Along with books about Donald Trump, the biggest story in the publishing industry last year was “the racism reading list.”
According to washingtonpost.com, As millions took to the streets to protest the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other unarmed Black people senselessly killed by police, books about the history of race and racism in America shot to the top of bestseller lists.
So voracious was this sudden hunger for education about the roots of our latest racial reckoning that a clever marketer might have thought to commission a version of CliffsNotes for the curriculum.
As it turns out, two authors on that reading list were already on the case. In 2019, the award-winning authors Ibram X. Kendi (“How to Be an Anti-Racist”) and Keisha N. Blain (“Set the World on Fire”) began approaching other prominent Black writers to collaborate on a group history of the African American experience. Two years later, the co-editors have produced a volume of 80 short essays that is highly readable and far more compelling than a mere historical digest would have been.
The book’s title, “Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019,” refers to the 400 years since the first African slave ship, the White Lion, arrived in the colony of Virginia in 1619 — as well as to the collective spiritual journey traveled in that time span. The structure is both chronological and thematic, with each author covering a different topic over a five-year period, usually in 2,000 words or less.
The contributors include renowned scholars (Annette Gordon-Reed, Molefi Kete Asante), Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists (Isabel Wilkerson, Nikole Hannah-Jones), nationally known activists (the Rev. William J. Barber II, Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund) and living legends of the Black struggle (Angela Y. Davis). As a result, the shift in tone from essay to essay can be a bit jarring, but what’s lost in seamlessness is made up for in variety of voice and perspective.
Along with short takes on well-known figures such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington and Zora Neale Hurston, there are dozens of mini-chapters on largely forgotten Black history.
Some identify milestones on a long road of legal dehumanization that began well before the War of Independence or the era of Jim Crow — from the 1667 Virginia Law on Baptism, excluding Blacks from rights otherwise granted to members of the church, to the 1705 Virginia Slave Codes, to the French Code Noir applied in the Louisiana Territory in 1724.
Other essays recount Black rebellions that have been overshadowed by all the attention paid to Nat Turner and John Brown, including the New York City Revolt of 1712, the Stono River Rebellion of 1739 and the Louisiana Rebellion of 1811. Still other chapters examine subgroups that don’t fit conventional categories of Black heroism and victimhood: maroons who hid out in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the early 1700s; Underground Railroad abolitionists who escaped slavery by “strategic passing” as White; Black feminists of the 1970s Combahee River Collective who began to embrace “intersectionality” before that term became popular.
Amid the nuggets of narrative and analysis, a few gems of more personal writing stand out. “I blame cotton,” begins a poignant piece by Kiese Laymon, author of the best-selling memoir “Heavy,” in which he recounts a haunting childhood encounter with his great-grandfather, a gifted itinerate cotton-picker whose absences estranged him from his daughter, Kiese’s beloved Grandmama.
The biracial author Ijeoma Oluo traces her sense of racial identity back to 1630 and the case of Hugh Davis, the first White colonist to be whipped for sleeping with a Black woman, thus establishing the “one drop rule” that has demarcated the American color line ever since. “I remember my mother asking me a few years ago why I did not call myself half-white,” Oluo writes. “I explained to her: ‘You cannot become part-white.’ Whiteness is a ledge you can only fall from.”
Provocatively, Kendi, Blain and publisher Chris Jackson — the visionary editor in chief of the One World imprint of Penguin Random House — use the five-year device to reframe well-worn narratives. The story of Sally Hemings, the enslaved mistress of Thomas Jefferson, is told by her biographer, Annette Gordon-Reed, in the years 1789 to 1794, when the two were separated while Jefferson served as secretary of state.
Reed’s point: Jefferson had persuaded the teenage Hemings to return from Paris — where Sally became his servant and lover while he was minister to France, and where she could have remained as a free woman — only to stash her at Monticello for future companionship. In the next-to-last chapter, the years 2009 to 2014 are devoted not to the accomplishments of Barack Obama but to the rise in voter suppression that his election accelerated.
“I think many of us were naive then,” concedes the author, Karine Jean-Pierre, a political operative and TV commentator who now works for President Biden. “Many thought of the election of Barack Obama, not as the end of racism, but certainly as a turning point. And it was. But for many, President Obama’s election was a turning point in a different direction.”
The last chapter, covering 2014 to 2019, is devoted to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement as captured by one of its co-founders, Alicia Garza. Although that endpoint was chosen before the movement’s resurgence in 2020, it underscores why this historical “choir,” as Kendi calls it, is so timely.
This collection teaches us that nothing about the latest crisis is new — that for 400 years, Americans have whistled a “Yankee Doodle Dandy” tune of national self-congratulation while reliving repeating cycles of racial violence and hypocrisy. We shall now see if an administration that includes our first Black vice president can do any more to change that than eight years of our first Black president did.
The volume’s other resonating point is reflected in poems that conclude each 40-year period in the chronology — 10 in all, penned by literary veterans such as Ishmael Reed and rising stars such as Jericho Brown, a 2020 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.
While some traditionalists might wonder what so many poems are doing in a work of history, they remind us that at heart Black history has always been communal and oral, a tradition passed down through the sung and spoken word as much as on pages in books.
Although this review is based on reading a hardcover copy, it’s easy to imagine how satisfying the audio version of “Four Hundred Souls” would be. In either format, this project is a vital addition to that curriculum on race in America and should serve as a gateway to the solo works of all the voices in Kendi and Blain’s impressive choir.
By Mark Whitaker