To be African American is to be African without any memory and American without any privilege.
– James Baldwin
African Americans have been made to believe their history begins with the enslavement of their ancestors. This stems from the deliberate erasure of ‘what was’ before the arrival of the first recorded ship, White Lion, with Africans, on the shores of Jamestown, Virginia in 1619.
As highlighted by Nikole Hannah-Jones in the onset of Four Hundred Souls,
‘African America is like the enslaved woman who tragically never knew exactly when she was born. African America is like the enslaved man who chose his own birthday – August 20, 1916 – based on the first record of a day when people of African descent arrived in one of the thirteen British colonies that later became the United states.’
In a strikingly ambitious feat, Four Hundred Souls, edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, gather voices of 90 writers and poets to sing the history of African Americans from the first arrival of Africans in 1916. Divided into 10 parts, each contains poems and short essays documenting specific events, happenings and key figures -some often forgotten- in the Black story in America. Written in five-year intervals, the essays flow in a chronological order, which makes for an attention-grabbing reading experience. For readers vest in American history or not, Four Hundred Souls is highly informative as well as educative. The right to live freely as a human being was denied to African Americans, making the fight for freedom priority. An important event in this regard was a singular act by Elizabeth Keye, who, in 1655, petitioned the courts for her freedom from slavery, making her the first woman of African descent to do so.
Four Hundred Souls is an affirmation for the need to archive and engage with history, and for its contextualization of the present. While slavery -in its physically violent form- is a thing of the past, America’s Black community still faces the legacies of this heinous act. Through different essays, the reader is presented with facts that led to present day plights of the American Black community. In ‘Black Women’s Labour’, for example, Brenda E. Stevenson recounts how the law of 1643, which codified Black women’s differentiation from other women, resulted in their de-feminisation and inhumane treatment. The amount of labour, including domestic and sexual one, forced on these women, was foundational to their presentation as less desirable. Major issues affecting the Black community today, further put into context, include but are not limited to, mass-incarceration of the Black community, gun laws, colourism, unpaid labour and the exploitation of prisoners.
To take away a people’s history is an attempt at denying their origin. The subsequent result of such an act is inferior treatment. The African American influence is felt globally with an undeniable contribution in various fields. For a group of people who have had violence meted on them in different forms, the prowess to rise is beyond commendable. Michael Harriot puts it succinctly in the essay, ‘Reconstruction’, when he states: ‘Behold the untold story of the Great American Race War. Before we begin, we shall introduce our hero. The hero of this drama is Black people. All Black People…This hero is long-suffering but unkillable.’
Four Hundred Souls is worth reading for its depth of research and its telling of the African American story by own voices.
In the conclusion, editor Keisha N. Blain calls Four Hundred Souls a testament to how much African Americans have overcome and how this has been achieved despite all of their differences and diverse perspectives.
*Thank you Vintage for the free copy of this book.