Four Hundred Souls–Starred Review!
A compendium of essays and poems chronicling 400 years of Black American history.
In order to tell the story of Black America, acclaimed scholar Kendi and award-winning historian Blain bring together 80 Black “historians, journalists, activists, philosophers, novelists, political analysts, lawyers, anthropologists, curators, theologians, sociologists, essayists, economists, educators, and cultural critics” and 10 poets. This engrossing collection is divided into 10 parts, each covering 40 years, and each part ends with a poem that captures the essence of the preceding essays. In the opening essay, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer-winning creator of The 1619 Project, examines the period from Aug. 20, 1619—the symbolic birthdate of African America when “twenty ‘Negroes’ stepped off the [slave] ship White Lion in Jamestown, Virginia”—to Aug. 19, 1624. The book ends with Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza reflecting on the years between Aug. 20, 2014 and Aug. 20, 2019.
The brief but powerful essays in between feature lesser-known people, places, ideas, and events as well as fresh, closer looks at the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Harlem Renaissance, Brown v. Board of Education, the Black Power movement, the war on drugs, Hurricane Katrina, voter suppression, and other staples of Black American history and experience. Poignant essays by Bernice L. McFadden on Zora Neale Hurston, Salamishah Tillet on Anita Hill, and Kiese Laymon (“Cotton 1804-1809”) deftly tie the personal to the historical. Every voice in this “cabinet of curiosities’ is stellar, but standouts include Raquel Willis’ piece on queer sexuality (1814-1819); Robert Jones Jr. writing about insurrectionist Denmark Vesey, with Kanye West as a throughline; Esther Armah on Black immigrants, and Barbara Smith on the Combahee River Collective, founded in 1974 by Black women who were “sick of being invisible.” Other notable contributors include Ijeoma Oluo, Annette Gordon-Reed, Donna Brazile, Imani Perry, Peniel Joseph, and Angela Y. Davis.
An impeccable, epic, essential vision of American history as a whole and a testament to the resilience of Black people.