confess that I held quite a few racist ideas. Yes, me. I’m an African American. I’m a historian of African Americans. But it’s important to remember that racist ideas are ideas. Anyone can produce them or consume them, as this book shows. I thought there were certain things wrong with Black people (and other racial groups). Fooled by racist ideas, I did not fully realize that the only thing wrong with Black people is that we think something is wrong with Black people. I did not fully realize that the only thing extraordinary about White people is that they think something is extraordinary about White people. There are lazy, hardworking, wise, unwise, harmless, and harmful individuals of every race, but no racial group is better or worse than another racial group in any way.

Committed to this antiracist idea of group equality, I was able to discover, self-critique, and shed the racist ideas I had consumed over my lifetime while I uncovered and exposed the racist ideas that others have produced over the lifetime of America. The first step to building an antiracist America is acknowledging America’s racist past. By acknowledging America’s racist past, we can acknowledge America’s racist present. In acknowledging America’s racist present, we can work toward building an antiracist America. An antiracist America where no racial group has more or less, or is thought of as more or less. An antiracist America where the people no longer hate on racial groups or try to change racial groups. An antiracist America where our skin color is as irrelevant as the colors of the clothes over our skin.

And an antiracist America is sure to come. No power lasts forever. There will come a time when Americans will realize that the only thing wrong with Black people is that they think something is wrong with Black people. There will come a time when racist ideas will no longer obstruct us from seeing the complete and utter abnormality of racial disparities. There will come a time when we will love humanity, when we will gain the courage to fight for an equitable society for our beloved humanity, knowing, intelligently, that when we fight for humanity, we are fighting for ourselves. There will come a time. Maybe, just maybe, that time is now.

In solidarity,

Ibram X. Kendi


The Story of the World’s First Racist

BEFORE WE BEGIN, LET’S GET SOMETHING STRAIGHT. This is not a history book. I repeat, this is not a history book. At least not like the ones you’re used to reading in school. The ones that feel more like a list of dates (there will be some), with an occasional war here and there, a declaration (definitely gotta mention that), a constitution (that too), a court case or two, and, of course, the paragraph that’s read during Black History Month (Harriet! Rosa! Martin!) . This isn’t that. This isn’t a history book. Or, at least, it’s not that kind of history book. Instead, what this is, is a book that contains history. A history directly connected to our lives as we live them right this minute. This is a present book. A book about the here and now. A book that hopefully will help us better understand why we are where we are as Americans, specifically as our identity pertains to race.

Uh-oh. The R-word. Which for many of us still feels rated R. Or can be matched only with another R word—run. But don’t. Let’s all just take a deep breath. Inhale. Hold it. Exhale and breathe out:


See? Not so bad. Except for the fact that race has been a strange and persistent poison in American history, which I’m sure you already know. I’m also sure that, depending on where you are and where you’ve grown up, your experiences with it—or at least the moment in which you recognize it—may vary. Some may believe race isn’t an issue anymore, that it’s a thing of the past, old tales of bad times. Others may be certain that race is like an alligator, a dinosaur that never went extinct but instead evolved. And though hiding in murky swamp waters, that leftover monster is still deadly. And then there are those of you who know that race and, more critical, racism are everywhere. Those of you who see racism regularly robbing people of liberty, whether as a violent stickup or as a sly pickpocket. The thief known as racism is all around. This book, this not history history book, this present book, is meant to take you on a race journey from then to now, to show why we feel how we feel, why we live how we live, and why this poison, whether recognizable or unrecognizable, whether it’s a scream or a whisper, just won’t go away.

This isn’t the be-all end-all. This isn’t the whole meal. It’s more like an appetizer. Something in preparation for the feast to come. Something to get you excited about choosing your seat—the right seat—at the table.

Oh! And there are three words I want you to keep in mind. Three words to describe the people we’ll be exploring:

Segregationists. Assimilationists. Antiracists.

There are serious definitions to these things, but… I’m going to give you mine.

Segregationists are haters. Like, real haters. People who hate you for not being like them. Assimilationists are people who like you, but only with quotation marks. Like…“like” you. Meaning, they “like” you because you’re like them. And then there are antiracists. They love you because you’re like you. But it’s important to note, life can rarely be wrapped into single-word descriptions. It isn’t neat and perfectly shaped. So sometimes, over the course of a lifetime (and even over the course of a day), people can take on and act out ideas represented by more than one of these three identities. Can be both, and. Just keep that in mind as we explore these folks.

And, actually, these aren’t just the words we’ll be using to describe the people in this book. They’re also the words we’ll be using to describe you. And me. All of us.

So where do we start? We might as well just jump in and begin with the world’s first racist. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, How could anyone know who the world’s first racist was? Or you’re thinking, Yeah, tell us, so we can find out where he lives. Well, he’s dead. Been dead for six hundred years. Thankfully. And before I tell you about him, I have to give you a little context.

Europe. That’s where we are. Where he was. As I’m sure you’ve learned by now, the Europeans (Italians, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, British) were conquering everyone, because if there’s one thing all history books do say, it’s that Europeans conquered the majority of the world. The year is 1415, and Prince Henry (there’s always a Prince Henry) convinced his father, King John of Portugal, to basically pull a caper and capture the main Muslim trading depot on the northeastern tip of Morocco. Why? Simple. Prince Henry was jealous. The Muslims had riches, and if Prince Henry could get the Muslims out of the way, then those riches and resources could be easily accessed. Stolen. A jack move. A robbery. Plain and simple. The take, a bountiful supply of gold. And Africans. That’s right, the Portuguese were capturing Moorish people, who would become prisoners of war in a war the Moors hadn’t planned on fighting but had to, to survive. And by prisoners, I mean property. Human property.

But neither Prince Henry nor King John of Portugal was given the title World’s First Racist, because the truth is, capturing people wasn’t an unusual thing back then. Just a fact of life. That illustrious moniker would go to a man named neither Henry nor John but something way more awesome, who did something not awesome at all—Gomes Eanes de Zurara. Zurara, which sounds like a cheerleader chant, did just that. Cheerleaded? Cheerled? Whatever. He was a cheerleader. Kind of. Not the kind who roots for a team and pumps up a crowd, but he was a man who made sure the team he played for was represented and heralded as great. He made sure Prince Henry was looked at as a brilliant quarterback making ingenious plays, and that every touchdown was the mark of a superior player. How did Zurara do this? Through literature. Storytelling.

He wrote the story, a biography of the life and slave trading of Prince Henry. Zurara was an obedient commander in Prince Henry’s Military Order of Christ and would eventually complete his book, which would become the first defense of African slave trading. It was called The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea. In it, Zurara bragged about the Portuguese being early in bringing enslaved Africans from the Western Sahara Cape, and spoke about owning humans as if they were exclusive pairs of sneakers. Again, this was common. But he upped the brag by also explaining what made Portugal different from their European neighbors in terms of slave trading. The Portuguese now saw enslaving people as missionary work. A mission from God to help civilize and Christianize the African “savages.” At least, that’s what Zurara claimed. And the reason this was a one-up on his competitors, the Spanish and Italians, was because they were still enslaving eastern Europeans, as in White people (not called White people back then). Zurara’s ace, his trick shot, was that the Portuguese had enslaved Africans (of all shades, by the way) supposedly for the purpose of saving their wretched souls.

Zurara made Prince Henry out to be some kind of youth minister canvassing the street, doing community work, when what Prince Henry really was, was more of a gangster. More of a shakedown man, a kidnapper getting a commission for bringing the king captives. Prince Henry’s cut, like a finder’s fee: 185 slaves, equaling money, money, money, though it was always framed as a noble cause, thanks to Zurara, who was also paid for his pen. Seems like Zurara was just a liar, right? A fiction writer? So, what makes him the world’s first racist? Well, Zurara was the first person to write about and defend Black human ownership, and this single document began the recorded history of anti-Black racist ideas. You know how the kings are always attached to where they rule? Like, King John of Portugal? Well, if Gomes Eanes de Zurara was the king of anything (which he wasn’t), he would’ve been King Gomes of Racism.

Zurara’s book, The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, was a hit. And you know what hits do—they spread. Like a pop song that everyone claims to hate, but everyone knows the words to, and then suddenly no one hates the song anymore, and instead it becomes an anthem. Zurara’s book became an anthem. A song sung all across Europe as the primary source of knowledge on unknown Africa and African peoples for the original slave traders and enslavers in Spain, Holland, France, and England.

Zurara depicted Africans as savage animals that needed taming. This depiction over time would even begin to convince some African people that they were inferior, like al-Hasan Ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, a well-educated Moroccan who was on a diplomatic journey along the Mediterranean Sea when he was captured and enslaved. He was eventually freed by Pope Leo X, who converted him to Christianity, renamed him Johannes Leo (he later become known as Leo Africanus, or Leo the African), and possibly commissioned him to write a survey of Africa. And in that survey, Africanus echoed Zurara’s sentiments of Africans, his own people. He said they were hypersexual savages, making him the first known African racist. When I was growing up, we called this “drinking the Kool-Aid” or “selling out.” Either way, Zurara’s documentation of the racist idea that Africans needed slavery in order to be fed and taught Jesus, and that it was all ordained by God, began to seep in and stick to the European cultural psyche. And a few hundred years later, this idea would eventually reach America.


Puritan Power

OKAY, SO BY NOW HOPEFULLY YOU’RE SAYING, WOW, THIS really isn’t like the history books I’m used to. And if you aren’t saying that, well… you’re a liar. And, guess what, you wouldn’t be the first.

After Gomes Eanes de Zurara’s ridiculous, money-grabbing lie, there were other European “race theorists” who followed suit, using his text as a jumpingoff point for their own concepts and racist ideas to justify the enslavement of Africans. Because if there’s one thing we all know about humans, it’s that most of us are followers, looking for something to be part of to make us feel better about our own selfishness. Or is that just me? Just me? Got it. Anyway, the followers came sniffing around, drumming up their own cockamamie (best word ever, even better than Zurara, though possibly a synonym) theories, two of which would set the table for the conversation around racism for centuries to come.

Those theories were:

This actually came from Aristotle (we’ll get back to him later), who questioned whether Africans were born “this way” or if the heat of the continent made them inferior. Many agreed it was climate, and that if African people lived in cooler temperatures, they could, in fact, become White. And,

In 1577, after noticing that Inuit people in northeastern (freezing-cold) Canada were darker than the people living in the hotter south, English travel writer George Best determined—conveniently for all parties interested in owning slaves—that it couldn’t have been climate that made darker people inferior, and instead determined that Africans were, in fact, cursed. (First of all, could you imagine someone on the Travel Channel telling you that you’re cursed? Like… really?) And what did Best use to prove this theory? Only one of the most irrefutable books of the time: the Bible. In Best’s whimsical interpretation of the book of Genesis, Noah orders his White sons not to have sex with their wives on the ark, and then tells them that the first child born after the flood would inherit the earth. When the evil, tyrannical, and hypersexual Ham (goes HAM and) has sex on the ark, God wills that Ham’s descendants will be dark and disgusting, and the whole world will look at them as symbols of trouble. Simply put, Ham’s kids would be Black and bad, ultimately making Black… bad. Curse theory would become the anchor of what would justify American slavery.

It would branch off into another ridiculous idea, the strange concept that because Africans were cursed and because, according to these Europeans, they needed enslavement in order to be saved and civilized, the relationship between slave and master was loving. That it was more like parent and child. Or minister and member. Mentor, mentee. They were painting a compassionate picture about what was certainly a terrible experience, because, well, human beings were being forced into servitude, and there’s no way to spin that into one big happy family.

But the literature said otherwise. That’s right, there was another piece of literature, this one written by a man named William Perkins, called Ordering a Familie, published in 1590, in which he argued that the slave was just part of a loving family unit that was ordered a particular way. And that the souls and the potential of the souls were equal, but not the skin. It’s like saying, “I look at my dog like I look at my children, even though I’ve trained my dog to fetch my paper by beating it and yanking its leash.” But the idea of it all let the new enslavers off the emotional hook and portrayed them as benevolent do-gooders “cleaning up” the Africans.

A generation later, slavery touched down in the newly colonized America. And the people there to usher it in and, more important, to use it to build this new country were two men, each of whom saw himself as a similar kind of do-gooder. Their names, John Cotton and Richard Mather.

About Cotton and Mather. They were Puritans.

About Puritans. They were English Protestants who believed the reformation of the Church of England was basically watering down Christianity, and they sought to regulate it to keep it more disciplined and rigid. So, these two men, at different times, traveled across the Atlantic in search of a new land (which would be Boston) where they could escape English persecution and preach their version—a “purer” version—of Christianity. They landed in America after treacherous trips, especially Richard Mather, whose ship sailed into a storm in 1635 and almost collided with a massive rock in the ocean. Mather, of course, saw his survival of this journey to America as a miracle, and became even more devoted to God.

Both men were ministers. They built churches in Massachusetts but, more important, they built systems. The church wasn’t just a place of worship. The church was a place of power and influence, and in this new land, John Cotton and Richard Mather had a whole lot of power and influence. And the first thing they did to spread the Puritan way was find other people who were like-minded. And with those like-minded folks, they created schools to enforce higher education skewed toward their way of thinking.

What school, do you think, was the first to get the Puritan touch? This is a trick question. Because the answer is the very first university in America, ever (remember, this society is all brand-new!) . And the very first university in America ever was Harvard University. But a tricky thing happens with the opening of Harvard. A thing that directly connects to Zurara, and the curse and climate theories and everything we’ve talked about thus far. See, Cotton and Mather were students of Aristotle. And Aristotle, though held up as one of the greatest Greek philosophers of all time, famous for things we will not be discussing here because this is not a history book, believed something else he’s not nearly as famous for. And that’s his belief in human hierarchy.

Aristotle believed that Greeks were superior to non-Greeks. John Cotton and Richard Mather took Aristotle’s idea (because they, too, were followers) and flipped it into a new equation, substituting “Puritan” for “Greek.” And because of their miraculous journeys across the raging ocean, especially Richard Mather’s, they believed they were a chosen people. Special in the eyes of God. Puritan superiority.

According to the Puritans, they were better than:

  1. Native Americans.
  2. Anglican (English) people who weren’t Puritans.
  3. Everyone else who wasn’t a Puritan.
  4. Especially African people.

And guess what they did during the development of Harvard? They made it so that Greek and Latin texts could not be disputed. Which meant Aristotle, a man who believed in human hierarchy and used climate to justify which humans were better, could not be disputed, and instead had to be taken as truth.

And just like that, the groundwork was laid not only for slavery to be justified but for it to be justified for a long, long time, simply because it was woven into the religious and educational systems of America. All that was needed to complete this oppressive puzzle was slaves.

America at this time was like one of those games where you have to build a world. A social network of farmers and planters. And if you weren’t a farmer planter, then you were a missionary. So, you were either dirt folk or church folk, everyone working to grow on stolen land—obviously their native neighbors weren’t happy about any of this, because their world was being broken, while a new world was being built, planted one seed at a time.

That seed? Tobacco. A man named John Pory (a defender of curse theory), the cousin of one of the early major landowners, was named America’s first legislative leader. First thing he did was set the price of tobacco, seeing as it would be the country’s cash crop. But if tobacco was really going to bring in some money, if it was really going to be the natural resource used to power the country, then they would need more human resource to grow it.

See where this is going?

In August 1619, a Spanish ship called the San Juan Bautista was hijacked by two pirate ships. The Bautista was carrying 350 Angolans, because Latin American slaveholders had already figured out their own slave-trading system and had enslaved 250,000 people. The pirates robbed the Bautista, taking sixty of the Angolans. They headed east, eventually coming upon the shores of Jamestown, Virginia. They sold twenty Angolans to that cousin of John Pory. The one with all the land, who happened also to be the governor of Virginia. His name was George Yeardley, and those first twenty slaves, for Yeardley and Pory, were right on time… to work.

But remember, America was full of planters and missionaries. And the new slaves would cause a bit of conflict between the two. For the planter, the slave was a big help and could be the four-digit code to the American ATM. Here comes the cash. On the flip side, missionaries—coming down the line of Puritanism and Zurara’s propaganda—felt slavery was a means to salvation. Planters wanted to grow profits, while missionaries wanted to grow God’s kingdom.

No one cared what the enslaved African wanted (which, to start, would’ve been not to be enslaved). They definitely didn’t want the religion of their masters. And their masters resisted, too. Enslavers weren’t interested in hearing anything about converting their slaves. Saving their crops each year was more important to them than saving souls. It was harvest over humanity. And the excuses they gave to avoid baptizing slaves were:

  • Africans were too barbaric to be converted.
  • Africans were savage at the soul.
  • Africans couldn’t be loved



A Different Adam

AS I MENTIONED BEFORE, AFTER ZURARA’S NONSENSE documentation about slave trading and the savage nature of Africans, many other Europeans started to write their own testimonies and theories. But it didn’t stop with just Aristotle or George Best (the travel writer). A century later, the tradition—one that would go on indefinitely—of writing about the African was alive and well and more creative than ever. And when I say creative, I mean trash.

There was a piece in 1664 by the British minister Richard Baxter called A Christian Directory.

He believed slavery was helpful for African people. He even said there were “voluntary slaves,” as in Africans who wanted to be slaves so that they could be baptized. (Voluntary slaves? Richard Baxter was clearly out of his mind.)

There was also work by the great English philosopher John Locke.

NOTES ON LOCKE (in regard to African people):
He believed that the most unblemished, purest, perfect minds belonged to Whites, which basically meant Africans had dirty brains.

And by the Italian philosopher Lucilio Vanini.

He believed Africans were born of a “different Adam,” and had a different creation story. Of course, this would mean they were a different species. It was kind of like saying (or to him, proving) that Africans weren’t actually human. Like they were maybe animals, or monsters, or aliens, but not human—at least not like Whites—and therefore didn’t have to be treated as such. This theory, which is called polygenesis, broke the race conversation wide open. It took Zurara’s initial benevolent-master mess and put it in bold. Like, Africans went from savages to SAVAGES, which revved up the necessity for Christian conversion and civilizing.


I know we’ve been going on and on about the people working to justify slavery, but it’s important (very important) to note that there were also people all along the way who stood up and fought against these ridiculously racist ideas with abolitionist ideas. In this particular case, the case of Vanini’s theory of polygenesis, a group of Mennonites in Germantown, Pennsylvania, rose up. The Mennonites were a Christian denomination from the German- and Dutch-speaking areas of central Europe. During the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, orthodox authorities were killing them for their religious beliefs. Mennonites didn’t want to leave behind one place of oppression to build another in America, so they circulated an antislavery petition on April 18, 1688, denouncing oppression due to skin color by equating it with oppression due to religion. Both oppressions were wrong. This petition—the 1688 Germantown Petition Against Slavery—was the first piece of writing that was antiracist (word check!) among European settlers in colonial America.

But whenever people rise up against bad things, bad things tend to get worse. You know the old saying, When the going gets tough, the tough get… racist. Or something like that. So, all that antiracist talk coming from the Mennonites was shut down because slaveholders didn’t like their business talked about like it was wrong.

  • Because they needed their slaves.
  • Because their slaves made them money.
  • It’s really all quite simple.

Now there’s an obvious backdrop we need to discuss—the subject of our first-grade, color-in-the-lines cornucopia worksheets. The misinterpreted, misrepresented owners of this terrain—the Native Americans. All this is happening on their land. A land that was taken from them forcefully, claimed and owned by Europeans running from their homelands, afraid for their lives. It’s kind of like the kid who gets beat up every day at school, comes home crying to his mother, and she decides to take him to a new school. And guess what he does when he gets to the new school? He pretends like he wasn’t just on the receiving end of a boot sole and instead becomes the most annoying tough guy in the world. And the Native Americans were sick of the tough-acting, arrogant new kid.


The Native American and new (White) American beef had been brewing for over a year (but let’s be honest, it had to have been brewing much longer than that). And when I say brewing, I mean… people were dying. Bloodshed in the soil. The Puritans in New England had already lost homes and dozens of soldiers. But eventually a man named Metacomet, a Native American war leader, was killed, which basically ended the battle in 1676. Puritans cut up his body (like… savages?) as if it were a hog’s, and paraded his remains around Plymouth.

But Metacomet’s tribe weren’t the only indigenous people, obviously. Or the only ones being attacked. Down in Virginia, a twenty-nine-year-old frontier planter, Nathaniel Bacon… Wait. Let’s take a time-out and acknowledge the irony in the fact that there was a planter whose last name was bacon. Bacon! Maybe he should’ve been a butcher! Anyway, Bacon was upset not about the race issue but instead about the class issue. Here he was, a White laborer who was also being taken advantage of by the White elite. So, what he did to disrupt the powers that be was shift his anger from the rich Whites to the Susquehannocks, a tribe of Natives. This may seem like a strange move, but it was a smart play because the governor at the time, William Berkeley, was doing anything he could not to fight with the Natives, because it would mess up his fur trade, and thus mess up his money. So, attacking the Natives was a way of attacking the power structure, but through the back door. As we say now, “Hit ’em in their pockets, where it really hurts.” And to make matters worse, Bacon declared liberty for all servants and Blacks, because, as far as he was concerned, though they were different races, they were the same class and should be united against the true enemy—rich Whites. But the governor knew if Blacks and Whites joined forces, he’d be done. Everything would be done. It would’ve been an apocalypse. So, he had to devise a way to turn poor Whites and poor Blacks against each other, so that they’d be forever separated and unwilling to join hands and raise fists against the elite. And the way he did this was by creating (wait for it… ) White privileges.

Time for a breath break. Everyone inhale. Hold it. Exhale and breathe it out:


Still here? Good. Let’s move on.

So, White privileges were created, and, at this time, they included:

  1. Only the White rebels were pardoned; legislators prescribed thirty lashes for any slave who lifted a hand “against any Christian” (Christian now meant White).
  2. All Whites now wielded absolute power to abuse any African person.

Those are the two most important ones—poor Whites wouldn’t be punished, but they could surely do the punishing.


A Racist Wunderkind

REMEMBER JOHN COTTON AND RICHARD MATHER, the Puritans who got the American race ball rolling? Well, turns out they had a grandson. Well, not the two of them together, obviously, but:

  • Richard Mather’s wife dies.
  • John Cotton dies.
  • Richard Mather marries John Cotton’s widow, Sarah.
  • Richard Mather’s youngest son, Increase, marries Sarah’s daughter, Maria, making her his wife and stepsister. (Umm… )
  • Increase and Maria have a son. February 12, 1663. They name him after both families.
  • Cotton and Mather becomes… Cotton Mather.

By the time Cotton Mather heard about Bacon’s Rebellion, he was already in college. An eleven-year-old Harvard student (the youngest of all time), he was obviously a nerd, and on top of all that, he was extremely religious. He knew he was special, or at least meant to be, which of course did nothing but fill his fellow classmates with spite. They wanted desperately to break him down, make him sin. Because no one likes a show-off. Basically, Cotton Mather was obsessed with being perfect and blamed himself for everything wrong or different with him, believing even his stutter, with which he struggled, was due to something sinful he’d done.

Because he was so insecure about his speech impediment, Cotton Mather took to writing, and eventually he would write more sermons than any other Puritan in history. By the time he graduated from Harvard, he’d overcome his stutter, which to him was, of course, a deliverance from God.

Being delivered from his stutter was a good thing, because he was destined for the pulpit. The grandson of two Puritan preachers had to grow up to be one. No other choice. And there was no better way to begin his career as a clergyman than for him to co-pastor his father’s (also a preacher) church. But while he was avoiding his bullies at Harvard, trying to use his words and doing anything he could to walk a righteous path in the eyes of God, there was a tension brewing between New England and “Old” England. In 1676, an English colonial administrator, Edward Randolph, had journeyed to New England to see the damage done by Metacomet, the indigenous war hero, and his warriors. Randolph reported this back to King Charles II and suggested they tighten the grip around New England because, clearly, the New World experiment wasn’t going so well. So now big brother was threatening to step in and clean up little brother’s mess, which meant Massachusetts would lose local rule if it didn’t defy the king. Of course, the other option was for the colonists to just fall in line. But that would mean giving up everything they’d worked to build. Defiance seemed like a stronger play. And in 1689, New Englanders did just that.

The thing about revolution is that it almost always has to do with poor people angry about being manipulated by the rich. So, Cotton Mather, though a recent graduate of Harvard and a God-fearing, sermonizing, well-read man, had a problem on his hands because… he was rich. He’d come from an elite family, gotten an elite education, and lived an elite, though pious, life, far from the planters and even farther from the slaves. So, the Revolution of 1688, which was called the Glorious Revolution, was not so glorious for him. And, fearing that the anger that caused the uprising would go from the British elites to the elites right at home—meaning him—he created a new villain as a distraction. An invisible demon (cue the scary music).

Mather wrote a book called Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions. That’s right, Cotton Mather, the genius boy, destined for intellectual and spiritual greatness, was obsessed with witches. And this obsession would set a fire he couldn’t have seen coming, but welcomed as the will of God.

Mather’s book, outlining the symptoms of witchcraft, reflected his crusade against the enemies of White souls. His father was just as obsessed, but no one poured gasoline on the witchy fire like a minister in Salem, Massachusetts, named Samuel Parris. In 1692, when Parris’s nine-year-old daughter suffered convulsions and chokes, he believed she’d been possessed or cursed by a witch.

That was all it took. The witch hunt began.

Over the next few months, as bewitching instances continued to happen, people continued to be accused of witchcraft, which, luckily for folks like Cotton Mather, turned attention away from the political and onto the religious. And in nearly every instance, “the devil” who was preying upon innocent White Puritans was described as Black. Of course. One Puritan accuser described the devil as “a little black bearded man”; another saw “a black thing of a considerable bigness.” A Black thing jumped in one man’s window. “The body was like that of a Monkey,” the observer added. “The Feet like a Cocks, but the Face much like a man’s.” Since the devil represented criminality, and since criminals in New England were said to be the devil’s minions, the Salem witch hunt made the Black face the face of criminality. It was like racist algebra. Solve for x. Solve for White. Solve for anything other than truth.

Once the witch hunt eventually died down, the Massachusetts authorities apologized to the accused, reversed the convictions of the trials, and provided reparations in the early 1700s. But Cotton Mather never stopped defending the Salem witch trials, because he never stopped defending the religious, slaveholding, gender, class, and racial hierarchies reinforced by the trials. He saw himself as the defender of God’s law and the crucifier of any non-Puritan, African, Native American, poor person, or woman who defied God’s law by not submitting to it.

And just as it went with the theorists who came before him—the racist children of Zurara—Cotton Mather’s ideas and writings spread from Massachusetts throughout the land. This was just as two other things were happening: Boston was becoming the intellectual capital of the new America, and tobacco was taking off. Booming. Which meant more slaves were needed in order to manage it.

As the population of enslaved people grew, which is what slaveholders needed in order to till the land and grow the tobacco for free, the fear of more revolt grew with it. Seems like a natural fear in response to such an unnatural system. So, in order to keep their human property from rising up, slaveholders and politicians created a new unnatural system. A new set of racist codes.

  1. No interracial relationships.
  2. Tax imported captives.
  3. Classify Natives and Blacks the same way you would horses and hogs in the tax code. Meaning, they were literally classified as livestock, and not as human.
  4. Blacks can’t hold office.
  5. All property owned by a slave is sold, which of course contributes to Black poverty.
  6. Oh, and White indentured servants who were freed are awarded fifty acres of property, of course contributing to White prosperity.

And while all this was going on—all this systemic knife turning, all this racist political play, all the violence and discrimination—Cotton Mather, all high and mighty, was still trying to convince people that the only thing necessary, the only mission of slavery, had to be to save the souls of the slaves, because through that salvation the enslaved would in turn be whitened. Purified.

Enslavers became more open to these ideas over time, right up until the First Great Awakening, which swept through the colonies in the 1730s, spearheaded by a Connecticut man named Jonathan Edwards. Edwards, whose father had studied under Increase Mather, was a direct descendant of the Mathers’ Puritan thought. He spoke about human equality (in soul) and the capability of everyone for conversion. And as this racist Christian awakening continued to evolve, as people like Edwards carried on the torch of torture, Cotton Mather continued to age. In 1728, on his sixty-fifth birthday, he called his church’s pastor into the room for prayer. The next day, Cotton Mather, one of New England’s greatest God-fearing scholars, was dead. But you know how death is. Your body goes, but your ideas don’t. Your impact lingers on, even when it’s poisonous. Some bodies get put into the ground and daisies bloom. Others encourage the sprouting of weeds, weeds that work to strangle whatever’s living and growing around them.

DMU Timestamp: May 11, 2020 21:16