2021 Newbery Buzz #5: Stamped by Jason Reynolds.

Continuing our discussion of possible Newbery winners, we pick up a book that has everybody talking:

Janie: Betsy, there are two books that I think will be considered very seriously by this year’s Newbery committee. We talked about King and the Dragonflies, but we should also consider Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You. This book is nonfiction–unusual for consideration, but by no means unheard-of. It’s also a young-reader version of an earlier book for grownups, and that’s a first, as far as I can remember. Stamped is called a “remix” rather than a “young reader edition,” but the material is taken from an earlier book called Stamped from the Beginning, by Ibram X. Kendi * Jason Reynolds, one of our favorite fiction writers for kids, has given Kendi’s take on America’s racist history his own colloquial spin for readers 10 and up.I want to be very careful here: The history of racism in the USA is grim and racist attitudes persist. Whites–especially white Christians–should acknowledge that, and not presume that everything is okay now. We should try to refrain from quick judgements when reading anything that makes us uncomfortable. That said, Stamped (the remix) makes a number of claims that, in my considered opinion, are misrepresented, out of context, or downright false. How did you approach this book, and what were your first impressions, Betsy?

Betsy: I was eager to read it because I enjoy Reynolds’s writing. He makes me think even as he makes me laugh, groan, or weep. I don’t always agree with him, but that’s all the better when I have to re-examine my own ideas and preconceptions. What does Scripture say? Am I disagreeing with Reynolds’s conclusions for biblical reasons, or should I re-examine some of my cultural assumptions? I expected no less of a challenge from Stamped, but, frankly, I was put off from page 1. (I have not read Kendi’s version for adults, so I don’t know how much is Reynolds’s spin and how much is in the original.)

I believe racism has been around for all of human history. This doesn’t make it right, nor am I trying to diminish the manner in which racism has manifested itself here. However, there is plenty of evidence of negative attitudes and prejudices towards other people groups even in Scripture. The parable of the Good Samaritan was shocking to Jews because the hero was a Samaritan. Some will argue that these were religious/cultural differences and not prejudices based purely on skin color. But RACE involves more than outward skin color. At any rate, Stamped opens by identifying the very first racist, named and castigated for his views. It was jarring, not because the accused is white (as am I), but because it seems so inconsistent with other history. My children and I have been reading Fred and Patricia McKissack’s excellent The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa, and there was plenty of animosity between tribes (and, dare I say, races). We’ve also been reading Plutarch’s life of Alexander the Great. The Macedonians under Alexander had pretty definite ideas about some of the people they were conquering. And conquer they did: this was no assimilation effort. So, to pick someone from the 15th century and label him as the first racist jarred me enough that I’m afraid I read everything thenceforward with a significant grain of salt.

What was your general impression, Janie? How do you think this work compares with some of Reynolds’s other works?

Janie: Reynolds has a particular reason for labeling the “first racist”: this person was supposedly the first to defend black slavery as a means of saving the souls of Africans. So I picked up an undercurrent of hostility to Christianity, or at least to Christians, from the very first chapter. After that we go to the Puritans, who thought themselves better than anyone else because they were chosen by God; the American Revolution, which was mostly about defending slavery; the racist Abraham Lincoln, who didn’t really emancipate anyone because Blacks were already emancipating themselves., etc. Over half a million (mostly white) dead as a result of the Civil War? No big deal.

On the first page (after the introduction by Kendi), Reynolds claims that “This is not a history book.” Even though there’s a lot of history in it. We’re not told what kind of book it is, which tempts me to call it a polemic. There’s a built-in problem with critiquing a book like this, especially by a white person: a lot of it is true. I disagreed with the blanket conclusions, but wasn’t sure about some of the details, which may very well be as reported. When it comes to history I actually remember, though, some of the statements were based on shaky facts. For example, Reynolds reports as fact that voter suppression handed George W. Bush the presidency in 2000. Independent investigators found no evidence of that. There are many casual slurs like that. Following the Kendi scheme, all Americans are divided into segregationists (haters), assimilationists, and antiracists (the good guys). Assimilationists are those who preach “upward suasion,” urging Blacks to better themselves by imitating whites. Booker T. Washington and the early W. E. B. DuBois fall into this camp, but also Martin Luther King and even (at times) Barack Obama. Malcolm X and Angela Davis are sterling examples of antiracism.

The thing we like so much about Reynolds’ fiction is that he presents us with fully developed characters who have their own issues and struggles. He seldom gets political. Even in an issue-driven book like All-American Boys, the characters have complex motives beyond racism—but Stamped flattens the entire history of race in America into a simple tale of oppressor and oppressed that continues to this day.

We’re discussing this book because it’s received huge praise and will soon be required reading in thousands of middle schools. What do you see as the value of using Stamped in schools, Betsy?

Betsy: That’s a good summary of the book, Janie: every conflict in America is interpreted as racism/racism-based, even those that might have been originally understood as something like democracy vs. Communism. Yet, despite my frustrations with the conclusions given and the one-dimensional treatment of muddy, complex events and people, there IS value to reading a book like this. First of all, it makes you sit up and think, pay attention, and ponder. That’s never a bad thing. Sometimes, it takes a book as opinionated as this to wake up students who might routinely tune out for a “boring history lesson.” Second, traditional history textbooks in America haven’t told the full story, particularly when it comes to non-white contributions and issues. Our students need to read the stories of all Americans, and they need to learn the good, the bad, and the ugly as they mature in their understanding of history. Our students also need to read books from conflicting viewpoints. Part of building discernment is realizing that authors have opinions, and that every time we read, we’re entering into a dialogue with the author about ideas. No nonfiction book is unbiased, despite attempts to appear neutral. And we don’t have to agree with an author to learn from him or her.

That said, I wouldn’t want this book to be viewed as the definitive treatment of race, history, or America. It’s sharing an important perspective on history, but it’s not the full story, just as much as the traditional, white version isn’t the full story. God created ALL of humanity in his image, regardless of our outward appearance. Our reading and study should reflect his amazingly multi-faceted human creation. But it should also acknowledge when we’ve deviated from his truth and his commands to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Reynolds lumps all of Christianity into some notable errors, but Christians’ misinterpretations of Scripture are not the full story of God’s marvelous grace and redemption of his people (just as Euro-centric histories don’t give a complete picture). 

How would you like to see people teach this book?

Janie: I think Stamped is more important for what it represents than what it says. It’s a readable, relatable example of something Christians of all colors need to know about: Critical Race Theory, or CRT. This is an academic theory that took over the university and is now being mainstreamed into the culture. The brutal killing of George Floyd has booted CRT to the forefront of public consciousness. I summarized its history and influence in a WORLD magazine column, but the basic premise is that history is the story of racial oppression, mainly whites oppressing everybody else. Every white institution exists solely to maintain its power by withholding power from all other groups. Further, ALL inequities in society are due to this dynamic. Reynolds expresses it this way: “Science says the races are biologically equal. So, if they’re not equal in society, the only reason why [has to] be racism” (p. 229). No consideration of culture or values; racism explains everything. Where this view can be compared with other views and balanced against a more positive history like Land of Hope, it’s worthwhile for both kids and parents to read Stamped. Otherwise, I have no doubt that books like this will drive us farther apart. 

Betsy: Unfortunately, that was the same conclusion I came to: if Stamped and its ilk are read as “the” story and “the” answer, there’s little hope of unity going forward. 

Readers, have you read Stamped? What do you think?* Kendi’s recent book, How to Be an Antiracist, rocketed to the top of every best-seller list during this year’s BLM protests and made the author a much-sought-after speaker and program guest.
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