How Ibram X. Kendi's STAMPED became a stunning graphic novel history of racism

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi's comprehensive breakdown of the development and proliferation of racist ideas, was originally published in 2016. The 600-page tome went on to win a National Book Award, helping to elevate Kendi's status as a leading scholar of antiracist ideas.

Now, writer/cartoonist Joel Christian Gill — creator of Strange Fruit, Volume I: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History and the Tales of the Talented Tenth graphic novel series — has adapted Kendi's book into a marvelous graphic novel, called Stamped from the Beginning: A Graphic History of Racist Ideas in America. (The book had been previously adapted into a Netflix miniseries as well.)

Translating a dense historical analysis into a graphic narrative is a strange challenge, but it's one that Gill rises to with aplomb. Stamped is packed with horrifying and uncomfortable truths about the viral rhetoric of racist ideas (and the people who perpetuated them), but Gill's cartooning makes the ugliness almost more digestible, for lack of a better term. That's not to say that Gill blunts or softens the cruelty and hatred inherent in the historical figures he's exploring; rather, he uses his cartooning to make the horrors more approachable, with a playful self-awareness that makes the reading experience feel more enjoyable. It's no less educational than Kendi's prose (which is certainly enjoyable in its own right!), but Gill's art provides a spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, as it were.

Case in point: Instead of printing the n-word at various points, or spelling it out with c*ns*r*d st*rs, Gill opts to replace it entirely with a cartoonish visage of a minstrel show-esque blackface character. Most readers will recognize this caricature as a racist stereotype, which makes it a suitable substitute. But it also manages to rob the word itself of its ugly, awful power. There are certainly readers who would feel uncomfortable with seeing that word used with such frequency, to the point that it compel them to put the book down, or distract from the rest of the context around the word (such as who is using it, and why). By replacing it with a cartoon caricature, Gill doesn't worry about how often it shows up; in a way, it even frees him up to use the word more often, to drive the point home.

There are plenty of other visual gigs that make the book more accessible, too. A Force Ghost of Cotton Mather shows up to haunt "well-intentioned" abolitionists throughout history. Be-wigged white colonial Americans speak in Ye Olde Proper Englishe while Black enslaved people use casual modern languages to call them on their bullshit. While it's certainly not a "middle-grade" text by any stretch — there's a lot of unpleasant subject matter, as you can probably imagine — the art style is such that some of the elementary school kids in my neighborhood saw it around my house, and started flipping through it themselves. The artistry is cleverly used to draw you in to the brutal, unrelenting subject matter that you otherwise might want to shy away from.

Another trick that Gill cleverly pulls is the way in which he color-codes the speech bubbles. The fact that the graphic novel is printed in black-and-white already feels like a conscious choice to turn the medium into the message, but Gill brings this a step further by using black and grey speech bubbles to indicate just how cruel or racist someone's words are meant to be. I can imagine some critics might find this pedantic or prescriptive, as Gill is essentially telling the reader "you should be interpreting these words as bad and evil." But the actual effect is much more thought-provoking. It puts the reader in a place of a sort of double-consciousness, trapped within and without of the narrative. It's particularly resonant in the case of the grey speech bubbles, which are often morally grey in their content as well — black and white activists who maybe had a good point or two before they spiraled out into assimilationist or segregationist ideas that were ultimately harmful, regardless of intention. In this way, you read the words of William Garrison or Thomas Jefferson or even W.E.B. DuBois and at first think, "Oh, that's an interesting." But the color-coded speech bubble encourages you to think a little deeper about the words you're reading: should I be passing a different value judgement on these words? Why or why not? It's a great example of rejecting the faux-objectivity that often plagues historical writing. Here, the narrative takes a strong, clear point of view — and doesn't try to hide it from you, or pretend that it's some un-biased oracle. Which ultimately makes for a stronger work of history, and of art.

I say "the narrative" there, rather than assigning the narrator's voice to Gill or Kendi, because the work is indeed a collaboration — a truly fascinating example of adaptation. Gill's graphic novel is not pretending to be some objective re-packaging of Kendi's original text. But it does try to be faithful, as evidenced by these behind-the-scenes process shots that the publisher shared with me ahead of this review:

Overall, Stamped from the Beginning: A Graphic History of Racist Ideas in America is an excellent read — extremely educational, and weirdly enjoyable (inasmuch as a history of racism could ever be enjoyable). While it's fascinating to wrap your head around the insidious ways that the mind-virus of racist ideas have proliferated over time, it's also as stunning to realize how little has actually changed. You can see this in the rhetoric of aristocratic racists, who have always tried to pit working white people against their Black brethren, in order to protect their own power and wealth. And you see it in the words of abolitionists throughout history as well. People are complicated, as Stamped illustrates, and while no one individual necessarily "got it right," it also makes clear that something being "of its time" has never been a good excuse. As long as there has been racism, there have been outspoken antiracists and abolitionists, and a bunch of bourgeoisie in the middle who were more concerned with protecting their own skin, whatever color it was.

Stamped from the Beginning: A Graphic History of Racist Ideas in America [Joel Christian Gill / Ibram X. Kendi]