This book goes wide (not deep) on a very important topic, and should be required reading for everyone. That phrase gets thrown around a lot when talking about “important books”, but I’m seriously for serious here. Kendi has written THE comprehensive book about the history of racism in America, tracing it all the way from its roots in the 16th century through modern day, and he covers it from top to bottom, hitting on every major point you can probably think of along the way. It’s an invaluable resource not just for scholarly purposes, but for real life ones as well.
I actually finished this back in October and didn’t write a review at the time because I told myself I was going to go back through my audiobook and type up or find all the quotes I bookmarked. I held onto this lofty ambition until about ten minutes ago, when I realized I had probably bookmarked about a quarter of the book and this was not a realistic goal at all. I don’t even have time to go back through and re-listen to pull out a couple of quotes to highlight the flavor. This book and its quotableness overwhelms me.
At the same time, I’m kind of glad about this. The whole point of this book is to look at racism through the lens of historical context. It traces the roots of modern anti-black racist thought all the way to their origins, and it does so by living in the details. Details do not make for snappy pull quotes, and snappy pull quotes do not make for good arguments.
And actually, what I just said is also misleading. Kendi doesn’t go searching through history to find examples to prove his points after already determining them. What he actually does is start from the beginning and lay out the history of racist ideas such that when you get to modern times, you can easily see the roots for yourself. It’s a much better strategy. It’s a story that almost tells itself.
He’s careful right from the beginning to point out that his book is not meant for everyone, and the point of it is not to convert racists to non-racist ways of thinking. His audience is made up instead of everyone else, self-identified non-racists, and once he’s got you (us), he then sets out to prove that even the most strident non-racist person holds racist ideas. It’s the main thesis of this book that no one can escape the racist ideas that permeate their culture. Even the most famous abolitionist or civil rights activist can (and does) hold racist ideas. Kendi admits that in the process of writing the book, he found to his surprise that he held quite a few himself and it was a struggle to reorient his thinking.
I didn’t 100% agree with everything he said in this book, but the main thing that is worth considering in terms of criticism is that the format does hamper slightly his ability to make certain points (perhaps why some points felt like a stretch to me; maybe they wouldn’t have given more space). By its nature, this is a book that zooms through four hundred plus years of history, so there just isn’t room practically speaking for him to flesh out every point, and moreover, he’s not trying to. The point isn’t to prove individual ideas, but to lay out as a whole picture in broad strokes the history of racist ideas. It’s up to other authors to delve more deeply into specific instances and points.
I highly recommend this book. Even if you don’t normally read non-fiction or history. It was interesting and extremely thought-provoking, not to mention highly relevant.
[4.5 stars rounded up for its staggering relevance to practically everything]