I’ve been reading Ibram X. Kendi’s remarkable book, ‘Stamped from the Beginning.’ I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. I am a history person–I studied political science in college and American colonial history in grad school. I’ve been politically active my whole adult life and done a lot of reading about progressive issues, including racism. Buy you know what? I’m learning, on virtually every page, to see the story of this country with a new understanding of how profoundly it is steeped in racist ideas. It has been a sobering experience to learn how deeply racist ideas are embedded in the very foundation of this country and in every step of its history.

I’m having lots of really significant takeaways from this book. Here’s just one: I’ve always been suspicious of the whole, ‘he was a product of his times’ method of excusing bad/immoral behavior, like, to give one of many possible examples, Thomas Jefferson, the ‘father’ of American democracy, owning slaves. But reading ‘Stamped from the Beginning’ has showed me how utterly weak this excuse is.

Yes, Thomas Jefferson lived in a time when the common assumption was that black people were inferior to white people. But you know what? That’s no excuse. There were many many people back then, this book has shown me, who held anti-racist beliefs, people who organized their lives around fighting not just slavery but the racist ideas that rationalized it. They made incredibly difficult choices that showed incredible moral and physical courage in a time when their views were in the  minority. Thomas Jefferson also made choices. He made a choice to own black people and a choice to protect his interests by advocating for policies and structures that protected the institution of slavery and promoted racist ideas. He chose to define democracy to include only men who looked like him, who came from the same class background.

We are all products of the times we live in. But that has nothing to do with having the courage to stand up against injustice, to live and act in solidarity with those suffering from persecution and bigotry, to use what advantages we have to level the playing field. These come from choices. Choices that require courage, tenacity, good will and, you know what else? Love. It’s up to each of us to make choices. How will history view the choices we make today, in the times we live in?

David Simpson