Four Hundred Years of African America: An Ambitious Community History of the Black Experience

Ninety authors explore different facets of African American history as a "choir" of voices, tapping into individual legacies of resilience and resistance.

By Biko Agozino

Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, ed. by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain. One World, 2021. 736p index, 9780593134047 $32.00, 9780593402429 $34.00, 9780593134054

Ed. Note: Choice considers racial justice a cornerstone of its mandate to support academic study. Accordingly, Choice is highlighting select racial justice titles through the creation of long-form reviews such as the one featured here. Though the scope of these reviews will be broader than those applied to our standard 190-word reviews, many of the guidelines regarding what to focus on will remain the same, with additional consideration for how the text under review sheds light on racist systems and racial inequities or proposes means of dismantling them. Our intent is to feature important works on racial justice that will be of use to undergraduates and faculty researching racism and racial inequalities from new perspectives.

Four Hundred Souls book cover

Four Hundred Souls is a carefully edited collection compiled by Kendi (Boston Univ.) and Blain (Univ. of Pittsburgh), echoing W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic and frequently cited The Souls of Black Folk (1903). The ninety authors represented here, including ten poets, are presented as a “choir.” It is possible to read the poems that close each of the book’s ten parts as a chorus or a lyrical interlude, similar to the spirituals or songs of sorrow that Du Bois quoted as the epigraphs for each chapter in his seminal text.

Here, each contributing author was assigned a five-year period to explore the history of African Americans from 1619 to 2019, while the poets were given creative license to write about any period of US history. These short pieces are suitable for younger students of the social media generation, as it is easy to read one in only a few minutes (which will appeal to those with shorter attention spans) and return to the book later without losing the narrative flow.

The text is varied, with chapters exploring many different facets of the Black experience, predominantly within the US but also occasionally focusing across the Atlantic, as the book moves progressively through time. A few noteworthy pieces focus on slavery during the earlier periods of US history, including “The Royal African Company” by David A. Love, a former human rights campaigner for Amnesty International in the UK. Having visited the city of Liverpool to explore the evidence of the wealth created by the enslavement of Africans, he reports on the genocidal crimes that were carried out by the Royal African Company, owned by the royal family but with ordinary shares offered to the public.

“The Selling of Joseph” by Brandon R. Byrd considers a more psychological angle, delving into the story Samuel Sewall, a white businessman involved in the slave trade who was troubled by the evil of holding people as property and tried to justify it with passages from the Bible. He ultimately preached that although Joseph, in the Old Testament, was sold by his own brothers into slavery, he was eventually freed and even forgave his brothers. Moreover, Sewall noted that even though Africans struggled to regain their freedom, they could not have been made by God to be enslaved all their lives. This theme of the African struggle for freedom is a salient one that runs throughout the book, captured most poignantly in Ishmeal Reed’s poem “Remembering the Albany 3” (hanged teenagers), which ends with the chant “Black Lives Matter!”

Continuing this Biblical connection, Dorothy E. Roberts traces the shifting justifications for slavery from the Bible to the rationalism of the Enlightenment in “Race and the Enlightenment,” noting how prominent thinkers like Thomas Jefferson excluded Africans from the assertion that all men are created equal on the assumption that Africans were supposedly servile by nature. Similarly, Benjamin Franklin agreed that the number of Africans brought to the US should be limited to protect the purity of the white race.

Turning to look at the intersection of “Blackness and Indigeneity,” Kyle T. Mays narrates how Native Americans, who were similarly dehumanized as “savages,” formed marital unions with enslaved Africans, giving birth to mixed-race children whose full humanity was also denied by white settlers.

Carrying this trajectory into the modern period, Angela Y. Davis reminds readers that the 1994 signing of “The Crime Bill” by President Bill Clinton signaled the continuation of the dehumanization of working-class African Americans who were left unemployed by the deindustrialization of the economy. Rather than create more jobs and fund education and healthcare for all, the response was to fund mass incarceration as part of the law-and-order war on drugs and gangs. Symbolically, the Crime Bill was signed on the anniversary of the bloody Attica Prison uprising, during which dozens of prisoners were shot dead, along with many hostages.

These are a snapshot of some of the book’s particularly notable contributions. However, for a book that promises to offer a “community history,” the lack of co-authored pieces is a major limitation. Even the two editors did not collaborate on the introduction and conclusion.

[T]he narration of 400 years of slavery requires some deeper examinations of structural and communal processes, with special consideration for how these evolve over time.

This individualism goes beyond single authorship to influence an individualist biographical methodology, according to which most entries focus on stories of individuals. Compounding this challenge, the brevity of the narratives does not always allow authors to fully cover the structural conditions that informed the periods they explore, a style the Combahee River Collective was particularly adept at employing, which Barbara Smith reflects upon in her chapter on the group. As an example of this limiting structure, Crystal N. Feimster’s chapter on “Lynching” focuses on the life of Ida B. Wells without excavating the intersectionality inherent in her writings on lynchings, which revealed that about one third of those lynched were poor whites, underscoring the adage that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

While individual biographies in general can sometimes veer into being sensational or myopic, the narration of 400 years of slavery requires some deeper examinations of structural and communal processes, with special consideration for how these evolve over time. However, this sense of the long stretch of history, and the intersecting forces that shape it, can get lost in individualist narratives, such as in the concluding chapter, where Blain considers her Grenadian grandmother’s dreams for Blain’s future.

Ijeoma Oludo’s chapter offers an interesting reflection on her identity as a Black woman of Igbo-British biracial descent, giving a glimpse into some of the limitations of how race is often broadly considered. While Oludo comes across as apologetic for not identifying with her white mother’s race, it is interesting that she does not think to commend the Igbo side of her family for accepting her wholly as an Igbo woman, the converse of which is impossible under white supremacy. This suggests that the book may have been enriched by exploring race beyond the borders of the US and covering more of the impacts of trans-Atlantic slavery on Africa and on other parts of the African diaspora.

For instance, closer attention to Africa may have cautioned Kendi, in the introduction, against the Eurocentric tendency to assume that captured Africans on the same ship must have all come from the same point of origin, as in the case of the twenty Africans who were traded for food in Jamestown in 1619 after being kidnapped from a Portuguese ship.

In his poem “Upon Arrival,” Jericho Brown repeatedly contemplates who was “bought” and who “sold.” Appearing to answer in the story of “Sally Hemming,” Annette Gordon-Reed contends that it was people like Thomas Jefferson who sold their own flesh and blood. However, the focus on buying and selling perhaps obscures other forms that white supremacy embodied, particularly after the slave trade was outlawed by many states in the US, out of fear of rebellion when the population of Africans rose dramatically, as documented in Du Bois’s The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America (1896) .

Despite many of the authors’ repeated observations that Africans first came to the US before Columbus, the book still begins in 1619 and continues on to arbitrarily divide four hundred years of history into five-year, bite-sized segments. Perhaps Molefi Asante’s chapter on “Africa” should have opened the collection, ahead of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s “Arrival,” to remind readers from the outset that African American history did not commence in chains and on pirate ships, which many of the authors also rightly imply.

[This] book will also make an important supplement to Black cultural and political events, such as Kwanzaa and Black History Month, when it should be read and considered within society at large to reconnect to the community history recounted here.

The chronological approach to covering four hundred years of history can also make it difficult to follow and fully parse out each of the diverse themes raised by individual authors, which can diverge rapidly between chapters. For instance, William Darity Jr. focuses his allocated period (1879–1884) on the burning issue of reparations for enslavement. Following the book’s general trend of centering chapters on individual biographic narratives, this chapter focuses on John Wayne Niles, an early leader of the Indemnity Party that campaigned for reparations. For his political activism, Niles was personally demonized and repeatedly jailed, though eventually freed with help of bail money raised by the community, only to be rearrested and jailed again.

The fact that Niles’s campaign was organized under a political party should point to the dubious allegations against him as an individual. The massacres against African Americans and the overturning of the first Civil Rights Act by the Supreme Court suggest that Niles was being discredited in his time as part of the resistance against reparations. The chapter could have been contextualized these circumstances for young readers by relating the early campaigns to contemporary demands for reparations by people of African descent in the Americas and in Africa today. The editors could have also highlighted this important topic in the index.

Overall, this book will be useful to students at all levels of study, with the understanding that readers should go beyond the short chapters included here and seek out other sources that offer greater depth on these topics. Annually, the book will also make an important supplement to Black cultural and political events, such as Kwanzaa and Black History Month, when it should be read and considered within society at large to reconnect to the community history recounted here.

Summing Up: Recommended. All levels.
Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Racial Justice
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences – History, Geography & Area Studies – North America

Biko Agozino is a professor of sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech. His books include Black Women and the Criminal Justice System (Routledge, 2018) and Counter-Colonial Criminology (Pluto, 2003).