ALC · Nonfiction

Four Hundred Souls

Well, this is just one of those big-name recent releases that I knew I needed to read. And then I actually read an interview with Kendi and Blain and the audiobook producer (does anyone else that works/spends time in a library read Book Page?) where they talked about matching the full cast of narrators to each essay/chapter and how important the voice/vibe/topic match was. Which happened around the same time that offered the audiobook as an ALC…and here we are!

Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America 1619-2019 curated by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain

“While some nations vow never to forget, our American battle has always been over what we allow ourselves to remember. Our historical record, we know, is subjective. Not every account is written down. The distinction between equity and injustice, riot and uprising, hinges on whose hand holds the pen. So often, it seems, our history is hiding from us, preventing the possibility that we dare look back and tell the truth – afraid of what doing so may require of us now.” 

Well, the subtitle of this fairly epic collection, A Community History of African America 1619-2019, pretty well sums up the contents. This is a collection of close to one hundred essays and poems that tell the history of Africans in America, retelling the history of America within the frame of this perspective. With authors whose backgrounds range from historian to sociologist to lawyers to journalists to artists and more, this chronological looks at four hundred years of African-American history (from first arrival through slavery, segregation, migration, general cultural and systemic oppression and violence, along with resistance, art and creativity, and myriad examples of the constant pushing of boundaries) is stunningly successfully ambitious in scope (which should come as no surprise, considering the curators).   

This is a really unique book to review because it was so…all-encompassing. I think it’s going to be tough to speak to anything individually, since this was such a sweeping history, and each of the essays felt like it covered so much in such a short time. Reviewing it all seems like a nigh-on impossible task. That being said, I’ll kind of give some broad sweeping thoughts/reactions, perhaps add a few more specific comments (for flavor!), and then just close out with a recommendation to read (or, really, listen – the full cast audiobook narration was a spectacular experience) to it yourself. 

Starting with a personal note, I have to say that, as a twice-graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, starting this right after their recent self-inflicted BS/bad rep post the non-tenure-granting to Nikole Hannah-Jones, was stark and poignant, since the opening essay (the arrival in 1619 of the first Africans to this land) was by her (and the “not” reason for her not-tenure was most definitely related to her involvement with the 1619 Project). As a good friend said, “truth hurts, UNC.” 

Moving forwards from there, this was a beautiful compilation of Black voices telling the stories of their history centering them, which is a huge, and necessary, departure from the “conventional” history taught in schools. It was such a cool way to look at such a large chunk of time too, getting snippets of individual stories that illuminated so many different periods and lives, working together to make a full historical picture. I also absolutely loved the way that so many nuances were added to that picture, with perspectives not commonly considered (like the concept of myriad separate African identities before African American became a “single” thing) and non-mainstream perspectives of common/popular figures and moments (like reflections from a descendant of Plessy from Plessy v Ferguson). Along these same lines, these moments did a really great job exemplifying how often historical figures, whether deserved/beneficial or not, get defined by the time period and not by their person. I also really enjoyed reading from contributors whose other work I know/have read, like Heather McGhee, Kiese Laymon, Angela Davis, Isabel Wilkerson and more, because it was fascinating to see what they felt was most important to highlight in such a short space, in comparison with their longer/other works. Overall, the creative breadth of narrative style was so well executed and curated. And though for some reason in my head this was more a creative nonfiction/fiction collection, rather than a strictly nonfiction/educational collection, in the end it was amazing and it didn’t matter what I had expected, because what I got was spectacular. 

One benefit to going through these pieces of history so quickly, even though sometimes I definitely wanted more, was that there was a great opportunity to see patterns unfold. For example, watching the evolution of the purposeful dehumanization of Black people (and even more specifically, the differences in the way Black men and Black women were societally stereotyped and/or degendered) and how those socially-created parameters have been cyclically codified and accepted as truth today is hard, but so important, to witness. It’s a comprehensive look at how we (white people, especially white politically/economically powerful people) created, for their/our benefit, the racism that led to slavery and the society we have today. It did not start out that way and so clearly didn’t/doesn’t have to be that way. 

The chance to experience these years in such quick succession emphasized how, over and over, history’s pattern of racial disenfranchisement in America has repeated itself. This is particularly striking in juxtaposition with realizing that we accept so many things as “fact” right now that were fabricated so recently as to be within my lifetime (or just before…). Really, this was just such an incredible reading and learning experience. 

A few particular passages I noted while reading. But these really just barely shine the light on the depth and power of this collection, so you should check these out and then go read/listen to the whole thing. It’s worth it:

“This omission is intentional: when we are creating a shared history, what we remember is just as revolutionary as what we forget.”

“It was a womanhood synonymous with market productivity, not motherhood; and with promiscuity rather than modesty or a heightened moral sensibility.”

 “A recovery of the earthly and spiritual equality of all people, both in theory and in practice, is the only way to redeem religion from racism.”

“The 1688 Germantown petition is a model of, if nothing else, a quality that Black people need in white Americans – the uncompromising belief that what is wrong with racism is not that it inhibits full access to American goods and treasures but that it is an affront to the human standing of Black Americans. Black people don’t need allies. We need decent people possessed of the moral conviction that lives matter.”

 “Time and again white racism produced Black resistance. It is one of the longest-running plotlines in African American history.”

“But true equality cannot be left to the whims of the electorate – it is the predicate for democracy and the vote, not their product.”

“What happens to the person when they become a symbol? Can they be recovered? Can they exist beyond what they embody? In this wrestling over symbols, the individual is sacrificed. They become the unknown.”

“When it comes to our democracy, and who we determine to have the right to vote – our most sacred of rights – patience is no virtue. We must never be patient when someone else’s rights are in the balance. We cannot wait on laws, or elected officials, or anyone else. The only virtue when it comes to the right to vote is impatience.”  

3 thoughts on “Four Hundred Souls

  1. This is such a wonderful review !!! I remember loving this book but totally feeling unable to articulate any of my thoughts… loved reading your feelings about it 😍😍

    Liked by 1 person

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