Jason Reynolds says that “this is not a history book.” It’s a book that uses history to understand the present. People are usually afraid to talk about race, even though it’s so important to American history. Today, some people think that racism doesn’t exist anymore, while others see that it’s hiding everywhere, like a thief waiting to rob people’s freedom. Stamped explains how racism became this way in the U.S. This story has three main characters: the first is segregationists, who hate other racial groups. The second is assimilationists, who tolerate other groups, but only when they adapt to mainstream white culture. The third is antiracists, who just love other people, period. Of course, people—including the reader—can switch between these identities over time.
Reynolds addresses Kendi’s main points from the introduction, but also introduces his own authorial voice. By claiming that “this is not a history book,” he distinguishes Stamped from the dry, academic textbooks that students probably remember from school. He wants students to focus less on names and dates and more on the lessons they can learn from history. Yes, he’s focusing on history’s relevance to the present in order to keep his readers engaged, but he’s also trying to bring history out of the classroom and into everyday life, to show that history animates present day life. In a way, he’s already doing it when he acknowledges that young people face a particularly difficult “color blind” kind of racism today. Racists now insist that they’re not racist, or that racism no longer exists. Reynolds also brings history’s lessons to life by describing segregationists, assimilationists, and antiracists in terms that accord with the kind of people readers might encounter in their actual lives.
The story of racism starts in 1415, with “the world’s first racist.” The Prince of Portugal was busy pillaging Muslim cities in North Africa, and one of his men, Gomes Eanes de Zurara, wrote a popular book about his conquests. Like many chroniclers, Zurara bragged about enslaving people. But he also argued that the Portuguese were civilizing African “savages” through slavery, by converting them to Christianity. This was a totally new idea—Zurara was the first person to specifically defend enslaving Black people, as opposed to anyone else. That’s why he was the first racist. His ideas spread far and wide—even some Africans believed them. They also became common sense in Europe, which is how they got to the U.S.
The book draws a distinction between conflict between different groups of people and racism, which involves creating a system of categories for human beings and saying that some are inherently better than others. As always, racist ideas really come from self-interested racist policies. It was advantageous for Henry to enslave African people because he could kidnap them directly from Africa: he didn’t have to work through middlemen, like most European slave traders in the past. Therefore, Zurara’s racist ideas were really just a justification for Henry’s racist “business” policies. And readers probably already know that Zurara’s idea about Black people has spread far and wide: pop culture is full of depictions of Africans as primitive, animalistic, and savages.