Put the American History textbooks away and use this instead. Initially, I was put off by the word ‘definitive.’ How could a person claim such a thing? But it didn’t take long for me to accept the word. In clear, efficient and persuasive prose, Kendi takes us through 400+ years of American History, years guided by an inversion of what we normally expect when it comes to racism. Kendi argues that the problem does not start with racism, but with self-interest. The self-interest yields racist policies. The policies engender racist ideas. And it is these ideas that generate the hate and ignorance we saw recently in Charlottesville. And the cycles goes on and on and on.
Kendi pretty much hits all of my college reading list and investigates both their words and actions (which are sometimes contradictory – see Thomas Jefferson) when it comes to racism, discrimination, segregation, assimilation, etc.. Since I already knew some of the pieces about King, including aspects of his work that are often underreported, I found the evolution of DuBois’ thinking and activity fascinating. It made me want to return to his work and find a good biography.
As I neared the end, I anticipated what Kendi might have to say about Obama and the current occupant of the White House. Kendi dips into Obama’s tenure, notably into his response to Rev. Wright. Obama, like pretty much all of the other historical actors in American History, comes out with a mixed report. Of those who get any kind of substantive treatment, I think only Zora Neale Hurston and Angela Davis seem to have spoken and acted in an anti-racist manner with any kind of consistency.
I am not one of those who insists that if you critique something that you are therefore responsible for providing suggestions or solutions. Kendi does present some ways to organize the country’s thinking near the end of the book, both for those who have power and those who don’t.
I also want to add that of all of the books that were celebrated as being able to explain how we ended up with our current occupant in the White House, this one does the finest job of explaining the historical patterns that got us here and why we shouldn’t be surprised by his victory. We’ve been here before and we’ll be here again unless we adjust the way we proceed. When it comes to the prospects of country making these adjustments, Kendi is, however tentatively, more optimistic than me.