Review: Stamped From the Beginning Documentary

A powerful refutation of harmful myths

Hello friends,

“Stamped From the Beginning” by Ibram X. Kendi has been on my reading list for a while, but my to be read pile is huge and I haven’t yet got around to it. So when I saw there was a Netflix documentary, I thought it would give me a welcome head start on the content of the book. It did, and I now want to read it more than ever.

Bracketed by a powerful opening and closing question - “what is wrong with Black people?” - the documentary traces the myths and othering that have led to some of the perceptions of Black people that affect how they - we - are treated today.

The Roots of “Race” and “Whiteness”

It’s not a surprise that the roots of this go deep. The documentary shows how the capture and enslavement of Black Africans from the Senegambia by the Portuguese in 1444 set off a tide of anti-Blackness which was used to justify the inhumane treatment and oppression of Black people. Indeed, it ascribes many of the enduring portrayals of Black people as animals to Prince Henry the Navigator’s chronicler Gomes Zurara who posited the idea that in capturing Africans his master was saving souls.

As Honoree Fanonne Jeffers points out: “If you want to feel good about it, you've got to come up with a reason why it was OK. Otherwise what you have is brutality, you have theft, you have murder, you have rape. Nobody wants to think of themselves that way.”

The documentary also looks at the development of ideas about “race” and “whiteness” to support the fiction that underpinned enslavement. As Angela Davis says firmly, race was about enslavement, no more, no less.

Powerful Images and Voices

As I watched, I was glad that the portrayals of enslavement were mostly done via art and graphic representations rather than reconstructions, as the latter would have made it much harder to watch. That said, the images used are powerful, evocative, and troubling. There are images of racial violence and you’ll hear racial slurs too, neither of which could be avoided given the topic of the documentary.

With the exception of Kendi himself, most of the scholars shown are Black women, which subtly makes a powerful point. That also applies to writers from history, including the formerly enslaved. Hearing the words written by Harriet Jacobs, Phillis Wheatley, Ida B. Wells and others gives the lie - which some are currently trying to resurface - to the “benefits” of enslavement. There’s also a particularly powerful moment as Maya Angelou reads part of a poem and weeps.

Demolishing Myths

In exploring and demolishing myths about blackness (and created associations with violence, sexual promiscuity, lack of culture and so on), as well as whiteness, power, white saviourism, Black culture and more, the documentary succinctly links the false narratives of the past with the behaviour of those deemed to be white - which has shifted over the years - in the present.

For example, the way accomplished Black women are questioned to a ridiculous degree has historical echoes in the trial of Phillis Wheatley because the white world didn’t believe she could write poetry. She prevailed, but only after being metaphorically roasted. As Jeffers says “every Black woman has a Phillis Wheatley moment.” And you can see the pain on the faces of some of the women featured as they remember their own similar moment.

And it shows that trumpism is nothing new, having its roots in pushbacks against Black excellence, power and wealth at different eras in the past, including the Reconstruction era in the USA. Cooper states: "Every time there's a huge fan out, push forward, go...there's a tidal wave back."

I was particularly struck by Harriet Jacobs’ statement (which I must have read decades ago when I first read her narrative) that "Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women." Because of course it was, thanks to rape and sexual violence, being forced to raise their rapists’ kids while ignoring their own, separation from their children and families and so much more. Perhaps it struck me more forcefully now that I’m a parent, as I hadn’t yet had that experience when I first read it.

A Contradictory History

In another section of the documentary, the contradictions at the heart of the USA are laid bare. Some of those relate to the “fathers of liberty”. For example, Thomas Jefferson regularly raped Sally Hemings and had several children by her. And Abraham Lincoln thought Black people were inferior. There were dozens of Black abolitionists leading the way to freedom, not simply white saviours. And then there are the coded messages about who white people want us to believe Black people are in popular culture, such as the King Kong movie. I’m sure you’ll spot others if you look for them.

Overall, I found that the documentary excelled at weaving the threads between past and present. And as someone whose history also includes enslavement, I’ve seen some of the same myths in the Caribbean.

The documentary ends as it began with the question “what is wrong with Black people?” to which Kendi gives the unequivocal answer: "The only thing wrong with Black people is that we think something is wrong with Black people."

There’s nothing more to be said, is there?

Watch the “Stamped” trailer here:

7 Standout Quotes

As always, I’d like to share a few quotes that really made an impression on me:

  1. “This nation is drawn to the spectacular. Drawn to the flame, bit we don't pay attention to the kindling, and the kindling are those policies that are predicated on anti-Blackness." - Carol Anderson

  2. "Whiteness keeps you from being at the bottom even if you're poor, even if you're broke or dispossessed." - Dr Imani Perry

  3. There is a myth about the founding of this country. People want to erase American history as it truly was. White supremacy has been embedded in this country since its founding." - Honoree Fanonne Jeffers

  4. “That's the paradox that sits right at the core of America. You say freedom, but you're an enslaver." - Carol Anderson

  5. “When I think of the abolitionists, I think of Black men and Black women that were courageous and did incredible things. I think of them as the center of the movement and white allyship and abolitionists as the periphery." - Kellie Carter Jackson

  6. “If you make us the threat, then you remove our humanity. These are intentional choices to hold us back." - Rep. Cori Bush

  7. “Black people are not more violent or dangerous than any other group of people, but we are taught the face of violence is Black, causing us to overlook the white individuals who engage in violence because, apparently, they don't have the face of violence.” - Ibram X. Kendi

Thanks for reading,


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I am an anti-racism educator and activist, Co-Founder of Mission Equality, the author of “I’m Tired of Racism”, and co-host of The Introvert Sisters podcast.

© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2024. All Rights Reserved. This newsletter is published on beehiiv (affiliate link).

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