Published by One World on February 2, 2021
Genres: History, Race and Racism
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A chorus of extraordinary voices comes together to tell one of history’s great epics: the 400-year journey of African Americans from 1619 to the present - edited by Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, and Keisha N. Blain, author of Set the World on Fire.
The story begins in 1619 - a year before the Mayflower - when the White Lion disgorges "some 20-and-odd Negroes" onto the shores of Virginia, inaugurating the African presence in what would become the United States. It takes us to the present, when African Americans, descendants of those on the White Lion and 1,000 other routes to this country, continue a journey defined by inhuman oppression, visionary struggles, stunning achievements, and millions of ordinary lives passing through extraordinary history.
Four Hundred Souls is a unique one-volume "community" history of African Americans. The editors, Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, have assembled 90 brilliant writers, each of whom takes on a five-year period of that 400-year span. The writers explore their periods through a variety of techniques: historical essays, short stories, personal vignettes, and fiery polemics. They approach history from various perspectives: through the eyes of towering historical icons or the untold stories of ordinary people; through places, laws, and objects. While themes of resistance and struggle, of hope and reinvention, course through the book, this collection of diverse pieces from 90 different minds, reflecting 90 different perspectives, fundamentally deconstructs the idea that Africans in America are a monolith - instead it unlocks the startling range of experiences and ideas that have always existed within the community of Blackness.
This is a history that illuminates our past and gives us new ways of thinking about our future, written by the most vital and essential voices of our present.
In Four Hundred Souls, Kendi and Blain have assembled an outstanding group of 90 writers and poets to tell the history of African Americans. The collection begins with Nikole Hannah-Jones’s essay on the 1619 arrival of 20 Africans in Virginia and ends with an essay by Alicia Garza on the Black Lives Matter movement. The essays and stories tell of history we know, but many writers focused on stories and people I didn’t know, like Elizabeth Keyes who was the first Black woman in the American colonies to petition for her freedom, Lucy Terry Prince the poet who argued for her family’s freedom before the Supreme Court, and David George who established the first Black Baptist church. Others touch on laws and events but they fit together, telling a history that we don’t know well enough.
Like any collection, Four Hundred Souls is uneven, but I don’t think that’s a negative here. Each of the writers has their own style, their own viewpoint, their own strengths. It felt like the pieces connected well, flowed nicely. There were some overlapping spots, but that’s to be expected. Overall, I think it was the perfect read for me for Black History Month. Parts made me mad, other sections made me cry, and some made me look at events in my memory from a different viewpoint.