Stamped from the Beginning: A Graphic History of Racist Ideas in America by historian Ibram X. Kendi and cartoonist Joel Christian Gill adapts Kendi's 2016 National Book Award–winning history Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America into the comics format. A powerful, and undoubtedly evocative, graphic history published by Penguin Random House's Ten Speed Graphic imprint, the book explores the birth, rise, and continuance of racist ideologies in the United States.
Adapted and illustrated by Gill, who is also a historian, Stamped documents how anti-racist ideas often conflict with segregationist and assimilationist ideas that allow racial discrimination to persist today. Five historical figures, drawn as cartoons, serve as “tour guides” through the thorny narrative. There’s Cotton Mather, Puritan minister and writer; Thomas Jefferson, founding father and anti-abolitionist; William Lloyd Garrison, social reformer and abolitionist; W.E.B. Du Bois, scholar and civil rights activist; and Angela Davis, political activist and educator. Beginning with Mather in the 17th century, the book unravels the layered intricacy of racism in America as it endures through such significant social and cultural shifts as the Enlightenment, the American Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation, the Harlem Renaissance, and Barack Obama’s presidential administration.
PW spoke with Kendi and Gill about adapting the work, book bans, incorporating humor in a book about racism, and whether an anti-racist America might be possible.
The original Stamped from the Beginning is about 600 pages. How did you decide what needed to be altered for the graphic adaptation?
Joel Christian Gill: Ibram sent me a PDF that had all of the highlighted sections that he thought were the most important things not to miss. I took all of those and made a document that was just those highlighted sections. When I read the original, I compared it to the list, then I made the building block pieces that made sense. There’s only a couple of places where I did more research and added to it.
Dr. Kendi, the version of Stamped that you coauthored with Jason Reynolds has been on numerous banned books lists, and was among the top 10 most banned books in 2020. Was potential censorship on your mind while creating this graphic adaptation?
Ibram X. Kendi: My suspicion was that if we were to create an effective book—that would reach younger and older people and engage them, that did what it’s supposed to do—then it would be banned. When I was working with Jason on Stamped (For Kids), that was sort of prior to this explosion of book bans. When I first saw young people just loving Stamped (For Kids) and then older people responding by taking the book out of their hands, to me, it was tragic.
JCG: The people who I think wouldn’t generally read Stamped are not going to read the graphic novel version. They’re not going to read any version of it, because they are aligned with Lost Cause thinking and Lost Cause mentality. In terms of how book banning has been working, when the Daughters of the Confederacy decided to start censoring and changing the idea about the way we read the history of the American Civil War, they had this book called A Measuring Rod, which is an actual book that you would use and apply to any books that came out about history. If they didn’t match this “measuring rod,” then they would be banned.
The people holding that measuring rod today are people I don’t care about. They’re not people who want to read the book. I was joking with Ibram like, "I’ve got a whole list of people we should send this book to. John McWhorter should get a copy. Ted Cruz should get a copy. Let’s just let them go on television and scream about it." I invite the anger. What did Rep. Adam Schiff say?
The humor in the graphic adaptation challenges the reader—it invites the anger. Can you talk about your process for incorporating humor and such anachronisms as Ida B. Wells shouting, “The caucasity!”
JCG: Telling this history is difficult. And I always think about the very first time I read 12 Years a Slave and how I had to put it down a couple of times because I was so angry. I didn’t want that to be the case with this—because it can make you angry—which is why I create those little characters on the side who would talk and say funny things. Even horrible people are saying funny stuff. That’s just like my sense of humor. I don’t typically write serious things. It’s easier to have Ida B. Wells say, “the caucasity!” than it is to write a joke that creates a punch line.
IXK: The comics lend themselves to presenting the same history in a different way where there is humor. It’s not necessarily a comedy book, but there is humor to get the reader through. There will be people who simply won’t be able to emotionally read the original Stamped from the Beginning, but they want to know this history. They will have access to this graphic novel, which, emotionally, may be a more manageable experience.
You chose five key historical figures to mark the chronology of racism’s development in America. If you had to continue the book up until this year, who would you choose to be the sixth historical figure?
IXK: It’s hard to say. Possibly someone like Clarence Thomas, to potentially explain the role and the growing amounts of power that people of color who hold racist ideas are exhibiting. He, in a way, would be able to allow us to make connections between him and Ted Cruz, Dinesh D’Souza, and Nikki Haley—all of these thinkers of color who, in many ways, have been pushed forth by white supremacists to demean their own racial group.
JCG: It’s really interesting because I think people like D’Souza, Haley, Tim Scott, and Thomas are exactly who Paulo Freire was talking about when he talked about sub-oppressors. These people get some modicum of power, then they exert their power over other people and basically gaslight us into believing “because I’ve done it, you can too, so quit whining and just go out and do it”—all while exerting their power.
Stamped ends with several powerful statements. Among them: “An anti-racist America can be guaranteed only if principled anti-racist leaders are in power,” which then boils down to having anti-racist policies and ideas that become our “common sense.” Do you think it’s possible to have an antiracist America in the near future?
IXK: It’s hard to answer the question. On one hand, I think that if someone said that based on this country’s origins, based on this country’s history, based on current political and social dynamics, it’s impossible to create that society, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. But I would also say that it’s possible to do the impossible, because that has happened in the past. I believe you have to believe that it’s possible in order to bring it about. It would be hard for me to advocate for something that I believe will never happen.
This interview has been edited for clarity.