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Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You - Section 3 - 1826 - 1879 by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds copy 01

Author: Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds

“Section 3 - 1826 - 1879.” Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, Little, Brown and Company, 2020, pp. 82-109.


Mass Communication for Mass Emancipation

I HAD A FRIEND. LET’S CALL HIM MIKE. HE WAS SIX foot five and an easy three hundred pounds. A football player. I’d watched him truck people on the field, watched him put parents’ children on gurneys all in the name of school pride and athletic victory. I’d watched him grunt and spit and slap himself around like a beast. And we cheered for him. Said his name on the morning announcements, wrote about him in the school paper, even held an in-school press conference when he committed to playing football in college.

But many of us cheered for him for other reasons. Because he also was part of the tap dance club. Because he played Santa Claus in the winter play. Because he took creative writing classes (with me) to explore his love of poetry. Because he spoke out against the mistreatment of young women in our school and stood up for classmates who were being bullied.

Mike didn’t always get it right, but he was always open to learning and was never afraid to try.

The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was like that—a man with power and privilege, not afraid to try. But before we get to him, we have to address one of the greatest series of coincidences that led him to become a central figure in the conversation around race and abolitionism.

Coincidence 1:
Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (President #2, before Jefferson) died on July 4, 1826, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Instead of people seeing this double death as a sign that the old ways of doing things were out of style—literally dead—people looked at their deaths as some kind of encouragement to carry out their legacies. It just so happens those legacies were deeply entwined with slavery. Boston had grown to nearly sixty thousand people and was fully immersed in New England’s industrial revolution, which was now running on the wheels of southern cotton.

Coincidence 2:
Though the revolutionary abolitionist movement was practically dead, Robert Finley’s American Colonization Society was still functioning at full throttle, trying to get freed slaves to go back to Africa and set up their own colony. The ACS had asked a twenty-three-year-old firebrand named William Lloyd Garrison to give their Fourth of July address in 1829. Garrison was the man. He was smart and forward-thinking and worked as an editor of a Quaker-run abolitionist newspaper. But the ACS didn’t know that Garrison had gone even further to the side of abolitionism, not colonization. He favored a gradual abolition—a freedom in steps—but abolition nonetheless. And that’s what he spoke about at the ACS conference, which, let’s just say, was a little off brand. Like someone speaking at a Nike conference, suggesting that the future of better running wasn’t better sneakers but better feet. And Nike should figure out how to make better feet!

Garrison wasn’t the only man who felt this way (about abolishing slavery, not sneakers) and was unafraid to speak out against colonization. David Walker was another. Walker was a Black man, and he had written a pamphlet, An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, arguing against the idea that Black people were made to serve White people. Walker’s Appeal spread, Garrison read it, and eventually the two men met. But before they could really start making a mess of slavery, Walker, just thirty-three years old, died of tuberculosis.

Garrison was influenced greatly by Walker’s ideas and carried them on, spreading them by doing what everyone had done before him: Literature. Writing. Language. The only difference was that Garrison’s predecessors in propaganda always spread damaging information. At least about Black people. They’d always printed poison, narratives about Black inferiority and White superiority. But Garrison would buck that trend and start a newspaper, the Liberator. The name alone was a match strike. This paper relaunched the abolitionist movement among White people. In his first editorial piece, Garrison changed perspectives from gradual abolition to immediate abolition. Meaning, he used to believe that freedom was
incremental. A little bit at a time. A slow walk. Now he believed that freedom should be instant. Freedom right now. Immediately. Break the chains. Period. But (because there’s always a but) immediate equality, well… that was a different story and, according to Garrison, should be… in steps. Gradual. So physical freedom now, but social freedom… eventually.

This idea of gradual equality was rooted in the same principles of uplift suasion. Blacks were seen as scary, and it was their responsibility to convince White people that they weren’t. At least, this is what Garrison believed. But this idea was challenged by a man who disagreed with not only the idea of gradual equality but also the idea that Black people needed White people to save them, or that they—Black people—were part of the problem at all. His name was Nat Turner. He was a slave and a preacher, and just as slave owners before the Enlightenment era believed slavery was a holy mission, Turner believed the same was true for freedom. That he was called upon by God to plan and execute a massive crusade, an uprising that would free slaves, and in so doing would leave slave masters, their wives, and even their children slaughtered. All in the name of liberation. And it did. There was a lot of bloodshed across the state of Virginia, until Turner finally got caught and hanged.

Again, slaveholders got scared. Tightened the yoke.

Garrison counteracted the intensity of the slave masters with an intensity of his own. He wrote a book that refuted colonizationists and gave birth to a new group called the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), a group of abolitionists. At the annual meeting of the AASS in May 1835, members decided to rely on the new technology of mass printing and an efficient postal service to overwhelm the nation with twenty to fifty thousand pamphlets a week. Garrison began flooding the market with new and improved abolitionist information. Social media before social media. And slaveholders had no clue what was coming: a million antislavery pamphlets distributed by the end of the year.


Uncle Tom

WITH SO MUCH ANTISLAVERY INFO FLOATING AROUND, people—mainly White politicians and scholars—who were proslavery turned up the fear and hate, therefore turning up their ridiculous racist ideas. There were people still preaching that slavery was good, that it was the will of God. That equality between the races was impossible because the species were different. Yep, still stuck on the polygenesis theory, but this time it was backed by “science.” There was a scientist, Samuel Morton, the father of American anthropology, who was measuring the skulls of humans (gross) and determined that White people had bigger skulls and therefore greater intellectual capacity, which, by the way, was how I combated being told all my life that I have a big head. Yeah, because I got a big brain. I never knew I was a scientist!

I also didn’t know I was… insane. I’m not. But if I were alive and free back then, there’s a good chance I would’ve been labeled as such. The US Census report of 1840 said that free Blacks were insane and enslaved Blacks were sane, and that biracial people had shorter life spans than Whites. Of course this wasn’t true. They were cooking the books.

And, speaking of books, in Samuel Morton’s Crania Aegyptiaca, he also introduced the narrative that historically there was a “White” Egypt that had Black slaves. Who knew? (The answer is no one. Not even Egyptians.) The propaganda just kept coming. Anything to justify supremacy and slavery. And if bunk literature and false “studies” were the breakbeats of racism—looped samples pulsing on and on—then John C. Calhoun, a senator from South Carolina, was the emcee for slavery—an effective one—there to rock the racist crowd. Calhoun was fighting even for Texas to become a slave state in the 1844 election. He was running for office and angry that congressmen were even debating emancipation. Possibly ending slavery? An outrage! Calhoun eventually pulled out of the race, and it’s a good thing he did, because William Lloyd Garrison was about to present a secret weapon to the abolitionist movement.

See, it’s one thing to talk around slavery. To talk about how the slaves lived, and what they were thinking, and how good they had it. It’s another thing to hear a man who was a slave tell his own story. There was a new “special” Black person on the scene. A new Black exhibit. A new Phillis Wheatley, but this time not in need of a publisher. Garrison would be that.

That man’s name was Frederick Douglass.

In June 1845, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was published. It outlined Douglass’s life and gave a firsthand account of the horrors of slavery. It was a hit, and a necessary weapon, to once again fight against the idea that Black people were subpar, and that White people were the benevolent Christians that the likes of Zurara and Cotton Mather worked so hard to portray. It was also meant to gain some kind of White sympathy. But Douglass was a runaway slave with a book about being a runaway slave, which meant he’d basically snitched on himself and needed to run farther away. So, he went to Great Britain and spread his antislavery message there, while in America proslavery politicians—now with Texas as a slave state—pushed for even more expansion, west.

Douglass’s narrative wasn’t the only one (is there ever only one?) . In fact, the telling of his story sparked the telling of many others, including one about an enslaved woman—The Narrative of Sojourner Truth. Up until this point, women had been left out of the conversation around slavery. As if they weren’t slaves. Or, as if they weren’t slaveholders. Sojourner Truth was a former slave with the moxie of a woman slaveholder. The kind of woman who would stand up in a room full of White people and declare her humanity. She was bold, and that boldness, along with news about the Fugitive Slave Act, which was snatching free Blacks and sending them to the cotton fields, inspired a White writer to go on to write a book that would be much, much bigger than Truth’s or Douglass’s.

The book was called Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The author, Harriet Beecher Stowe.


  1. Tom, a slave, is sold down the river.
  2. He meets a young White girl, Eva.
  3. Eva’s father buys Tom.
  4. Tom and Eva become friends, connecting over Christianity.
  5. Eva dies two years later, but not before having a vision of heaven.
  6. After her death, the White people decide to change their racist ways.
  7. Eva’s father even promises to free Tom.
  8. Eva’s father dies before he frees Tom, and Eva’s mother sells Tom to a harsher slave owner.
  9. This slave owner (Simon Legree) hates Tom for not whipping a fellow slave.
  10. Legree tries to break Tom by breaking his faith. But Tom holds tight to Christianity. So, Legree has him killed.

Moral of the story: We all must be slaves… to God. And since docile Black people made the best slaves (to man), they made the best Christians. And since domineering Whites made the worst slaves, they made the worst Christians. So, slavery, though a brutal attack on Black humanity, was really just proof that White people were bad believers in Jesus.

I know. But, hey, it didn’t have to make too much sense. Despite critiques by intellectual giants like William Lloyd Garrison, who pointed out in the Liberator the religious bigotry in the book and Stowe’s endorsement of colonization, and by Frederick Douglass—from an assimilationist angle—who followed up by assuring Whites that the Black man, unlike the Native, loves civilization and therefore would never go back to Africa (as if Africa were uncivilized), Uncle Tom’s Cabin exploded and became the biggest book of its time. Harriet Beecher Stowe became the J. K. Rowling of slave books. And even though Black men hated the novel because they were depicted as weak, Stowe’s story was drawing more northerners to the abolitionist movement than the writings and speeches of Garrison and Douglass did in the 1850s. And that was no small feat. Garrison had used the Liberator as a consistent antiracist sounding board, and Douglass had boldly argued against polygenesis and proved there was no White Egypt, making him the world’s most famous Black male abolitionist and assimilationist. But women were in support of Stowe. They were ready to fight for their rights and set the nation on fire.

Stowe was their gasoline.

And her novel was a time bomb that ticked and ticked and, after exploding, set the stage for a new political force, especially when it came to the conversation around slavery: Abraham Lincoln.


Complicated Abe

WHEN WE THINK OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN, WE THINK Honest Abe, black suit, white shirt, top hat, beard. The Great Emancipator (hmmm), one of the best, or at least most, -known and -loved presidents in America’s history.

That’s what we’re taught.

But Lincoln wasn’t that simple. As I mentioned at the start of this journey, life rarely fits neatly into a box. People are complicated and selfish and contradictory. I mean, if there’s anything we’ve learned from Thomas Jefferson, it’s that you can be antislavery and not antiracist. You cannot see Black people as people but know that mistreating and enslaving them are bad for business. Bad for your brand. Bad for your opportunity. That’s more in line of who Lincoln was.

Gasp. I know. This would mean we’d have to, perhaps, rethink the whole “Honest Abe” thing.

It wasn’t that great a nickname anyway.

He wasn’t even that great a politician, at first. Before he ever won, he lost. Got spanked in a Senate race in 1858 by a man named Stephen Douglas. Douglas was proslavery. Lincoln was fighting on behalf of the abolitionist movement—because you can’t win if you don’t have an opposing view to debate—and the Free Soilers, the people who believed slavery should not
continue to extend west. The two men debated, and Douglas, slick tongued and sharp suited, wiped the racist floor with Lincoln and won the election.

But it wasn’t a loss in vain. Though Lincoln was defeated, there was an obvious change in opinion in the country. A shift. Lincoln shifted with the shift and started to preach that slavery needed to end—but not because of the human horror. Because if labor was free, what exactly were poor White people expected to do to make money? If you weren’t one of the wealthy White people who owned slaves, slavery didn’t necessarily work in your favor. Lincoln was speaking out of… three sides of his mouth.

On one hand, he wanted slavery gone. Black people liked that. On another hand, he didn’t think Black people should necessarily have equal rights. Racists loved that. And then, on a third hand (a foot, maybe?), he argued that the end of slavery would bolster the poor White economy, which poor White people loved. Lincoln had created an airtight case where no one could trust him (Garrison definitely didn’t), but everyone kinda… wanted to. And when Lincoln lost, he’d still made a splash as his party, the Republican Party, won many of the House seats in the states that were antislavery. So much so, that Garrison, though critical of Lincoln, kept his critiques to himself because he saw a future where maybe—maybe—antislavery politicians could take over.

But it was politics as usual for Lincoln. Because he’d taken an antislavery approach against Stephen Douglas, the Republicans were labeled “Black Republicans,” which was the worst thing to be called, obviously. There were still racists in the North. Still racists everywhere. And why would racists want to vote for the party “in support” of Black people? So, Lincoln changed his tune. Or maybe he just sang the whole song while running for president.

Lincoln was against Black voting.

Lincoln was against racial equality.

Lincoln and the party pledged not to challenge southern slavery.

And Lincoln won.

But with the sixteenth president of the United States in place, untrusting slaveholders broke into panic. Panic that the economic institution that kept them living like kings would be in jeopardy. Panic that they wouldn’t be able to stop slave revolts and would be overthrown (Haiti! Haiti!) . So, they did what most people, well… most bullies do when they’ve been bested on the playground. They—the South—took their ball and left.

The secession, which just means to withdraw from being a member of, not to be confused with succession, meaning a line of people sharing a role one after the other (like a succession of slave owners), not to be confused with success, which means to win (because that didn’t happen), started with South Carolina. They left the Union. Which means they were starting their own territory, where they could make up their own rules and live their lives as racist as they wanted. Shortly thereafter, the rest of the South joined in on the disjoining. This was a big deal, because to lose an entire region meant the other states lost that region’s resources. All that land. Those crops. Those people. That wealth. But it happened, and the split-offs called themselves the Confederacy. They voted in their own president, Jefferson Davis, who had declared that Black people should never and would never be equal to Whites. There were now two governments, like rival gangs. And what have gangs always done when one gang feels their turf is being threatened?


Welcome to the Civil War.

The biggest change agent in the war was that slaves wanted to fight against their slave owners, and therefore join Northern soldiers in battle. They wanted the chance to fight against the thing that had been beating them, raping them, killing them. So, the first chance they got, they ran. They ran, ran, ran by the droves. They ran north to cross into the Union and join the
Union army.

Anything for freedom.

And then got sent back.

Anything for slavery.

Union soldiers were enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act, which mandated that all runaways be returned to their owners. This was the summer of 1861. But by the summer of 1862, the slave act had been repealed and a bill passed that declared all Confederate-owned Africans who escaped to Union lines or who resided in territories occupied by the Union to be “forever free of their servitude.” And it was this bill that would morph into an even bolder bill by Lincoln just five days later. “All persons held as slaves within any state [under rebel control] shall then,
thenceforward, and forever, be free.”

Just like that.

Lincoln was labeled the Great Emancipator, but really, Black people were emancipating themselves. By the end of 1863, four hundred thousand Black people had escaped their plantations and found Union lines. Meaning four hundred thousand Black people found freedom.

Or at least the potential for it. Because let’s not pretend that life in the North, life across Union lines, was immediately sweet. It wasn’t some bastion of peace and acceptance. The Union believed most of the same hype about Black people as the Confederacy. The only difference was they’d pushed past owning them a little sooner. But their feelings toward Black people—that they were lazy and savage and blah, blah, blah—were the same. On top of that, there were many Black people who feared that freedom would be nothing without land. What good was it to be free if they had nowhere to go and no way to build a life for themselves? And what about voting? These were a couple of the questions at hand, a few of the issues Lincoln was trying to work through. What he was comfortable with, however, was the way Black people praised him. They’d run up to him in the street, drop to their knees, and kiss his hands. And when the Civil War finally ended in April 1865, on the eleventh day of that same month, Lincoln delivered his plans for reconstruction. And in that plan, he said what no president had ever said before him—that Blacks (the intelligent ones) should have the right to vote.

No wonder three days later he was shot in the back of the head.


Garrison’s Last Stand


Three weeks after Lincoln’s death, William Lloyd Garrison, who had been steady on his antiracist journey—producing antiracist literature in the Liberator, including his critiques of Lincoln’s racist political ploys, and his work for the American Anti-Slavery Society—called it quits. He announced his retirement. He believed that because emancipation was imminent, his job as an abolitionist was done. But his team, his followers, refused to stop their work, and instead shifted their focus to Black voting. A focus that leaned toward immediate equality. And while Garrison was trying to bow out gracefully, Lincoln’s successor was forcefully breaking in. And breaking down what had been, for Black people, a breakthrough.

His name was Andrew Johnson, and he basically reversed a lot of Lincoln’s promises, allowing Confederate states to bar Blacks from voting, and making sure their emancipation was upheld only if Black people didn’t break laws. Black codes—social codes used to stop Black people from living freely—were created. They would quickly evolve into Jim Crow laws, which were laws that legalized racial segregation. No need for the loopholes anymore. All this was under President Johnson’s watch. He emboldened the Ku Klux Klan, allowing them to wreck Black lives with no consequence and enshrine those racist codes and laws. Turned out, freedom in America was like quicksand. It looked solid until a Black person tried to stand on it. Then
it became clear that it was a sinkhole.

Antiracists were fighting against all these things. Some people, like Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens, even fought for the redistribution of land to award former slaves forty acres to work for themselves. But the arguments against this plan were relentless and racist, presented in this strange way that makes the freed Black person seem stupid. How will they know how to care for the land if it’s just given to them? Um… really?

And guess who was quiet? William Lloyd Garrison. Having suffered two bad falls in 1866 that physically sidelined him, he chose not to engage in the political struggle against racial discrimination. But he still looked on, watching the racist roadblocks being erected at every turn, and the political and physical violence working to break the bones of Black liberation. Yes, Garrison still looked on, his ideas about gradual equality still evolving. After all, it had been his genius, whether he knew it or not, that had transformed abolitionism from a messy political stance (like Jefferson’s) to a simple moral stance: Slavery was evil, and those racists justifying or ignoring slavery were evil, and it was the moral duty of the United States to eliminate the evil of slavery.


Andrew Johnson was one of the evil. He did everything he could to keep Black people as “free” slaves. In response, Black people had to fight to build their own institutions. Their own spaces to thrive, like colleges, or as they’re now called, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). From there came the Black (male) politician. And eventually, on February 3, 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was made official. The amendment made it so that no one could be prohibited from voting due to “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” But the thing about this amendment (as well as the Thirteenth and Fourteenth) was that there were loopholes. Racist loopholes. Potholes. See, the amendment doesn’t state that Black politicians would be protected. Or that the voting requirements would be equal.

Even so, racists didn’t want the amendment to be pushed through because they saw giving the right to vote to all Black people as the establishment of some kind of Black supremacy. Really, it was just Black equality. Black opportunity. Black people from Boston to Richmond to Vicksburg, Mississippi, planned grand celebrations after the ratification. For their keynote speaker, several communities invited a living legend back to the main stage. William Lloyd Garrison.

The Fifteenth Amendment was a big deal. But here’s the thing about big deals. If people aren’t careful, they can be tricked into believing a big deal is a done deal. Like there’s no more fight left. No reason to keep pushing. That freedom is an actual destination. And that’s how Garrison and the American Anti-Slavery Society felt. Like their jobs were done. They disbanded in 1870. Everyone let their guard down, and the racists were right there with right hooks and uppercuts to the face of freedom.

Bring on the White terrorism.

Bring on more propaganda about brute and savage Blacks.

Bring on Black people doing their best to fight back.


Bring on women fighting back.


Bring on political pacifiers.

Bring on more talks about colonization, this time to the Dominican Republic.

Bring on domestic migration. To Kansas. Freedom from a second slavery. It was this, Black people moving to safer pastures like Kansas, that William Lloyd Garrison supported at the end of his life. With Black people eager to leave the South, eager to give themselves a chance at safety, Kansas seemed to make more sense than the ever-present conversation of colonization to Africa. Or even the North. Or the far West. Northern allies worked tirelessly to raise money for southern Black people who wanted to flee Mississippi or Louisiana. Garrison, now seventy-four, his abolitionist heart still pumping, exhausted himself gathering resources for hundreds of Black people on the move toward Kansas.

It was the best he could do.

He’d wanted immediate emancipation. He now even wanted immediate equality. Neither of those things happened during the Reconstruction after the Civil War. And neither of them would in his lifetime.

DMU Timestamp: July 23, 2020 19:52

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