Tuesday, February 2, 2021

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

 The stories in "Four Hundred Souls" begin to unfold in the year 1619, a year before the Mayflower when the White Lion disgorges "some 20-and-odd Negroes" onto the shores of Virginia. This would be the inaugurating of the African presence to what would become the United States and it serves as the starting point to this epic project co-edited by Ibram X. Kendi, acclaimed author of "How to Be An Antiracist," and Keisha N. Blain, author of "Set the World on Fire."

What follows is truly epic, a one-volume history, abbreviated of course, celebrating the history of African Americans. 90 writers. Each writer takes on a five-year history of the four-hundred-year span. Each writer approaches their five-year-period differently ranging from poetry to historical essays to short stories to fiery polemics to social calls to action to personal testimonies and more. Each writer uses a different lens to tell stories both familiar and remarkably unfamiliar. We learn about historical icons and unsung heroes, ordinary people and collective movements. There are names you might expect to read that nary make an appearance, while other names will have you exploring and researching and digging deeper wondering how this is a person or a place or an event of which you've never heard. You will feel the passion of years of resistance and ache with the years of oppression and abuse and discrimination. You will vibrate with the hope of a community that is alive and relentless and vast in its expression of ideas and beliefs and humanity. As always seems to be true in a collective of essays, some are more likely to resonate than others yet there's truly no weak link here. There's also, I'd dare say, none that outshine the others. This is truly a collective, a collective masterpiece of historical literature. The voices who participate in this effort are known and unknown, brilliant and creative and astute and remarkable. They are the essential Black voices of now, academics and artists, historians and journalists and others. I found myself deeply moved by "Four Hundred Souls," but I also found myself called to action and called to greater understanding. I found myself informed yet called to seeking greater knowledge. I found myself convicted, convicted of ignorance and even willful blindness of truth and history and joy and sorrow. I did, indeed, find myself searching for more than what was contained within these pages, these essays often serving to challenge me to discover more truths and broader knowledge and to discover the undiscovered stories and voices of past and present. It's difficult to describe this feeling having completed "Four Hundred Souls," a literary journey that has ended yet in many ways has just begun. There are books that change your reality and change your perspective. "Four Hundred Souls" is such a book. For now, I sit with it. Not particularly restfully. I am more aware, it seems, yet also more aware of how unaware I really am. This is not the white man's history of African America nor is it a simple glossing over for Black History Month. It is a community history of African America brought to life by essential Black voices telling essential Black stories through a Black lens and perspective with a fullness and a deep, soulful appreciation of what it has meant, does mean, and will mean to be Black in America. Both epic and intimate, "Four Hundred Souls" is a remarkable achievement.